The change in approach by Washington comes as the 72-year-old military alliance looks to find its footing after a tumultuous four years dealing with Trump. The challenges are vast — from defending against Russia, evolving to consider threats posed by China, and extricating forces from Afghanistan without prompting a collapse of the nation’s NATO-backed government and military force.
Senior U.S. defense officials, in a briefing with reporters, signaled that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wouldn’t offer any U.S. decisions on Afghanistan at the virtual two-day NATO meeting for defense ministers that begins Wednesday, as the Biden administration reviews its policy ahead of a May 1 deadline for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops set out in the peace agreement.
The senior officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the thinking of Pentagon leaders ahead of the NATO meeting, underscored that violence must be reduced in Afghanistan and said the Biden administration was reviewing the peace agreement in particular. One of the senior officials said the Taliban’s compliance with the deal — which U.S. officials have criticized — would be a key part of the review.
“It will play into how our government comes to a conclusion on where we should go,” one of the senior defense officials said, noting that the United States looked forward to consulting with NATO allies on the issue in the days and weeks to come.
The deliberations within the U.S. government over Afghanistan come as NATO faces an array of challenges, including in Iraq, where a NATO training and advisory mission, welcomed by the Biden administration, has continued amid attacks that Iraqi and Western officials have blamed on Iran-backed militias. On Monday night, coalition forces in Irbil were struck in an attack that left a civilian contractor dead and a U.S. service member injured.
Other challenges await: Russia is launching increasingly sophisticated cyber campaigns, including the most recent SolarWinds hack. Turkey, a NATO member, is blocking work and picking fights inside the alliance. And the United States, according to the senior U.S. defense officials, wants NATO to put China on its priority list.
Most notable at this week’s meeting is likely to be the change in style by the new U.S. administration toward its fellow NATO members. Trump often threatened NATO allies about their defense spending and used a bullying approach that led some world leaders to mock him and his freewheeling news conferences. But at NATO, worries about Washington extended beyond Trump’s tone.
European diplomats said they would sometimes wake up at 3 a.m. to check Trump’s Twitter feed to see if he had announced a sudden shift in U.S. military posture. They would spend weeks carefully laying out strategic plans with lower-level U.S. officials, only to have everything upended by a new pronouncement from the Oval Office. Sometimes, U.S. officials would come to them to try to find ways to work around Trump’s anger toward the alliance.
President Biden has said he will take a far different approach to NATO and has gone out of his way to signal support for the alliance, including by recording a video of a friendly phone call to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg last month. After Austin became defense secretary, the Pentagon scheduled Stoltenberg as his first call, and Biden has already halted a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany that Trump ordered, as the Pentagon evaluates what forces should be stationed where.
Some four weeks into the new administration, NATO diplomats are still sorting out the rules of the game inside the glassy alliance headquarters in Brussels. Trump’s ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, is gone, replaced for now by her former deputy, Chargé d’Affaires Douglas Jones. Biden has yet to announce his nominee for the post.
One significant shift so far, diplomats said, is that the Biden administration appears interested in hearing the views of allies on issues including operations in Afghanistan, where in addition to 2,500 U.S. troops, 8,000 forces from allied and partner nations remain.
Earlier this month, officials from the White House, State Department and Pentagon joined a conference call with NATO ambassadors, who detailed their countries’ positions on deployments and the security situation. A number of diplomats said it was a departure from Trump-era practice — and that they were delighted.
Stoltenberg signaled his eagerness to move on from the acrimony of the Trump era.
“It’s no secret that over the last four years, we had some difficult discussions inside NATO, but now we look to the future,” he told reporters Monday ahead of the defense ministers’ meeting. “And the future is that we now have an administration in the United States, in Washington, which is strongly committed to the transatlantic bond, to NATO, to Europe and North America working together.”
One of the senior U.S. defense officials underscored the point on Tuesday. “Consultation is really kind of the name of the game here,” the official said, describing the expected tone of the meeting.
The task of repairing the U.S. relationship with members of the alliance is significant, after some policymakers said their bandwidth was consumed by catering to Trump’s whims and acting as if he hadn’t upended the military organization.
“The level of anxiety is still high after four years of trauma,” a senior NATO diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal alliance conversations. “It’s been four years of denial and sort of faking things, repeating over and over again, ‘This is a strong NATO, we can become even stronger.’ ”
But Biden has also signaled that he will hold to Trump’s tough line on defense commitments, pushing lagging allies to spend more on their own militaries in an alliance where 20 of the 30 members aren’t meeting their commitments.
Members of the Biden administration have referred back to the 2014 NATO summit in Wales, during which members at the urging of President Barack Obama pledged to target their defense spending at 2 percent of their gross domestic product by 2024.
“I think what you will hear from Secretary Austin is . . . a change in tone and a change in approach, while also building on and recognizing the tremendous progress that NATO has made since 2014,” the senior U.S. defense official said, referring to the increases in spending on defense by many of the alliance’s members since then.
In addition to a continued insistence by the United States on member nations’ defense spending, NATO officials are expecting other continuities, such as a focus on withdrawing U.S. forces from conflicts overseas.
“On substance, I have the feeling that the U.S. is as tough as they were” during the Trump years, a second senior NATO diplomat said.
Birnbaum reported from Riga, Latvia.