Biden Pentagon Chief Seeks to Reassure NATO Allies Ahead of Summit

ARLINGTON, VA - JANUARY 22: Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, escorts incoming Secretary Of Defense Lloyd Austin III to the Pentagon on Austin's first day in his new role on January 22, 2021 in Arlington, Virginia. The House and Senate approved Secretary Austin to lead the …
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

The Biden administration signaled respect for America’s NATO allies ahead of its first defense ministerial with the alliance this week.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wrote in a Washington Post op-ed ahead of the ministerial, which is slated to take place this week virtually:

I am a firm believer that the United States is strongest when it works as part of a team. Our alliances and partnerships are strategic advantages none of our competitors can match. They lend to the mission-unique capabilities and credibility that sometimes each of us alone might lack.

But teams succeed only when every player is trusted and respected. And our alliance teammates haven’t always felt that respect.

Austin said he made sure his first call as defense secretary was to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. In contrast, former President Donald Trump’s Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, made his first call to Canada’s defense minister, and then to the United Kingdom’s defense minister, before calling Stoltenberg.

Trump famously criticized NATO allies who did not meet a commitment in 2014 to spend at least two percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on their own defense and 20 percent of their defense budget on major equipment, including related research & development, and succeeded in convincing NATO members to spend a collective $100 billion more on defense.

Currently, the U.S., Britain, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, France, and Norway meet the two percent threshold. Twenty other members have fallen short.

The Biden administration is indicating that it will take a different tone with NATO members than Trump. Austin wrote in his op-ed:

Collective security is a shared responsibility. Building a ready and capable force is inextricably linked to our work with our allies and partners. Indeed, job No. 1, for us and for the NATO alliance, is to deter conflict. Should that deterrence fail, we must be prepared to fight and win. We shouldn’t shy away from the tough but necessary discussions and negotiations to advance our shared security interests.

However, it is yet not clear what the Biden administration will do to send this message of respect, other than a change in tone and message.

“I think what you’ll hear from Secretary Austin is you will hear a change in tone and a change in approach, while also building on and recognizing the tremendous progress that NATO has made since 2014,” a senior defense official told reporters Tuesday during a background briefing.

“He is going to underscore that diplomacy and working with our allies and partners is the basis for our global power,” the official said.

On how Austin would continue to press NATO allies to meet the two percent spending commitment, the senior defense official said, “I think you are going to hear enthusiasm from the secretary as he’s consulting allies, enthusiasm for investment and he will underscore the need for those investments to continue.”

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