May 10, 2012

(Washington, D.C.) – U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) chaired a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing today to examine what the United States has at stake at the upcoming NATO 2012 Summit in Chicago. 

On May 20, leaders from the international community will meet in Chicago for the NATO 2012 Summit. This year’s summit will be the first to take place on U.S. soil since 1999. Shaheen, the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, plans to attend.

Below are Shaheen’s opening remarks, as prepared for delivery.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee meets today to examine the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which will convene in Chicago just 10 days from now to discuss the Alliance’s current and future trajectory.  We have two impressive panels of witnesses here to help us better understand the difficult issues facing NATO and its members.

This year’s NATO summit could not come at a more important time.  In Washington and in the capitals of nearly all NATO member nations, Western leaders are wrestling with unprecedented challenges: fiscal crises that have forced unwelcome austerity measures, declining defense budgets, less-than-robust economic growth, and even a return to recession in some European countries.  At the same time, global security demands are rapidly evolving and becoming more and more complex. 

In the face of these difficult and growing challenges, there may be a tendency to question ourselves, to pull back or to lower our goals and expectations.  I think this is exactly the wrong time to question the very principles that have guided this Alliance to be the successful, dominant force that it is today.  

The message out of the Chicago Summit this month needs to be that the United States and its NATO allies will continue to be a dominant force for good in the world – just as we have been over the last sixty years.  We should emphasize that NATO is ready to adapt to 21st Century threats, to address our shortfalls and to make the tough choices necessary to meet the next generation of security challenges. 

A successful Summit will need to see progress on a number of critical issues facing the Alliance today.

The first is Afghanistan, where we are seeking to shift from a combat-focused role to one of training, advising, and assisting the Afghan forces as they take the lead for the security of their country.  Last week, President Obama signed the U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement, providing a 10-year commitment to our Afghan partners after the transfer of security responsibility in 2014.  At the summit, we should seek buy-in and support from our NATO allies while working closely with alliance members – and our Afghan partners – to identify realistic, sustainable troop numbers and financial commitments.

The second is NATO’s “Smart Defense” initiative, which has been touted as an effort to prioritize defense projects and pool and share resources at a time of increasingly strained budgets.  I welcome the effort to ensure the maximum possible return on investment of our limited defense dollars, and NATO can build on successful initiatives like the Baltic Air Policing mission and the Strategic Air Lift Capability program.  However, it is important that “Smart Defense” does not become an excuse for further under-investment in much-needed defense spending by our allies.

The lack of burden-sharing will remain an important issue that must be addressed in Chicago.  Just a few NATO countries are spending at or above two percent of their GDP, the level of commitment required of all alliance members.  While the U.S. spends over four percent of its GDP on defense, Europe as a whole spends only 1.6 percent, and many of those individual countries spend less than one percent.  The U.S. spends three times more than the other 27 allies combined. 

The NATO Strategic Concept – agreed to at the Lisbon Summit two years ago – outlined the capabilities needed to deter and defend against future threats to the Alliance.  In Chicago, “Smart Defense” should be utilized to begin to meet all of those capabilities and to make real commitments of resources towards that effort.   

Finally, at the Summit, we must maintain our focus on the Alliance’s “open door” policy.  NATO enlargement has been one of the great successes of the Alliance over the last two decades, bringing in critical allies in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, which have rapidly transformed themselves from security consumers to security contributors.  Poland and Romania will soon host critical missile defense sites.  Estonia may be one of only a few NATO members to actually reach its defense spending requirements.  And most of the newer members have also made significant troop commitments to the fight in Afghanistan. 

Despite the success, enlargement has begun to demonstrate signs of strain, due to both geographic location and political realities.  At the Chicago Summit, no new members are expected to join the Alliance; however, that does not mean NATO’s “open door” is off the agenda.  There are currently four aspirant nations that are interested in pursuing membership: Georgia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia.  It will be important for NATO to maintain the credibility of our “open door” by identifying a clear path to NATO membership for deserving countries.  

The summit in Chicago comes at a crucial time for the U.S. and our allies, and these are just three of many important issues that should be discussed.  In a world where the security focus is shifting towards Asia and military budgets are shrinking, now is the time for NATO to redefine its role as a preeminent force for peace and stability. 

Despite our difficulties, NATO has arguably been the most successful modern military alliance in history.  Our deep ties were born out of World War II, where victory as a truly joint force was unlike anything that had ever been seen before.  At the height of the Cold War, our alliance deterred the very real threat of a nuclear devastation brought on by two global superpowers bent on conflict.  It is an alliance that helped tear down the Berlin Wall and dismantle the Communist empire.  And, it has moved us ever closer to a Europe that is “whole, free, and at peace.”

Today, even in the face of austerity, our alliance is an unrivaled military force.  NATO has three of the top four defense spending countries in the world and represents nearly two-thirds of world-wide military expenditures.  Due to nearly a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, NATO members have some of the most experienced, battle-tested warriors in a generation.  NATO acted when no other force in the world had the capacity or the will to avert genocide in the Balkans or prevent a civilian massacre in Libya, ultimately bringing an end to brutal dictatorial regimes in both places.

Do we have our problems?  Absolutely.  We need to take an honest, critical account of our shortfalls and inadequacies.  Libya exposed some glaring capability gaps.  Our open door policy has begun to show some strain and limits.  At times, we struggle to find consensus on the role NATO should play in the world, and we have serious questions about equality and burden-sharing.

Past success does not guarantee future relevance.  Any alliance that wishes to remain relevant to a rapidly changing world must adapt and respond to new realities.  As such, we come to Chicago at a critical turning point.  NATO needs to define its role in a world where the focus is shifting towards the Asia-Pacific.  And it needs to do so in a time of shrinking budgets. 

The outcome there will help determine whether we will remain the undisputed leader of a free society in this century.  Chicago should be a chance to remind the world – and perhaps convince a new generation of Americans – that the United States and its NATO allies continue to wield unprecedented influence and are actively shaping our world for the better.

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