Biden’s Defense Chief Puts Alliances at Center Stage of U.S. Defense

foreignpolicy – JUNE 16, 2022, 5:16 PM

A 10-day world tour ended with a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.

By Jack DetschForeign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin makes a statement on the second day of a NATO defense ministers’ meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 16. VALERIA MONGELLI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

BRUSSELS—NATO nations are preparing to significantly bulk up the 30-country alliance’s forces in Eastern Europe, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said today, part of a plan to stand tall in the face of Russia’s military revanchism as Europe faces its most serious security threat from the Kremlin since the Cold War with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“Russia’s aggression is a game-changer, so NATO must maintain credible deterrence and strong defense,” Stoltenberg said.

“This will mean more NATO forward-deployed combat formations to strengthen our battlegroups in the eastern part of our alliance. More air, sea, and cyber defenses, as well as prepositioned equipment and weapon stockpiles,” he added.

But Stoltenberg’s announcement—which came on the heels of a 30-nation defense ministerial, a U.S.-led meeting to provide more military aid to Ukraine, and just hours before U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was set to return home—underscored one constant: No matter where you go, the United States is at the center of the room.

“We are walking and chewing gum,” Austin told reporters traveling with him in Thailand this week. “We’re able to do that because [of] the strong network of alliances and partnerships that we have around the globe.”

Unlike Austin’s first global trek in February and March 2021 that sought to root U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign policy in Asia, Russia’s grinding invasion of Ukraine’s Donbas region has shown that the United States still can’t help but be in every room.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Austin, a former West Point rugby player, towered over 500 delegates on two massive screens, playing a dueling banjo to his nominal Chinese counterpart. After the United States pledged $1 billion more in U.S. military aid to Ukraine on Wednesday (another meeting where Austin was at the center of the room), the tableau of American flags at Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley’s press conference at NATO headquarters was so thick that it blotted out the alliance’s compass logo on the wall behind them.

In Europe, it was clear that the United States—despite facing a riot that ransacked the U.S. Capitol, inflation, war in Ukraine, and a resurgent pandemic in the months since Biden’s election—remains the global crisis hotline of choice. U.S. troops will add boots on the ground and preposition stocks for the new NATO presence in Eastern Europe, providing the logistical muscle for a presence likely to be spread across the Baltics, Poland, and Romania.

This reporter (Jack here)—given a quick glimpse of the 51-nation Ukraine military aid meeting in a massive, unnamed conference room in Brussels—saw a forum so packed that some non-alliance members, such as tiny Ecuador, had to phone in on Zoom. And with NATO’s Madrid summit, where the alliance will hash out a new strategic concept, less than two weeks away, the United States will also need to play a leading role in talking Turkey down from a bid to slow down Sweden and Finland from joining the alliance over their policy toward Kurdish separatists.

But the problem is that’s also the case in Asia, where U.S. officials tried to make historical antagonists Japan and South Korea play nice in the sandbox amid North Korean nuclear finger-wagging, soothe tensions with China, and show Southeast Asia’s 10 nations that the Biden administration is still engaged in the region.

Senior U.S. defense officials insisted throughout the trip—aboard the E-4B and in hotel waiting rooms that transformed into diplomatic enclaves as American, Singaporean, Japanese, and Chinese delegations passed through—that they are not trying to create an Asian equivalent of NATO. And despite what Austin said, the lack of a regional equivalent to NATO in Asia is causing policy headaches.

“One of our long-standing objectives is having a more networked security architecture in the Indo-Pacific,” a senior U.S. defense official said. “There are different constellations based on different security requirements and different, frankly, historic relationships.”

“Policymakers in Washington will probably be forced to adopt a slower, perhaps less robust pivot to the Indo-Pacific than they intended before Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine,” the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Craig Singleton told SitRep in a text message. “Such moves are certainly better than no pivot at all or policymakers deluding themselves into thinking that the current crisis in Europe does not alter America’s long-term national security interests.”

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