The security of this continent - with NATO as the main instrument for protecting that security - has been the consuming interest of much of my professional life.
In many ways, today’s event brings me full circle. The first major speech I delivered after taking this post nearly four-and-a-half years ago was also on the Continent, at the Munich Security Conference. The subject was the state of the Atlantic Alliance, which was then being tested with the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Today, I would like to share some parting thoughts about the state of the now 60-plus year old transatlantic security project, to include:
Where the alliance mission stands in Afghanistan as we enter a critical transition phase; NATO’s serious capability gaps and other institutional shortcomings laid bare by the Libya operation; The military - and political - necessity of fixing these shortcomings if the transatlantic security alliance is going to be viable going forward; And more broadly, the growing difficulty for the U.S. to sustain current support for NATO if the American taxpayer continues to carry most of the burden in the Alliance. I share these views in the spirit of solidarity and friendship, with the understanding that true friends occasionally must speak bluntly with one another for the sake of those greater interests and values that bind us together.
First, a few words on Afghanistan. I have just returned from three days of visits and meetings with our troops and commanders there, and come away impressed and inspired by the changes that have taken place on the ground in recent months. It is no secret that for too long, the international military effort in Afghanistan suffered from a lack of focus, resources, and attention, a situation exacerbated by America’s primary focus on Iraq for most of the past decade.
When NATO agreed at Riga in 2006 to take the lead for security across the country, I suspect many allies assumed that the mission would be primarily peacekeeping, reconstruction, and development assistance - more akin to the Balkans. Instead, NATO found itself in a tough fight against a determined and resurgent Taliban returning in force from its sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Soon, the challenges inherent to any coalition operation came to the surface - national caveats that tied the hands of allied commanders in sometimes infuriating ways, the inability of many allies to meet agreed upon commitments and, in some cases, wildly disparate contributions from different member states. Frustrations with these obstacles sometimes boiled into public view. I had some choice words to say on this topic during my first year in office, unfavorably characterized at the time by one of my NATO ministerial colleagues as “megaphone diplomacy.”