WASHINGTON --- NATO marks 70 years of existence next month and alliance members continue the mission of ensuring the organization is relevant and agile in a new era, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Poland over the weekend.
Stoltenberg was in Warsaw to mark the 20th anniversary of Poland joining NATO. He spoke at a conference sponsored by the Polish Institute of International Affairs and the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The secretary general discussed the changes experienced across Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary were the first tranche of former nations to join NATO. “It is hard to understand the impact of the enlargement of NATO, the importance, how it has transformed Europe,” he said.
He said traveling in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall was a totally different world. “If anyone had told me back then that, not so much later, Poland and many other of the former Warsaw Pact members were going to be members of NATO, I would have regarded that as absolutely impossible,” he said.
But it did, and now these nations — including Poland — contribute to shared security in many ways. “Poland is present in one of our battlegroups in Latvia, Enhanced Forward Presence,” Stoltenberg said. “Poland is conducting air policing out from Lithuania. Poland is part of our tailored forward presence in Romania, and Poland is also contributing to different NATO missions and operations, including in Afghanistan, our training mission in Iraq and in Kosovo.”
Poland also has hit the Wales Summit mark of investing 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.
Poland is on the forefront of the world of great power competition having a border with Russia. There are now NATO combat troops based in Poland and the Baltic Republics, the secretary general said. The United States has based a rotational armored brigade in Poland, and that force exercises regularly with Polish and NATO allies.
NATO has grown from 12 nations that signed the Washington Treaty in 1949 to 29. It will further grow this year when the accession protocol with North Macedonia is ratified in all the allied countries. And the door remains open, Stoltenberg said.
“The paradox is that despite that we are growing bigger [and] more countries are joining the alliance, despite that we have been the most successful alliance in history, we see questions being asked about the strength and the relevance of the trans-Atlantic bond, both in Europe and in North America,” he said.
There are differences among the allies in many areas — trade, climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, burden sharing and other issues. “But the paradox is that despite these differences, North America and Europe are doing more together within NATO and on security and defense than they have done for many years,” the secretary general said.
The battle groups in the East are just one part. Alliance forces are increasingly ready, with a tripling of the size of the NATO Response Force. The alliance is pushing its “4-30s” initiative — meaning 30 battalions, 30 warships and 30 air squadrons ready within 30 days.
NATO is also playing a significant role in the fight against terror. “We have made enormous progress in the fight against Daesh,” he said. “The global coalition -- NATO is part of that, all NATO allies are part of that -- it’s a transatlantic effort.”
NATO transformed its operations in Afghanistan from a combat mission to one focused in training, advising and assisting local forces.
Stoltenberg said the perception of many Europeans is that the United States is reducing its presence in Europe, and he emphasizes this is not the case. “The United States is committed to the security of Europe,” he said. “It’s right that after the end of the Cold War, the United States reduced its military presence in Europe — and that was quite natural because tensions went down. But over the last years we have seen that United States is again increasing its military presence in Europe.”
As part of the European drawdown, U.S. Army battle tanks were withdrawn from Europe in 2013. Less than a year later they were back, laying the groundwork for what has become a sizable rotational force.
“Now the United States is back with a full armored brigade, many battle tanks, in Europe,” Stoltenberg said. “That’s not a sign of weakened commitment, that’s a sign of strengthened commitment.”
Large numbers of American service members participated in NATO’s Trident Juncture exercise.
The European allies are matching spending increases and more. European nations have added $100 billion extra for defense spending by the end of next year, he said. “This is also recognized in Washington,” Stoltenberg said.
“So, yes, there are differences, yes there are disagreements on many issues,” he continued. “But yes, when it comes to NATO, security, we’re actually strengthening our partnership. And, for me, it is important to convey this because perception matters. If the perception is that we are not strong, if the perception is that we are not standing together, then we reduce deterrence.
“And the strength of NATO, the deterrence we are delivering every day, the purpose of that is to prevent conflict, is to preserve the peace. And if there is any misunderstanding about that, we are actually increasing the risk of conflict, miscalculations and attack against a NATO ally,” Stoltenberg said.