February 17, 2021
(Following Op-Ed appeared on the Washington Post on February 16, 2021)
Lloyd J. Austin III is the defense secretary.
President Biden made it clear two weeks ago that diplomacy will be our primary means of engaging with the world, and it must be our first tool of choice. At the same time, the president also recognizes that all of our decisions and actions must be accomplished from a position of strength.
For the Defense Department, this means fielding a credible force, ready to back up the hard work of diplomacy. It also means working closely with our allies and partners to secure our common interests and promote our shared values abroad. Simply put, we cannot meet our responsibilities alone, nor should we try.
This is the message I will deliver Wednesday to my counterparts at the NATO defense ministers’ meeting. We must consult together, decide together and act together.
More than seven decades ago, we forged an alliance with like-minded nations to defend one another from tyranny, aggression and oppression. Over the years, the United States and our NATO allies adapted to an ever-changing strategic landscape, and we sacrificed much to fulfill the principles outlined in the North Atlantic Treaty.
Those sacrifices and that service continue. Global crises, such as the pandemic, climate change and economic downturns, present significant dangers that span our borders. In many countries, internal strife, brought on by corruption, inequality and polarization, and transnational threats, such as violent extremism and criminal organizations, threaten stability around the alliance’s rim. We still work toward a political settlement in Afghanistan as we try to prevent that country from again being a haven for terrorists. Meanwhile, aggressive and coercive behaviors from emboldened strategic competitors such as China and Russia reinforce our belief in collective security.
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.
That’s why my very first call as defense secretary was to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. And in subsequent days, I made similar calls to many of my NATO counterparts as well as to key allies in the Indo-Pacific region and partners around the world.
I wanted them to know the United States was going to lead again. I wanted them to know we were going to be good teammates.
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.
For NATO, presenting a credible deterrence and defense requires all of us to invest in the forces and capabilities our nations pledged during the 2014 Wales Summit – or, as Stoltenberg puts it, “the cash, capabilities, and contributions” necessary for alliance readiness.
2021 will mark the seventh straight year that our NATO allies have increased their total defense spending. It is heartening to see many of them meeting or exceeding their obligations, even as further increases are essential for some to get there.
We recognize that each nation faces myriad pressures when it comes to spending on security. Each must match its resources to strategy and to national policies.
At the president’s direction, we are conducting a global posture review that will help us do just that. But we are not withdrawing from Europe. Indeed, we have already halted previously announced drawdowns of U.S. forces in Germany. And any decisions we make as a result of our review will be made in close consultation with our allies and partners.
Alliances are not a burden; they are a benefit to both our individual and our collective security. Our shared principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law do not make us more vulnerable; they make us stronger as a team.
Our work to secure a more peaceful and prosperous future requires leadership and bold action. It demands an ironclad commitment to ourselves and to each other to ensure the alliance remains strong militarily. Under the president’s leadership, the United States is ready again to make that commitment.
We are ready to consult together, decide together and act together.
We are ready to revitalize our alliances.
We are ready to lead.
The writer is the defense secretary.