It was three days late for Valentine’s, but the mood among NATO allies was lovey-dovey after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin attended his first meeting of allied defense ministers on Wednesday.
Austin, a retired four-star U.S. Army general, weighed in during each of the two virtual gatherings of the North Atlantic Council and, according to diplomats and officials, played all the right mood music by expressing a willingness to consult and full-throated commitment to NATO’s principle of collective defense.
Under other circumstances, that might seem as ho-hum as a date night during the pandemic. But after four years of being badgered and berated by U.S. President Donald Trump, suddenly Washington sounded like a friend again — and that in itself felt refreshing and remarkable, participants in the meeting said.
“Evening falls over #NATO HQ,” tweeted Belgium’s NATO Ambassador Pascal Heyman, along with a picture of the giant glass headquarters building glittering just after sunset. “Successful first day of the Defense Ministers Council concluded. Highlight was a strong @SecDef statement to turn a new page, revitalize alliances, and a reaffirmation of the ironclad Art 5 guarantee,” he added, referring to Article 5, the treaty provision that proclaims an attack on one NATO ally to be an attack on all.
Many allies had said the worst part of dealing with the Trump administration was the sheer unpredictability of it, and the constant fear of unilateral decisions that could turn the world upside down.
The Pentagon provided its own readout of Austin’s remarks, which made clear those days — and those fears — are over, now that U.S. President Joe Biden is in charge.
“The Secretary reaffirmed the President’s message that the United States intends to revitalize our relationship with the NATO Alliance and that our commitment to Article 5 remains ironclad,” the Pentagon statement said. “Secretary Austin referred to NATO as the bedrock of enduring trans-Atlantic security and said the Alliance serves as the bulwark of our shared values of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”
Austin’s remarks followed on an op-ed published in the Washington Post on Wednesday in which he made similar points. “We are ready to consult together, decide together and act together,” he wrote.
In contrast to Trump’s repeated bashing of allies over defense spending, and his repeated boasts of forcing them to pay up, Austin offered a message of thanks and urged them to keep up the good work, noting that a commitment to aim for spending 2 percent of GDP was made jointly at a NATO leaders’ summit in Wales in 2014, when Barack Obama was president. He emphasized that contributions are also measured by how they are used, not just by their size.
“The Secretary thanked Allies for the seventh consecutive year of growth in defense spending and noted the importance of building on this progress,” the Pentagon said. “He also encouraged his colleagues to fulfill the 2014 Wales Summit Defense Investment Pledge where all Allies agreed to move toward spending two percent of GDP on defense and 20 percent of defense funds on modernization by 2024.”
New life after brain death
The alliance is still confronting tough times — including many internal disagreements, notably between Turkey and several allies including the U.S. and France. There are also tough decisions, such as whether to honor an agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban to withdraw allied forces completely from Afghanistan by May 1. Defense ministers will discuss the Afghanistan situation on Thursday but are expected to delay any decision until the completion of a policy review ordered by Biden.
But on Wednesday, the mood was generally upbeat as ministers talked over a report on what NATO should look like in 2030, and plans for a leaders’ summit in Brussels later this year.
Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who spent four years trying to keep Trump happy and on board with the alliance, made no secret of the fact he was glad to be moving forward. “We have the upcoming summit, we have the NATO 2030, we have a new U.S. administration,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference. “And all of that together really provides a unique opportunity, after some difficult years for all of us on both sides of the Atlantic, to have a substantive forward-looking agenda.”
Even France, which set the 2030 review process in motion after President Emmanuel Macron said NATO was experiencing “brain death,” had positive things to say about Austin. “First NATO Ministerial with our new American counterpart @SecDef Austin,” the French minister of armed forces, Florence Parly, tweeted. “Very constructive discussions. We share the same ambition of a revitalization of the Alliance. France will play its full part in this collective work of strategic reflection between allies.”
Behind the scenes, some diplomats and officials said, Parly had expressed annoyance at Stoltenberg for discussing publicly some of his ideas in the 2030 process before addressing them privately among the allies. That criticism seemed to reflect deeper concerns that all the positive vibes coming out of Washington might diminish the sense of urgency in addressing disagreements among allies, including over Turkey’s interventions in conflicts in Syria and in Libya, and Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, a move the U.S. has heavily criticized.
Austin, for his part, did not stoke conflict. Instead, according to the Pentagon, he emphasized “the importance of working across the Alliance to improve early adoption of emerging and disruptive technologies, as well as the need to protect our supply chains, infrastructure and technologies from strategic competitors. He also emphasized the Department’s commitment to working with NATO to ensure democratic nations remain global hubs for innovation.”
In another contrast with his predecessors under Trump, who often shunned the press, the Pentagon announced Austin would hold his first news conference on Thursday following the second day of meetings.
Bryan Bender and Rym Momtaz contributed reporting.
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