NATO's New Momentum

A Conversation With U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith
Transcript

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

I’m Dan Kurtz-Phelan, and this is “The Foreign Affairs Interview.”

Julie Smith

Obviously, when I was nominated for this position, I had no idea that we would be facing the first land war in Europe really since World War II. No one had an appreciation last summer that this is where we were going to end up.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

Julie Smith became America’s top diplomat to NATO in November 2021. It was one of the most high stakes moments in the alliance’s history. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO is more important to international security than it has been for decades. It has a new sense of purpose and urgency. But that didn’t come automatically. It came in part because Julie has helped it chart a new course—and that course is getting harder as the war in Ukraine continues.

Julie, welcome to the show. 

Julie Smith

Thank you.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

You are preparing for what may be the most notable NATO summit in many years, if not in decades, and Madrid in late June, but I want to start by going back to a piece you wrote for Foreign Affairs before another rather notable NATO summit in 2018.

The question then was what President Trump was going to do—would he deny the United States’ Article 5 commitments to defend its allies in NATO, would he attack our allies, would he withdraw from NATO. You noted in that piece the limits of what NATO could accomplish without real U.S. leadership, and there were of course fears during the Trump administration that NATO itself would wither. You then arrived at NATO headquarters as the new ambassador in November 2021. To what extent had the actions of the previous administration really affected the alliance? What was the estate of the alliance and the state of U.S. credibility within the alliance when you got to NATO?

Julie Smith

Well, I think when I arrived, first and foremost, the mission had been without an ambassador for quite some time. And it was also recovering from two years of operating during a pandemic where many people actually had not been working remotely and had been coming into the office every day, so it was a team that was eager to get back to work in a kind of semi post-COVID environment, although we still grapple with COVID. And it was a mission that was eager to actually have an ambassador in the seat. In terms of the last administration there was a sense that President Trump’s comments, both during the campaign in 2016 and after his arrival in the Oval Office, did call into question America’s role in the NATO alliance. Traditionally, America has a very unique position in the alliance. America leads, always has led, inside NATO. And at the time, in the last administration, we had a president that during the campaign had actually called into question whether or not America’s Article 5 commitments could be contingent on countries’ ability to meet the target of spending 2 percent of GDP on their defense. And laying out the Article 5 commitment as more of a transactional operation definitely spooked the herd and created a lot of uncertainty about America’s intentions, what President Trump wanted to do during his tenure as it related to the alliance, open-ended questions about whether or not he would even attend some future summits.

Now, at the end of the day, some of what he had suggested on the campaign didn’t actually turn out to be how he pursued or approached NATO in practice. But there was a sense that it was time for a reset. By the time I arrived, again, I was excited to try and lift up the team, lift up morale, try to send a clear signal on President Biden’s determination to revitalize alliances, and ever since then that has definitely been my focus and the focus of the entire mission. And frankly I think I think we’ve done a good job, because we’re now in a position where we’ve seen unprecedented levels of unity and we’re in a situation where the allies are clearly radiating and projecting a common sense of resolve as it relates to Russia and Ukraine.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

I think it’s fair to say, without rendering judgment on the wisdom or not of the basic policy decision, that the withdrawal from Afghanistan had also undermined trust in the alliance and there were certainly lots of complaints from U.S. allies—especially NATO allies—about U.S. communication about the way that unfolded. What was the state of the conversation about Afghanistan withdrawal, and what were the lessons that you and the rest of your team took from that as you went into the Ukraine decision?

Julie Smith

Yeah, you’re right. In the fall of 2021 there was some increased tension across the alliance over the decision by the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan. Some allies had raised concerns about the way in which the United States had consulted on that decision. Some allies felt that they hadn’t been consulted enough on that particular decision. And we also had in the fall of last year some fallout over AUKUS in particular. So when I arrived in late November, early December, what was happening already was a very intense effort to return to the practice of intense consultations. And what we did in those final weeks of 2021 all the way up to the present day is a very concerted effort to ensure that at every turn, whether it’s on particular U.S. policy decisions or our views on a NATO-related matter, we have doubled down on consultations across the alliance—and we’ve heard some allies say we’ve never seen consultation like this throughout the history of the NATO alliance. So there does seem to be now an appreciation that the United States is making a good faith effort, and whether it’s the nuclear posture review or the global posture review or the national defense strategy or our views on Russia-Ukraine or China, we are making sure that our allies are familiar with our thinking even before some of the decisions have been finalized, and certainly after a decision has been made. We’ve worked to brief allies on the thinking behind that decision and what our position is rooted in, what kind of thinking it’s rooted in.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

I mean, consultation has this almost technical feel to it. But it just means a lot of talking about things—is it as straightforward as that?

Julie Smith

Well, yeah, it’s a lot of bringing in people—literally flying people in and doing in-person briefings to the extent that you can. Occasionally, we’ve had virtual briefings. But if you look at the list of visitor that came through Brussels from late 2021 into the last couple of months—I mean, virtually every senior member of the administration. Normally you’d have visits by the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, because that’s just normal NATO business through a ministerial schedule. But we’ve had, you know, the DNI, Avril Haines; we’ve had Bill Burns from the CIA; we’ve had assistant secretaries, deputy secretaries; Wendy Sherman, Colin Kahl from the Pentagon. Countless folks come through and sit and listen from allies about their concerns. So for example, in the case of the NPR we understood that allies had concerns and so we had several sessions.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

This is the nuclear posture review?

Julie Smith

Sorry, the nuclear posture review, to hear from allies: What are your concerns? What are you worried about? What do you want to make sure we understand about your views and your position on how this decision could land? And then we take that back based on those consultations—and then have a discussion here in Washington, eventually reach a decision, and then come back again and have another briefing. So yes, it’s talking, it’s briefing, it’s debating. But the key piece here is listening—that we were making a very deliberate attempt to listen to what our allies were saying on a whole range of subjects. And the narrative about the prior administration was that they could have done a better job of listening. And so we really have turned to consultation as a key part of our strategy in terms of revitalizing alliances.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

I want to ask one more backward looking question before we talk about what’s going on today in Ukraine. There was a brief period when the question of NATO expansion suddenly became a kind of front page topic after many years of it being, you know, debated in places like Foreign Affairs but not getting a lot of public attention. I don’t want to rehearse the debates about whether NATO expansion was a mistake, but as, you know, you’ve been involved in transatlantic issues and worked on NATO for a long time, as you look back over post-Cold War American policy and transatlantic strategy, are there mistakes that we made with regard to NATO, with regard to Russia, that you think could have set us on a better course than the one we’re on today? Are there things you would do differently if you go back to the 90s or 2000s and think about what U.S. policy did?

Julie Smith

I don’t know—I am not someone who’s in the camp of NATO enlargement was a mistake or was escalatory or poked Russia in the eye. I feel like throughout the 90s the NATO allies, either individually or collectively, were very transparent, very open to ideas about how NATO and Russia could work together. There were new initiatives and programs that were launched on the NATO-Russia relationship—more specifically, at some point we created what is called the NATO-Russia council. At some point Russia was invited to actually have an office at NATO headquarters with a proper ambassador there. So I think if you talk to the Russians they have what I would describe as sometimes revisionist history, of some sort of conspiracy where NATO came together and decided to take advantage of Russia being in this weakened position. But when I look back I see an alliance that was fairly open-minded about its future relationship, and was very transparent on the conditions under which it would add new members, why it was adding new members. We had the NATO-Russia Founding Act that set the conditions on how and when and whether NATO troops would ever be present in those new member states.

So it wasn’t as if NATO blindsided Russia, that they didn’t understand that enlargement was underway. I think it was the right decision: I think NATO enlargement has spurred some very significant changes in those new member states along with EU membership. Between EU membership and NATO membership, those two have driven significant changes in the governments and the structures that exist in those new member states. So I remain a supporter of the process, and I think NATO’s current position, where it’s been in the last couple of months, of stating very directly to Russian counterparts that its open door policy is non-negotiable—I think those views are coming across loud and clear, and I think there’s total consensus on NATO’s current position as it relates to enlargement.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

So, I want to go back to this moment when you arrive at NATO headquarters in November—I mean, such an extraordinary time in history to suddenly be in this job. What was it like to start the job at that moment? Did you know at that point that Ukraine was going to dominate the next many months of your life? We were already running articles predicting it, I’m sure American intelligence was briefing you on that. Were you persuaded at that point, and were the allies persuaded?

Julie Smith

Obviously, by the time I arrived we had had several debates about what we were seeing Russia do. We were all talking at NATO about the buildup of Russian forces around Ukraine’s border, and talking about the ways in which NATO should do multiple things simultaneously. NATO at that time was preparing for a potential NATO-Russia council that would take place. The U.S. was engaging bilaterally as well. You’ll remember the OSCE was involved, so there was this diplomatic piece. But there was another set of conversations inside the alliance about planning: How can we best prepare for the worst case scenario? And that included some feisty debates, because there were some allies that were saying, let’s begin that planning and maybe even taking action immediately. Obviously you can imagine those countries on the eastern flank were very worried about a potential war breaking out so close to their borders. And for some countries, you know, they were watching Russian troops move into Belarus, at one point Russia had moved 30,000 troops into Belarus, so that was already changing the entire security dynamic on NATO’s eastern flank. You had other allies that were saying planning is necessary, let’s get to it. But we don’t know when we will hit go on those plans and then move out on action.

So by the time I arrived, yes, there was a flurry of activity. There were, as there always are, debates around the NIC table. I was commuting in the month of December—my family hadn’t moved yet, by the time I came back in January my first proper week in the office with my family there in Brussels was actually the NATO-Russia council—that was my first proper week on the job, And ever since then it’s been very, very busy. Obviously when I was nominated for this position I had no idea that we would be facing the first land war in Europe really since World War II. No one had an appreciation last summer that this is where we were going to end up. So, it’s been a whirlwind, but one that I’m happy to play a small part in, and it’s a wonderful team that I work with each and every day, and it’s been incredibly rewarding.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

One extraordinary thing about the last four months is seeing the change in reputation of American intelligence given what we’d seen over the last couple of decades. I think if you’d gone back a year and talked about this publicly, people would think about the intelligence and the run up to Iraq, or the lack of warning about the speed with which the Afghan government would fall. Did you have trouble convincing allies that our intelligence was good in this case?

Julie Smith

Well, it was interesting—I watched very closely, I remember at one point the National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan went up to the podium, and even in our debates here on this side of the Atlantic, a hand went up in the audience and a reporter said, how is this different than Iraq? Is this another case where the United States is going to be ringing the alarm bells, and then months or weeks from now we’re going to find out that the threat was overstated or somehow we’re going to get it wrong? And I thought Jake Sullivan’s response at the time was really spot on, and was part of how we ended up also talking about that on the other side of the Atlantic. He said, we are not using intelligence in this case to try and start a war, we are using intelligence in this case to try and prevent a war. And I think that’s a really important distinction.

The United States was sharing an unprecedented level of intelligence at the time with allies to make sure that we all had the same site picture and that we understood the gravity of the situation, and that we could collectively prepare for multiple contingencies including the worst case scenario. But we were also putting in countless hours to try and pursue some sort of diplomatic resolution, and again that was done bilaterally, multilaterally, we had individual European leaders flying back and forth to Kyiv in Moscow—and we supported all of that. But we wanted to make sure that we were also prepared for the scenario that actually came to pass, and that was Russia literally rolling tanks across the border into Ukraine. 

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

And it sounds like it was a matter of kind of showing our work in a way that we had not in the past, kind of giving people the texture and details and raw intelligence in some sense in a way that we did not in the past.

Julie Smith

Yeah, and you know, it was interesting, despite doing all that I think there were still some folks in our own country and around the world, including on the other side of the Atlantic, that even up until those last few days were skeptical. I think we all hoped it wouldn’t come to that, right? So you’re going to put your faith in hopefully some belief that, okay, maybe he won’t really do it. And I was hearing, up until the last minute, occasional inputs from folks saying, well, is this really going to happen. And then when it did it was a turning point in an appreciation, a deep appreciation for what the U.S. had done at that moment to share that intelligence and really push the debates forward. Because on February 24 we had planned to a tee exactly what would happen. We knew we would, on a potential invasion day, we would in essence have an emergency North Atlantic council meeting—that’s where all 30 allies sit at the table—and that we had certain decisions to take in terms of how NATO would be responding in the moment. And that meeting was almost uneventful because we had put so much legwork in upfront that on the morning of February 24 we all came in at, I don’t know, four in the morning, and we had that first meeting at 8:00 AM—it was just by the book. We knew exactly what needed to happen, and it was rewarding in the sense that if you prepare, you put the work in to prepare, then you get action and a response within hours. So it was impressive. It was really impressive to see the allies come together that morning.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

Were you afraid of a quick spillover into NATO territory in those first hours of the war?

Julie Smith

Well, it’s always a risk. You know, what Putin has shown us over the years is that he’s incredibly reckless and that his intent often doesn’t pair with the real capability and capacity that he has. So you saw that he didn’t have the ability to march into Kyiv and take it in three days, and yet he still tried to do it. and because of that, of course you’re always thinking at NATO, again, what is the worst case scenario. But the good news here was that even before February 24, you saw NATO allies already moving, including the United States, moving forces into eastern Europe in the name of enhanced deterrence, and those steps were taken in such a way that by the time February 24 hit we felt like we had already taken steps to fortify. Now, we did more after February 24, but NATO had put in the work even before Russia went in, and I think that was a very good decision in the run-up to the actual war.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

So the fact that you had American troops already there in Poland and elsewhere helped deter Putin?

Julie Smith

Absolutely.

DAN KURTZ-PHELAN

We'll be back after a short break.

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Dan Kurtz-Phelan

Two ways in which I think certainly the public was surprised—but my sense is this true of American policymakers as well—that first people expected the Russian military to be much more effective. What do we get wrong about the state of Russian military power? Why has it struggled so much in Ukraine?

Julie Smith

Well, I think many of us saw the performance of the Russian troops in Georgia in 2008 and the after action reports, even in open source, just separate from the U.S. government—it was very revealing in terms of what capabilities they lacked for that operation. So what we saw after 2008 was a signaling from Russia that they too recognize those shortcomings and that they were going to make investments and changes that would in essence close the gap in terms of what was exposed in that Georgia operation. And we have seen them invest millions and millions of dollars in their military over the last decade plus. And so oftentimes, you assume, wow, that kind of intense investment leads to capacity. And then you pair that with what happened in 2014, which was a much easier operation for them: shots were not fired and they swiftly moved in and were able to in essence take Crimea.

And so between the lessons from 2008 and the assumptions that they had issues, but then the signaling that they realized that and would correct it, the way in which and the ease with which they were able to move into Crimea I think left many of us, even those of us like myself that are not experts in Russian military forces or the operations, with some assumption that this time would be different. And that they had the intent, that they had the capability, that they had purchased a lot of new kit, and that would pay dividends. And then an understanding that while we had, after 2014, several NATO allies had conducted a lot of training with the Ukrainians, that they were much better trained, but that there was an appreciation that the Ukrainians were using Soviet-era equipment, that there were some limits still some open ended questions about their performance.

And so it led to this assumption that, well, maybe Russia is capable of going in and accomplishing this mission. Maybe they will go into Kyiv and find that in a few weeks they can pull this off. But, of course, as we all know now it was the complete opposite—that those logistics problems command and control, leadership, morale, the corruption that has plagued the Russian military forces—all of that has not been addressed and continues to plague Russia and Russian military forces and is in this day, as we sit here and talk about it, really this still plagues their operations even as they’ve reduced the size of their mission right now and have turned their focus mostly to the east. So, yeah, I think all of us collectively, observers in Europe, observers here in the United States, many of us made an entirely different set of predictions as it related to Russia going into Ukraine. And We’ve been so impressed to watch the performance of the Ukrainian forces. It’s just been remarkable.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

But part of that was underestimating the Ukrainians, not just overestimating the Russians. I mean, I think the rest of us were surprised as well by the extent of the European reaction, especially probably the German reaction, in the days after the invasion. And, you know, contrary to recent history, in many cases we saw the Europeans moving faster and going farther than the Americans were prepared to at certain points when it came to sanctions and other things. Did that surprise you?

Julie Smith

Yes. As an old Europe hand, I will tell you that there have been countless surprises in the last couple of months. I’ve kind of described it as the impossible becomes possible, and we could talk about Germany in just a second. But there have been so many other twists and turns in how Europe has responded. We’ve had the Swiss freezing assets in ways that we just haven’t seen; we’ve had Norway turn its longstanding policy on not sending weapons to parties to a war to a conflict turning that policy on its head, and now Norway’s providing lethal assistance to Ukraine. We’ve had the European Union in a “peace facility” decide to allocate two billion dollars worth of assistance towards security assistance to Ukraine—I never thought I would see something like that, I think many of us were surprised, but also enthusiastic about that decision by the EU.

And then, yes, the Germany piece is perhaps most surprising of all. Again, if you had told me a year ago that it would be this particular coalition, which is delicate and complicated, with social democrats in the lead, that this working with the greens and the FDP, if you would have these three coalition partners go out three days after Russia goes into Ukraine and make this grand announcement about Germany meeting its commitment on spending 2 percent of GDP investing more in their defense, providing assistance, lethal assistance, to Ukraine quite openly, I would have told you that you were dreaming. So this has been a remarkable moment in transatlantic history, but also European history and the history of individual allies.

And what Germany decided to do, what Chancellor Scholz decided to do, has had a significant impact on the thinking in other national capitals. I can’t tell you how many times other NATO allies have come up to us and said, well, you know, wow, Berlin’s taking these really bold decisions, we’re going to take a fresh look at our policy on X, Y, and Z. It varies by country. But there’s been this element of inspiration in bold thinking. And I think we have to be grateful that Berlin took this decision and has in fact pushed others to be as bold in other categories. So yeah, it’s been really remarkable to watch this story unfold in terms of the response to February 24. And people like to write these stories and issue last rites on transatlantic unity, and there are a number of stories floating around right now. But that is not the story. Of course we disagree. Of course we have different perspectives. That’s what working at NATO is all about, that’s how you work in multilateral organizations: there are debates, but it is a story of unity and resolve, fundamentally, and I think we will look back on this moment, on this period of time, as a pivotal moment in the transatlantic relationship.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

What worries you about keeping that unity together and sustaining that resolve over time? And, I mean, even taking your point, there certainly are reasons to think it’s going to be hard to maintain that given the political costs—the risks, food prices, energy prices, everything else. What concerns you, and what can be done to sustain that?

Julie Smith

Well, look, maintaining unity takes work, and nobody can step back and assume that the level of unity that we have right now is sustainable over, let’s say, many, many months or years. So we will continue to work with our allies to address the issues now that are bubbling to the surface. There’s a broader set of issues now at play above and beyond the war in Ukraine. There are concerns around the world about food security, which we’re spending a lot of time on. There are concerns about energy prices and the decisions that have just recently been made in the European union as it relates to their reliance on Russian oil and gas. And there are broader concerns in the wake of the pandemic just about the global economy and how the war is going to impact our societies, our publics, and public opinion on this war.

Right now, I think most Europeans understand the severity of the situation, the seriousness of this, and the reason why we all have to hold the line and work together to support Ukraine in this moment—what it represents above and beyond the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. That it says a lot about the future of the rules-based order, it says a lot about democracy, it says a lot about territorial integrity and sovereignty. And so we will have to keep working at it. 

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

Given the likelihood that this war goes on in one form or another for a long time—it doesn’t seem like we’re especially close to a negotiated outcome, given where things are on the battlefield, neither the Ukrainians nor the Russians seem especially inclined to bend on key demands at this point—the risk of escalation between Russia and NATO and Russia and United States seems to grow over time. What worries you when it comes to escalation?

Julie Smith

Well, we spend a lot of time thinking about escalation, and I turn to President Biden all the time to make sure I understand, again, what his objectives are, where he wants America to engage, where he doesn’t. One thing that’s changed is the types of assistance that we’ve provided to Ukraine, and that’s because the conversations we have with them on a daily basis are evolving thanks to events on the ground. And while we were focused early on things like air defense and ammunition, we’ve had conversations with them about coastal defense, we’ve had conversations with them about the need for armored vehicles, and now advanced rocket systems. But there are some things that haven’t changed. What hasn’t changed is the president’s determination to avoid making NATO a party to this conflict—and NATO allies are agreed on that position.

No one inside the NATO alliance is suggesting that NATO start providing lethal assistance. Individual NATO allies are providing assistance, but NATO as an organization is not, and we were all clear in that. The president has been clear in stating that American troops will not be part of this conflict, and I don’t see that changing either. So, yes, we will have to continue to have our conversations about escalation and escalation management and ensure that our effort has to be to stop the conflict—to stop the war in Ukraine and ensure that it doesn’t expand beyond Ukraine’s borders. So that will continue to be part of my objective in Brussels, but also my colleagues back here in Washington.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

The Ukrainian government has praised the United States and other NATO allies, but has been critical at moments of NATO itself as an institution. One thing that the foreign minister of Ukraine has said is that he sees an element of hypocrisy, and I’m quoting him here, when it comes to the eager acceptance of Finland and Sweden, as opposed to the stance on Ukraine when it comes to NATO membership. How do you respond to those kinds of criticisms? Do you see a double standard there?

Julie Smith

Well, look, every single aspirant has its own path to membership, and every aspirant has had a different relationship with NATO over time. Talking about Finland and Sweden, these are two allies that have had deep relationships with the NATO alliance for quite some time—they’ve participated in NATO operations, they have exceptional militaries, they spend two percent [of their GDP on defense], their democracies—they share the same values. And so this is a situation where there was broad support. When those two countries walked through the front door of NATO just a couple of weeks ago and delivered a formal request for membership, it was by and large unanimous. Obviously, we have a situation where one ally, Turkey, has raised some specific concerns. But again, I’m confident that we will get there at the end of the day.

As for Ukraine right now, Ukraine has also been a close partner to NATO and has also operated in NATO missions over the years, and we’ve done some training with them. But right now the focus is on ending the war in Ukraine—and then, as we’ve stated many times, NATO’s door remains open and we will leave it to President Zelensky to determine whether or not he wants to revisit or maintain Ukraine’s current stance on NATO enlargement.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

That’s not something the U.S. would trade away in a negotiation with Russia at some point.

Julie Smith

No, no, no. First of all, this isn’t a U.S. decision—I mean this is a NATO decision, NATO enlargement rests with the aspirant country and the 30 members of the alliance, and it has to be a decision that is made via consensus. So this is not for any individual country to pass judgment on or to make any assumption that this could be traded away. Absolutely not. We are in agreement that first of all, the door is open, as I said, and that this decision rests only with one person, and that is President Zelensky.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

You mentioned Turkish opposition to Sweden and Finland joining, or concerns. You know, one thing that has been part of NATO’s identity, certainly in recent decades but even going back further, is the shared democratic values among its members. And you have among a couple of members, including Turkey, including Hungary, a degree of backsliding that I think calls some of those values into question. There have been various calls to talk about changing it, or rules to consider punishing them, or even expelling members. How do you talk about NATO as a democratic alliance given the democratic backsliding among some of those members?

Julie Smith

Well, NATO is a pretty interesting place where it can simultaneously come together and carve out a consensus view and a set of policies dealing with any challenge that comes its way. And it’s done that over many, many decades—but simultaneously it’s able to have conversations internally about areas where we differ. And on the question of values, we do spend time talking about our values, we do talk about the necessity of preserving those values and protecting them, particularly in this moment, because Ukraine is very much about protecting and defending one of our core values—well, several of them: democracy, state sovereignty, territorial integrity, the right to defend oneself, and so. The values piece will be part of the debates on the strategic concept, you’re going to see a reference to that. and we do have conversations behind the scenes where we talk about concerns that we have on multiple fronts. So I’ve been impressed with the alliance’s ability to take on tough issues, take on moments where we disagree or we can raise serious concerns about each other at the table and yet still be united in our approach and focus on Ukraine.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

So looking ahead to the Madrid summit in late June, presumably Finland and Sweden will be one big piece of business that you all will focus on—but so will the unveiling of a new strategic concept. If we looked back a year ago, the conversation about NATO was what role it would play in U.S. competition with China. And you wrote a great piece for Foreign Affairs with Torrey Tausig a couple of years ago called “The Old World and the Middle Kingdom” about what role Europe and the transatlantic alliance should play in competition with China broadly. To what extent does NATO have any capacity or any real role when it comes to what is probably still the major security competition of our time and the biggest geopolitical challenge for the United States, and that’s China?

Julie Smith

Well, there’s some good news here, and that is that for the first time in its history, in 2019 NATO conducted a China review where it stepped back and tried to better understand how China can challenge the security of the alliance and the degree to which NATO should turn its attention to China, both just in itself as a competitor a systemic rival—but also how NATO should cope with China’s increasing activities and presence in the Euro-Atlantic area. And so that was step one. Step two in terms of a turning point for the alliance was the language that you saw in the communiqué that came out of the summit that happened last summer, in 2021, where NATO talked about China threatening the rules-based order. That was a turning point because normally in NATO documents China doesn’t merit a mention, and in fact in the last strategic concept, which was released in 2010, there’s no mention of China whatsoever.

Now, fast forward to this Madrid summit that’s coming up at the end of June: there will be a new strategic concept. You’re going to see significantly altered language as it relates to Russia for all the obvious reasons. And if folks are listening and would like an interesting homework project, just pull up the 2010 strategic concept and look at the language on Russia—it’s radically different from the environment that we find ourselves in today. It’s the language—it’s much more hopeful. You’re going to see a different tone as it relates to Russia. But what my prediction is, is that you will also see mention of China in the strategic concept, and there we’re going to be talking about China.

But also what’s been interesting in the last few months is to look at the China-Russia relationship more closely, because it wasn’t more than a couple of months back when we saw the two come out and issue this big statement on their no-limits partnership. The two actually had a joint statement on NATO enlargement. So that’s a change—you see China parroting Russia’s messages on Ukraine, you’ve seen some joint exercises with the two of them—that relationship is evolving and there’s more of a strategic alignment than we’ve seen in recent years. And for that reason, NATO is going to have to respond to that, and talk about the tools it needs and the resources it needs to cope with that particular challenge again in the Euro-Atlantic area. So this is part of the conversation despite the fact that Russia remains front and center.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

I want to close by asking you to look forward a bit. None of us wants to get into the 2024 election just yet, but you’re already starting to hear concerns in foreign capitals that there’ll be a change in administration in 2025 and that you’ll have a return of a president who is likely to call into question some of the American commitments again. There was obviously fear during the Trump administration that NATO wouldn’t really survive in its current form through that first term, and now foreign leaders are asking, publicly in some cases, whether they can really trust American commitments and trust America’s involvement in some of these alliances, and whether the kinds of commitments you’re presumably making with your counterparts are really going to stick for the long haul. How do you reassure allies that these commitments are for real given that we could have a change in administration, and a president who could call them back into question again in just a couple years?

Julie Smith

Well, first and foremost, a couple things on that—I’d say I’m focused on the president that I work for right now. I’m focused on this current administration, the goals of this president; his commitment to revitalize alliances and my role in achieving that objective. Secondly, I would say what I often remind European allies about is the fact that the NATO alliance benefits from deep bipartisan support on both sides of the aisle. Of course, if you run the halls of Congress you may stumble on a small number of folks that sometimes express skepticism or concern about NATO policies, whether it’s enlargement or burden sharing or whatever—but by and large the majority of folks.

And the polling data supports this: there aren’t many issues that benefit from strong bipartisan support, but NATO happens to be one of them. There is an appreciation about the value of America’s commitment to the alliance, the value of American leadership in the alliance and the value of what the alliance does for our own security. And that Europeans do step up, and that they are spending more, and that in this moment they are providing assistance to Ukraine, and they have moved their troops to Eastern Europe. So the value of our collective efforts in this moment I think comes shining through. And in all of the delegations that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many in recent months, through both Republicans and Democrats, that message has been crystal clear. So I’m going to put my faith in that and again stay focused on the current administration. We’ll get to 2024 when it arrives.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

But it’s fair to say that some of the complaints that President Trump had in the 2016 campaign have been in some ways overcome by events after the invasion of Ukraine.

Julie Smith

Sure. It is a remarkable moment. It absolutely is a remarkable moment, again, in transatlantic history. And this unity and the shared resolve is very real, and I feel it each and every day.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

Julie Smith, thank you so much for joining us, especially at such an intense moment in NATO’s history.

Julie Smith

Thanks for the invitation.

Dan Kurtz-Phelan

 

Thank you for listening. You can find the articles that we discussed on today's show at ForeignAffairs.com.

"The Foreign Affairs Interview" is produced by Kate Brannen, Julia Fleming-Dresser, Rafaela Siewert, and Markus Zakaria. Special thanks also to Grace Finlayson, Caitlin Joseph, Nora Revenaugh, Asher Ross, Nick Sanders, and Gabrielle Sierra. Our theme music was written and performed by Robin Hilton.

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Notes

In the fall of 2021, NATO was trying to find its way. The Biden administration was trying to reestablish U.S. commitment to the transatlantic alliance after President Donald Trump had left it on shaky ground. The chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan didn’t help. U.S. allies felt left in the dark, their concerns barely listened to. At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin was busy amassing troops on Ukraine’s border, causing neighboring countries—and NATO members—to begin to panic.

It was against this backdrop that Ambassador Julianne Smith started her new job as the top U.S. diplomat to NATO in November 2021. She worked quickly to rebuild morale and to engage with her European counterparts to plan for a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine. She brought years of experience in Washington to the position: during the Obama administration, she served as the acting national security adviser and the deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. Before her post at the White House, she served for three years as the principal director for European and NATO policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon.

We discuss how the U.S. government worked to build unity among its European allies in the face of Russian aggression, what it’s been like to be in NATO headquarters in Brussels during this pivotal moment in transatlantic history, and how the war in Ukraine is giving NATO a renewed sense of purpose.


“The Foreign Affairs Interview” is produced by Kate Brannen, Julia Fleming-Dresser, Rafaela Siewert, and Markus Zakaria. Special thanks to Grace Finlayson, Nora Revenaugh, Caitlin Joseph, Asher Ross, and Gabrielle Sierra. Our theme music was written and performed by Robin Hilton. 

If you have thoughts or feedback, email us at [email protected]

Sources

The Old World and the Middle Kingdom by Julianne Smith and Torrey Tausig

NATO in the Age of Trump by Julianne Smith and Jim Townsend

NATO's Strategic Concept 2010