Acting Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper looks forward to working with defense ministers to strengthen NATO, he told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels.
Stoltenberg welcomed Esper to NATO headquarters for a meeting of the alliance's defense ministers, which takes place during the acting secretary's first week on the job.
The NATO defense leaders have much to discuss: the Russian violation and withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, deterring Russia, allied burden-sharing, Afghanistan and Iraq are just a few of the issues the defense ministers will examine NATO officials said.
At the welcome, Stoltenberg noted progress on burden sharing. "There is a real increase of 3.9% in defense spending across Europe and Canada," he said. "This comes on top of the increase we have seen over the last years, meaning now that we have five consecutive years of increase in defense spending and the European allies and Canada will have added much more than $100 billion since 2016."
Esper stressed that his appointment as acting secretary and his presence at the meeting "is simply a change in leadership."
"It is not a change in mission, it is not a change in priorities, and it is not a change in the United States commitment to the NATO alliance," he said.
Esper said he looks forward to working multilaterally within the alliance and bilaterally with NATO allies to strengthen the alliance and to increase readiness. "There will be a number of issues we will discuss," he said. "First and foremost to the United States will be more equitable and increased burden-sharing by all of our allies."
Esper said he wants to talk "out of sector" issues with the allies, from dealing with the strategic challenge China poses to the situations the alliance confronts in Syria and Afghanistan.
Esper is no stranger to NATO. As a young Army officer, he served in Italy and participated in many NATO exercises. He also worked many NATO issues during his previous time at the Defense Department. "In some ways, it is coming back to my roots … with regard to NATO," he said. I understand the strategic importance of this alliance and our commitment to continue furthering it."