“I’m no stranger to NATO,” he said, citing years spent deployed in Italy and participation in alliance exercises.
And he moved to reassure NATO allies that the revolving door at the top of the Defense Department would not affect U.S. strategy at a moment of high tensions with Iran and the prospect of a new arms race with Russia.
“The purpose here is to avoid war with Iran. What we want to do is to get this off the military track onto the diplomatic track,” Esper told reporters Thursday. “This could escalate out of control if we don’t get it back in the box.”
He said the United States would offer further Iran-related intelligence briefings to European allies in July.
Esper is the third defense secretary in six months, and his predecessor, Patrick Shanahan, made it to only a single NATO meeting. Esper’s focus on his European bona fides was an implicit contrast with Shanahan, who had few connections to policymakers in Washington or abroad when he arrived at the Pentagon after a long career at Boeing. Shanahan resigned last week after accounts surfaced about his contentious divorce.
NATO allies viewed President Trump’s first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, as a bulwark against his most unpredictable impulses, and they feared that Mattis’s departure at the end of last year would remove a roadblock against White House anger toward Europe.
By now, European leaders appear resigned to making the best of the situation regardless of who occupies the seat. For allies battered by 2 1/2
years of Trump’s skepticism, Esper offered some strategically reassuring words.
“We’ve had no change in our commitment to NATO,” Esper said. “My goal is to strengthen our alliance and improve our readiness.”
Esper repeated U.S. desires for increased NATO defense spending.
“Adequate funding underpins everything that we do, and much more needs to be done,” he said.
Europeans appeared happy to embrace Esper and move on. Some downplayed the differences among the Pentagon chiefs.
“They are three different persons, but for me what really matters is that they are conveying the same strong message,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters. Esper “has actually served in Europe, as a U.S. soldier, and that just highlights that he really understands the transatlantic bond and the importance of the U.S. military presence in Europe.”
Trump said last week that he would nominate Esper as defense secretary, reflecting a feeling in Washington that the Pentagon needs a Senate-confirmed leader amid mounting fears of conflict with Iran.
“Jim Mattis was a real and important figure in his strong stance, but during the last six months we’ve seen continuity,” said Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis. “I don’t have any doubts that it will continue.”
But there was also acknowledgment that Trump will call the shots on Washington’s relations with the rest of the world, regardless of whom he picks as his subordinates.
“The idea that Trump can now be captured or controlled by the Washington crowd has by now been discredited,” said Tomas Valasek, who served as Slovakia’s ambassador to NATO and now heads the Brussels office of the Carnegie think tank. “The assumption on this side of the pond is that the president will disregard his staff and do as he pleases. Any assurances that the secretaries try to dispense will be seen as welcome but not entirely credible.”
Iran was not formally on the agenda at the two-day NATO meeting, but Esper briefed fellow defense ministers about the basics. He also conducted Iran talks on the sidelines, meeting one on one with French and German counterparts, who are among the European guarantors of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord.
But there was some pushback from France and Germany inside the closed-door discussions, diplomats said, with both countries airing their frustrations about Trump’s decision last year to pull out of the nuclear accord.
Esper took over at the Pentagon on Monday after a tense week in which Iranian forces shot down a U.S. surveillance drone over the Gulf of Oman. Trump authorized a military strike in response, only to call it off at the last minute. He said he worried that the Pentagon-projected Iranian death toll of about 150 would be disproportionate to the downing of an unmanned drone.
Esper said he was eager to come to the NATO meeting, even though he departed Washington after just a day on the job. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also departed for a NATO meeting last year just hours after being confirmed by the Senate. Both men said they wanted to convey the depth of the U.S. commitment to the alliance.
[NATO weighs boost to air defenses over Russia missile system]
Esper, who had served as Army secretary since November 2017, said he wanted to reinforce a few messages, including that Washington wants to continue strengthening the alliance and sees NATO allies boosting their own defense spending as important.
Trump has repeatedly stressed the issue since entering the White House.
Among the issues that Esper confronted was Turkey’s continued insistence that it will buy the advanced S-400 missile defense system from Russia. U.S. officials have moved to block the purchase amid concerns that the presence of the S-400 in a country planning to buy F-35 jets from the United States could allow Russia to collect information about the stealth fighters, which are seen as a centerpiece of future U.S. military operations.
Esper, asked about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to receive S-400 units as early as July, was unambiguous about what it would mean.
“If Turkey accepts delivery of the S-400, they will not receive the F-35,” Esper said. “It’s that simple.”
Defense ministers also discussed plans for how to respond to the expected Aug. 2 end of a landmark U.S.-Russian arms control treaty. NATO and the United States say Russia has violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and Trump announced plans in February to withdraw from the accord. Officials offered no details of their talks, saying they want to encourage Russia to return to compliance by the deadline, but Europeans have been bracing for a potential arms buildup on the continent.
Esper may need to watch out for one element of daylight between him and his boss: NATO’s gleaming new $1.3 billion headquarters, which replaced a 1950s-era complex across the street that had the aura of a prefab elementary school. Trump, a former property developer, has groused about the cost.
“I had numerous opportunities to work on NATO issues both in Washington, D.C., and here in Brussels at the old headquarters,” Esper said with a friendly tone, “and I must say, this is a much nicer headquarters.”
Lamothe reported from Washington.