Atlantic Council

NATO Engages 2019

“Statement and Conversation: The Alliance at 70: Perspectives from NATO HQ”



Jens Stoltenberg,

Secretary General,




Andrea Mitchell,

Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent,

NBC News


Location:  Washington, D.C.


Time:  3:00 p.m. EDT

Date:  Wednesday, April 3, 2019


ANNOUNCER:  Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the secretary-general of NATO, Mr. Jens Stoltenberg.  (Applause.)

SECRETARY-GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG:  Thank you.  Thank you so much, and good afternoon to everyone.

And it’s great to be back at NATO Engages and to see you all.  I took part in NATO Engages in Brussels in July in connection with the summit, and then it’s great to see that NATO Engages also is able to have an event like this here in Washington.

And let me start by thanking our partners, the Munich Security Conference and the Atlantic Council and the German Marshall Fund.  Thank you so much for making this possible.

Then, to be honest, I’m a bit in doubt what I’m going to do now because I have already given a speech and – (laughter) – it’s very hard to try to do that once again at the same day.  And I think actually the best thing we can do is to leave as much possible time – time as possible for Q&As.  So I will just share some very few remarks with you now.

And first of all, I will say that it is great to be in Washington to celebrate the 70th anniversary of our alliance.  This week is important because it was 70 years ago tomorrow that the treaty was founded in this city, but we’re actually going to mark the anniversary throughout the year also with the leaders meeting at the end of the year which will take place in London, because London was the city where we had our headquarters in the beginning, until we moved to Paris.  So it is a great thing to celebrate and to mark this great alliance, the longest-lasting and the most successful alliance in history.

The paradox and the one reflection I will share with you now is that there is a paradox that despite the big historic success of NATO, and despite the fact that no one can doubt that we have been able to preserve peace and stability for 70 years, there are questions being asked about the strength of our partnership both in Europe and in North America.  And the paradox is that those questions are being asked both among politicians, among political leaders, experts, journalists, both United States, Canada, and Europe at the same time as we are doing more together than we have done for many decades.  We do more together, North America and Europe, at the same time people question whether we are able to do something together.

And that’s the paradox, because the reality is that we are – as I mentioned in my speech, we have increased our military presence in the east for the first time, combat troops in the eastern part of the alliance.  We have increased the readiness of our forces.  We have strengthened the command structure, bolstered defense – cyber defense, and we are stepping up in the fight against terrorism, partly through the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS but also for instance with the new training mission in Iraq.

But perhaps one of the most important signs that we are doing more together is that the United States is increasing their military presence in Europe.  I’m asked almost every week at least by journalists, both United States and in Europe, whether we can rely on the U.S. security guarantees.  Well, I think that the strongest expression of the U.S. security guarantees is the presence of American soldiers in Europe, and they are increasing their presence in Europe with new forces, more pre-positioned equipment, more exercises, more presence.  Even in my own country, Norway, for the first time since NATO was founded there are now U.S. Marines in Norway.  That was not the case even during the Cold War.  So the U.S. is increasing its presence in Europe.

And at the same time, European allies are investing more.  I mentioned this many, many times before, but if you look at what has happened just since 2016 European allies and Canada have added 100 billion to their defense spending by the end of next year, based on the budgets we have all seen and based on the plans for 2020.

So the paradox is that actions, they show that we are strong, that we deliver, that we are united, but some of the rhetoric in a way question those actions.  And therefore, I think that there are many things we have to do as an alliance, but one thing we could do is to just start to speak more nicely about the alliance.  That will actually improve a lot.  So that’s my main message:  Be nice when you speak about NATO.  Thank you.  (Laughter, applause.)

ANNOUNCER:  Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the chief foreign affairs correspondent of NBC News, Ms. Andrea Mitchell.  (Applause.)


ANDREA MITCHELL:  Thank you very much.

SEC.-GEN. STOLTENBERG:  Thank you so much.

MITCHELL: Thank you. Thank you all.

Now, I’m not sure which chair –

SEC.-GEN. STOLTENBERG:  But you are a boss now.

MITCHELL: No, I’m not –

SEC.-GEN. STOLTENBERG:  I follow you.

MITCHELL: Believe me, I’m not the boss. You outrank me.

SEC.-GEN. STOLTENBERG:  I think it works both ways.  (Laughter.)

MITCHELL: Well, thank you very much for this invitation to such a special occasion. Thanks to the German Marshall Fund and our other sponsors here.

Secretary-General, you spoke to a joint session of Congress – a joint meeting, I should say, of Congress.  This was the first time a NATO secretary-general has addressed the Congress.  And here in the United States, we are viewing this as a very important signal of support for the alliance, a bipartisan signal from the Republican Senate leader and the speaker of the House, the Democrat, particularly because of tensions that you have skillfully smoothed over in the last two years, but because of the posture of our president.  What did you see as the importance of this moment today?

SEC.-GEN. STOLTENBERG:  For me it was a great honor to speak to a joint meeting of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.  It was a great recognition of NATO and it was a way for the Congress to demonstrate their support to NATO.  I think that’s the best way a united Congress can show that there is a bipartisan support for NATO in the U.S. Congress.  So it was a great recognition of NATO and it was a great opportunity for me to convey a message about NATO to the Congress, that NATO is good for Europe but also very good for the United States.

My main message was actually that it’s good to have friends.  Even for big guys, it’s good to have friends.  And that was a great opportunity.

Then I think it also reflects something which has been perhaps not so strongly communicated, and that is that the support for NATO is rock solid in the United States.  In the Congress, you know, Republicans, Democrats, they always express strong support.  The president has expressed support for NATO again and again.  He asked NATO allies to spend more, but he clearly communicated that he is in favor of NATO.  He is 100 percent behind us, he said recently.  And then, if we look at opinion polls, the last opinion poll I saw today, it was 77 percent of the people in the United States, they are strongly in favor of NATO.

So the meeting today is a demonstration of the strong U.S. support for NATO.  And of course, as secretary-general of NATO, I’m extremely grateful for that.

MITCHELL: But if I could quote from your speech, you said today that the strength of a nation is not only measured by the size of its economy or the number of its soldiers, but also by the number of its friends. And through NATO, the United States has more friends and allies than any other power.  This has made the United States stronger, safer, and more secure.  Are we putting, through our leadership, too much emphasis on the financial contributions to NATO and the military force contributions rather than the other aspects of the alliance?

SEC.-GEN. STOLTENBERG:  I think we have to be able to both focus on and put emphasis on the importance of financial contributions, but at the same time not forget all the other contributions and all the other aspects of the NATO alliance.  I in a – and it’s a – it’s a strong bipartisan support for NATO in the Congress, but it’s equally strong bipartisan support for the message to European allies and Canada to have to invest more.  That has been the message from different presidents over the years.  And it – and every time I meet people from the Congress, senators/representatives, they convey the same message regardless of Republicans or Democrats that European allies have to invest more.  To be a strong alliance, NATO has to be a fair alliance.

So I think it’s absolutely understandable that the United States is focused on finances, on budgets, on spending.  And the good news is that European allies have started to invest more.  Some allies are already at 2 percent.  When we made the 2 percent pledge in 2014, then it was only three allies – the United States, the United Kingdom, and Greece.  Now we have seven, almost eight.  We have – we have the Baltic countries, Poland, United Kingdom of course.  But then we also have Romania very close to 2 percent.  So if we include Romania, we are now at eight.  Eight is not all allies, but it’s much better than what we saw just a few years ago.  And even those allies who are not yet at 2 percent, a majority of NATO allies have now submitted credible national plans in order to reach 2 percent around 2024.  So a lot of progress has been made and is taking place when it comes to spending.

Then burden-sharing is not only about cash.  It’s also about capabilities and contributions.  And NATO allies contribute in Afghanistan, in the global coalition to defeat ISIS.  But I also mentioned in my speech sometimes perhaps we sometimes do not communicate so clearly, and that is just the fact that the United States can work with European allies and help them also to protect United States.

European allies, and especially those in the north, they help the United States tracking submarines, which are extremely important for the security of the United States.  European allies have played a key role in some of the most advanced cyber capabilities which has been used against Daesh, ISIS, taking down the networks, degrading the possibility of ISIS to communicate, to fund, to recruit, done by European allies, especially United Kingdom has being extremely important in that.

And if I can add one more thing, that Europe – the U.S. presence in Europe is, of course, partly to protect Europe, and we are glad for that, but it’s also to project power for the United States beyond Europe.  We have to remember that the U.S. Africa Command is not in Africa.  It’s in Stuttgart, Germany.  The U.S. Sixth Fleet, which operates all the way down to the South Pole, it’s based in Naples, Italy.  And the U.S. soldiers who have been taking part in operations in the Middle East, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, they are airlifted out of those battlefields into Ramstein and into Landstuhl Hospital there, and there their lives are saved.

This is, of course, good for Europe, because we’re also fighting terrorism.  But it’s also extremely good for United States.  So U.S. presence in Europe is for Europe, but also for United States.

MITCHELL: How should we, as an alliance, answer your call today to be tougher and stronger against Russia?

SEC.-GEN. STOLTENBERG:  I think my main call was not to be tougher and stronger.  My main call is to be – remain tough, remain firm and strong, but also engage in dialogue.

I strongly believe that we need to find the right balance between the strength, meaning investing in military capabilities, increased readiness of our forces, having combat-ready troops in eastern part of the alliance, but combine that with dialogue, because Russia is our neighbor.  Russia is there to stay.  Russia is not going to go away.  And we need to try to improve the relationship with Russia.  Therefore, I believe in dialogue with Russia. 

Whether we will be able to improve the relationship with Russia in the near future or distant future, that’s impossible to say.  But what we know is that even without better relationship with Russia, we need to manage a difficult relationship with Russia, meaning we have more military presence along our borders.  We need to avoid incidents, accidents, miscalculations that can create really dangerous situations.  So, therefore, I believe also in talking with Russia (how just ?) to manage a difficult relationship.

And thirdly, we need to talk to Russia to facilitate, to address arms control.  I’m extremely concerned about the violation of the INF Treaty.

So my message is to continue to deliver credible deterrence and defense, continue to be strong, but there is no contradiction between strength and dialogue.  Actually, as long as we are strong, we can also engage in political dialogue with Russia.

MITCHELL: Do you think we have the right balance?

SEC.-GEN. STOLTENBERG:  Yeah, I think so.  But I think, of course, we always have to adapt and change as the world is changing.  So what was the right balance today may be the wrong balance tomorrow.  So we just have to be agile and adapt.

For instance, it has been right that, over the last years, especially since 2014, has – that we have significantly increased the strength pillar of that defense and dialogue, because Russia has proven willing to use force against a neighbor, Ukraine, and they have significantly invested in new and advanced military capabilities.  Therefore, we have, in a way, strengthened the strength part, the deterrence part, of our dual-track approach.

But at the same time, we actually renewed our efforts to talk to Russia.  For a couple of years we didn’t have any meetings of the NATO-Russia Council.  Since 2016 we have been able to have, I think, around nine meetings in the NATO-Russia Council, sitting down with Russia.  We don’t solve all the problems, but I think that, especially when times are difficult, it is important to just at least meet, that we discuss issues like Ukraine, risk reduction, brief on exercises, transparency, to try to at least reduce the risks or miscalculations and problems.

If I can add one more reflection, and that is based on something I have shared with some of you before, that I strongly believe in deterrence, defense, and dialogue with Russia, because that was something I experienced during my time as a Norwegian politician.  Ever since I become deputy minister for environment in 1990 until I left as prime minister in 2013, I have been working with Russia in different ways – on environment, on a delimitation line in the Barents Sea, energy projects, actually military cooperation up in the north when it comes to search and rescue and risk reduction and so on.

And Norway was, even during the coldest period of the Cold War, able to work with Russia or the Soviet Union, not despite NATO but because of NATO, because they knew that we were strong, being part of an alliance, and we could sit down and discuss everything, from fish to arms or to military issues.

And that experience I brought with me into NATO, because we cannot isolate Russia.  Russia will be there, and we need to continue to work for lower tensions and better relations with Russia.

MITCHELL: I wanted to ask you about Afghanistan and then open it up to our gathering here.

It is not lost on American supporters of NATO and grateful Americans that the only time that the alliance has ever invoked Article 5 was in defense of America after 9-11.  And the – I think Admiral Stavridis told me today on my program that there were 2,000 NATO soldiers who’ve died in Afghanistan over these many years.

What is the exit strategy, as the U.S. has these negotiations with the Taliban?  Are we on the right course?  What is your timeline?

SEC.-GEN. STOLTENBERG:  The talks between the United States and Taliban is the best way forward.  We don’t know whether it will succeed, but we strongly support those efforts.  We have been in Afghanistan now for 17 years, perhaps even longer, and we have made progress, meaning that we – first of all, we have been able to prevent Afghanistan being a safe haven for international terrorists.

I’m not saying that there are no terrorists in Afghanistan, but they cannot operate freely.  They cannot prepare, exercise, organize terrorist attacks against us with impunity or without any – as I say, in a free way.

Second, to the NATO presence in Afghanistan, we have created conditions for enormous social and economic progress, not least for women and girls.  But there are still huge problems in Afghanistan.  And, of course, we should not stay longer than necessary, than is necessary.  And that’s the reason why we so strongly support the efforts of the United States to try to find a peaceful negotiated settlement.

The paradox is that we should not – the way we are making progress on the negotiating table is to send a very clear message on the battlefield, because the reason why we continue to train and advise and support and help the Afghan security forces is that we have to send the message to Taliban that they will not win on the battlefield.  And the stronger and clearer that message is, the more likely it is that we will be able to reach a solution on the negotiating table.

So, therefore, we have not made any decisions on – to leave.  But, of course, we have said that we went in together.  We will make decisions together as U.S.-NATO allies on any adjustments or presence, posture together.  And when the time is right, then we will, of course, also leave together.

When that is, it’s not possible to say.  But I just hope that we will see more progress in the negotiations.  And, of course, also we need, as soon as possible, to include the Afghan government.  A part of the peace process has to be Afghan reconciliation.  And there’s no way you can get that without including the Afghan government.

MITCHELL: Which, of course, has been problematic, especially in the last few weeks.

I wanted to open it up to questions.  And I think we have microphones here.  Yes, indeed.

Q:  Hans Binnendijk from the Atlantic Council.

First, Secretary General, let me just say that I think you gave NATO the best possible birthday present this morning in your talk to the Congress.  Vice President Pence gave a little talk here before you came.  I’m not sure you heard it.  But he said nice things about NATO.  But he came down very hard on Germany.  He talked about the burden-sharing problem.  And he harshly addressed that.  He talked about Nord Stream II.  He even indirectly talked about Huawei and Germany’s role there.  So I was wondering if you could give us your evaluation of Germany as an ally, and perhaps comment on the wisdom of conducting diplomacy this way.

SEC.-GEN. STOLTENBERG:  So, Germany has made, together with all the NATO allies, a pledge, a promise to increase defense spending and to meet the guidelines we have set, as 29 allies.  And of course, I expect Germany to make good on that.  The good news is that Germany has started to increase and started to invest more.  We have seen a healthy increase in German defense spending over the last years.  And also in the latest budget they actually proposed further increases toward 2020.  And that’s a proposal.  And most likely there will be some more increases for 2020 than in the proposal, because that is going to be now decided by the – by the parliament.

And Germany has submitted national plans to NATO showing that they will increase defense spending from 2014 to 2024 by 80 percent.  This is significant increase and doesn’t bring them totally up to 2 percent, but at least significant increase.  So that’s something I welcome.  But of course, I continue to urge Germany to do even more. 

Germany is also contributing to NATO in other ways.  Germany leads one of the battlegroups.  We have four battlegroups in the Baltic countries and Poland.  And Germany leads the battlegroup in Lithuania.  Germany’s one of the lead nations in Afghanistan with, I think it’s around, a thousand soldiers in the north.  And Germany’s, for instance, extremely active when it comes to some of our maritime operations.  They are leading the NATO activity in the Aegean Sea, helping to implement the agreement between EU and Turkey on migration.  So – and Germany is this year the nation responsible for the high readiness force of NATO, which is also an extremely important part of our increased readiness.

So, again, my message about European allies is that some have already reached 2 percent.  All the others have started to increase.  I expect them to do more.  But I welcome that they have started to move in the right direction.

MITCHELL: But can I – can I just follow up in asking: I was at the Munich conference and there was a very strong speech by the vice president against the European allies, especially on Iran.  Does this kind of division undercut the alliance in other aspects?

SEC.-GEN. STOLTENBERG:  NATO allies agree on many issues related to Iran.  We are all concerned about Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, support for different organizations, terrorist organizations.  And also, the missile program, which is violating several U.N. Security Council resolutions.  Allies, NATO allies, have different views on Iran nuclear deal.  That’s just a fact.  And therefore, for me the disagreement on the Iran nuclear deal is one example of the disagreements we see.  And of course, it would be great if NATO allies could agree.  But as long as they don’t agree on the Iran nuclear deal, then my main task is to make sure that the disagreement on that issue doesn’t have negative repercussions on NATO’s core task, that we stand together and protect each other.

So the policies that – first, it’s always the best thing if we’re able to solve the disagreements on climate change, trade, Iran nuclear deal, whatever.  But as long as we are not able to solve those issues, some of them are also outside the NATO domain, then I just have to make sure that we minimize the negative impact on NATO.  And then I have used many times before the historical – the historical examples.  In 1956, two allies went into military operation against Egypt, the Suez Canal, without informing the others.  I was not, shall we say, very active in NATO at that stage, but I guess the atmosphere at the NATO ministerial meeting was, to say, a bit difficult.  And that was exactly the same thing in 1966 when one of our main allies, France, decided to leave the whole military cooperation.  Again, I just can imagine that it was a challenge for the alliance.  And then 2003 with the Iraq War, I remember very well how different NATO allies had totally different views on that. 

But, again, despite all these differences – which are serious – we have been able to obviously deliver on that main thing that we stand together when it comes to deterrence, defense, and protecting each other.  So, yes, if we can all agree that’s the best thing.  But, yes, as long as we don’t agree, at least stay committed to NATO. 

There are some behind you too, but I don’t know whether I’m allowed to –

MITCHELL: I know. There are so many –

SEC.-GEN. STOLTENBERG:  And then I wonder whether there’s any water in this room, or is that too much to ask for?

MITCHELL: Yeah, can we –

SEC.-GEN. STOLTENBERG:  We need two bottles of water.  Of course, if not, this panel debate is over.  (Laughter.)

MITCHELL: Yes, ma’am.

Q:  Thank you very much.  Could you comment on the role of NATO partners, and how you see that expanding or changing in any way, particularly Sweden and Finland?  Thank you.

SEC.-GEN. STOLTENBERG:  I’m very much in favor of NATO partners.  They are extremely important for NATO.  I hope that we are important for them.  But we work very closely with, I think, it’s around 40 partners all around the world – Australia, New Zealand, Finland and Sweden.  We now have a partner in Latin America.  Colombia is a new partner . And we have, of course, Ukraine, Georgia.  We have many other partners.  And we work with them in different ways.  But it’s partly about political cooperation and partly about practical cooperation.  We help them.  It varies very much what kind of partnerships.  But very often we provide support and help.  But they also participate in NATO missions and activities, contribute to, for instance, Afghanistan or the NATO response force, and so on.  So we work together in many different ways. 

When it comes to Sweden and Finland, they are among our – they are our closest partners.  So they are enhanced opportunity partners.  And there were part of, for instance, the Trident Juncture exercise last fall.  They are extremely, as I say, close to NATO.  And we just want to strengthen that partnership.  I am very often asked whether I would like to see them as members.  And then I say that, you know, as secretary general of NATO, I think I should leave it to each and every country to decide what they want without any pressure from NATO, and especially not from a Norwegian trying to press a Finn or a Swede to do anything.  (Laughter.)  So that’s for them to decide.

MITCHELL: Yes, sir. In the front row there.

Q:  Hi.  I’m Matta (sp).  I’m from the European Union here in Washington.

First of all, congratulations on your anniversary and on your extension as secretary general of NATO.  We have seen a major intensification of the cooperation between the European Union and NATO in – over recent years.  We signed, like two joint declarations in 2016 and 2018.  We’re working on about 74 areas of cooperation.  I would like to ask you, how much do you value you this relationship with the EU?  How would you characterize the state of EU-NATO cooperation?  And how would you like this cooperation to look like when NATO celebrates its 80th anniversary?

SEC.-GEN. STOLTENBERG:  So we welcome and support the cooperation between NATO and the European Union very much.  And one of the things I’m actually proud of is that during my tenure as secretary general we have been able, together with the European Union, to lift the NATO-EU cooperation to unprecedented levels.  We work more closely together now than we’ve done for any time before.  All nations (have ?) cyber but also exercises, maritime security, hybrid.  We have a lot of activities together.  And we work, for instance, together also in the Mediterranean Sea, I mentioned the Aegean Sea.  So we have a lot of cooperation.  So the more we can cooperate, the better.  And yeah, that’s a good thing.

You have to understand that more than 90 percent – I think it’s 93 percent – at least more than 90 percent of the people living in the European Union, they live in a NATO country.  So this is very much the same.  And we share the same security environment, we share the same neighbors, so of course working together with the EU is absolutely natural.

MITCHELL: Oh, I’m getting the signal that I think we’ve used up our time, although there are many questions remaining. But I just want to say from your speech today there were a number of years ago people questioning what is the mission of NATO, but I think what you laid out today certainly indicates a happy birthday of 70 and many, many decades to come.  Thank you so much.

SEC.-GEN. STOLTENBERG:  Thank you so much.  (Applause.)