NATO: We Must Renew Our Commitment to Lean Forward

As delivered to Dagbladet Information (English version)

NATO’s 70th anniversary is an important reminder of what we have achieved together as allies in resolute unity.  And while our Alliance has overcome many challenges over the years and preserved our shared values, democratic principles and way of life, in 2019 – as we face real threats – it is no time for us to rest.  We must renew our commitment to lean forward.

There can be no doubt that Denmark is one of the Alliance’s most important member-countries.  Denmark’s investment in our collective defense is in Denmark’s interests.  Denmark is respected and admired around the world not only for its sacrifices and contributions to NATO missions, but also for its moral authority – making the right decisions for the good of its people and the world.  Denmark has an opportunity to show leadership again and make the right decision in meeting its NATO commitments.  We’re in this together and all of us, including Denmark, need to meet the commitments we’ve made to invest and ensure our safety in an increasingly unpredictable world.  Today we are confronted with rising security challenges.  Although at times they can feel far-removed from our everyday lives, in reality they are not.   In order to safeguard our future security, we have to be honest about where we are as an alliance and the dangers we face.

Seven decades after world leaders gathered in Washington to sign the North Atlantic Treaty, Russia’s aggressive and destabilizing actions serve as a reminder of the continued challenges to our collective security. In spite of this, some countries still believe that it is business as usual with Russia.  To this, I would say, we must be careful to differentiate between the Russia we want as a partner, and the Russia we have.  As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in August “Russia´s disregard for rules and norms led to the demise of one of the great pillars of the post-Cold War arms control regime – the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty… new Russian missiles are mobile, hard to detect, reduce warning time to minutes, and lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons in armed conflict.  This makes the world less safe for us all.”

Russia is rapidly nuclearizing in blatant disregard for our arms control protocols on top of its already aggressive and coercive pattern of behavior – the illegal annexation of Crimea, destabilization of Ukraine, and interference in domestic political processes in NATO countries.  Russia has recently bragged of conducting 10 large-scale naval exercises in the Arctic, and has recklessly tested banned weapons at Arctic sites, resulting in environmental damage.  There are places where we can cooperate, where we can be productive, and where we can work together to make the world more successful.  But, the reality is that Russia has targeted our democratic institutions, financial systems and vital civilian infrastructure with new forms of “hybrid warfare.”

Russia is not the only challenge. An increasingly assertive China is aggressively marrying debt diplomacy with telecommunications-based espionage while also developing and fielding new nuclear and missile capabilities.  In light of this, NATO needs – perhaps more than ever before – to demonstrate its ironclad commitment to collective defense.  And that means each country following through on our collective commitment to invest 2 percent of GDP on defense.

President Trump has called for our allies to rework their insufficient defense budgets.  We laud countries, such as Denmark, for heeding this call (and increasing defense commitments in the 2023 budget), but there is still much more to be done.  Without increased investment from all NATO countries, we will not have the capabilities to provide a robust deterrent.  Unfortunately, the reality is that, while many countries have made incremental changes to their military budgets, the alliance is still typified by free riders on American defense and the US has been taken for granted.  As the American Ambassador to Denmark, I understand that European audiences have criticized President Trump’s push on defense spending.  But let’s remember that President Trump is not the first president to ask Denmark to do what is right; and to be clear, spending 2% of GDP on defense is not something Denmark owes the United States.  Denmark owes this to itself and its allies to preserve its security, values, and way of life, including others allies who now subsidize Denmark’s security as it underinvests in its agreed NATO responsibilities for surveillance and  reconnaissance and as outlined by NATO staff and agreed upon by Denmark.

As Danes well understand, trust is a shared value.  Just as Europe trusts America to be there for its defense in a time of need, America must trust that Europe will not use this American promise to underinvest in its own defense and avoid our shared security needs.  At the NATO summit in Wales in 2014, when we made a pledge to increase defense spending, it was not about a target number; instead, it was a recognition that NATO nations lacked the capabilities we need to keep our countries, and the Euro-Atlantic region, safe.  Our troops were overburdened, and our lack of sufficient defense was exploited.  Yet now, five years later, less than one third of NATO’s members have achieved the mutually agreed upon goal to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense, and many countries, including Denmark, have not even made a plan or credible commitment to reach 2 percent by 2024.  The upcoming December 3-4 Leaders’ Summit in London offers us a not-to-be-missed opportunity to make a serious commitment to elevating our defense spending trajectories.  Only by enhancing our capacity, as well as our readiness, can we effectively address the emerging threats to our shared values.

Over the past year, Denmark has moved towards meeting its pledge to contribute its fair share to NATO and our joint defense.  By committing to raising spending to 1.5 percent by 2023, Denmark has set a promising course, but one which only reverses a decision taken in 2013 to cut defense spending dramatically.  The United States continues to bear a disproportionate NATO burden.  Last year, the American people spent 3.5 percent of their GDP on defense, and in fact spent 6.5 billion USD on the European Deterrence Initiative to invest in widely acknowledged needs within Europe to deter potential adversaries.  Looking at these figures, this question deserves to be answered:  Why should Americans invest more in Denmark’s security – and the safety of Danish children — than Denmark does itself?

For the last 70 years, the members of the NATO alliance have met the challenges of our time head on.  From the dark days of the Cold War, to conflicts in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan our remarkable organization has stood the test of time.  The fact of the matter is, however, that NATO can only continue to be an effective force for good, in the future, if we are willing to reassess the developing security landscape and our role within it.  We have to get real about defense – turn once more towards each other in good faith – and in doing so, start to view the world not as we would like it to be, but as it is.