U.S. Ambassador to NATO: New China Strategy Is a ‘Big Deal’

Julianne Smith on the military alliance’s new strategic concept, Finland’s and Sweden’s accession, and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
U.S.  Ambassador  to NATO Julianne Smith speaks during a news briefing in Brussels on Feb. 15.
U.S.  Ambassador  to NATO Julianne Smith speaks during a news briefing in Brussels on Feb. 15.
U.S.  Ambassador  to NATO Julianne Smith speaks during a news briefing in Brussels on Feb. 15. Johanna Geron/Reuters

However one assesses Russia’s war in Ukraine and how it’s likely to end, one thing is clear: NATO has so far emerged more united, better funded, and with a clearer sense of purpose than it has had in recent years.

One person who has played a quiet but significant part in NATO’s rejuvenation is Julianne Smith, who became the U.S. ambassador to NATO in November 2021. She started her new job at a difficult time. Washington was being criticized for a botched—and unilateral—withdrawal from Afghanistan; NATO allies remained bruised from years of threats by former President Donald Trump to pull the United States from the club; and U.S. intelligence was amassing evidence suggesting Russia was planning to attack Ukraine.

Eight months on, NATO is expanding to include Finland and Sweden—two countries that had previously signaled they preferred neutrality over joining a military alliance. Member states are promising to increase their defense spending, and tens of thousands of extra troops have been committed to protect NATO’s eastern flank. Many of these decisions were brokered and announced last week at the NATO Summit in Madrid.

However one assesses Russia’s war in Ukraine and how it’s likely to end, one thing is clear: NATO has so far emerged more united, better funded, and with a clearer sense of purpose than it has had in recent years.

One person who has played a quiet but significant part in NATO’s rejuvenation is Julianne Smith, who became the U.S. ambassador to NATO in November 2021. She started her new job at a difficult time. Washington was being criticized for a botched—and unilateral—withdrawal from Afghanistan; NATO allies remained bruised from years of threats by former President Donald Trump to pull the United States from the club; and U.S. intelligence was amassing evidence suggesting Russia was planning to attack Ukraine.

Eight months on, NATO is expanding to include Finland and Sweden—two countries that had previously signaled they preferred neutrality over joining a military alliance. Member states are promising to increase their defense spending, and tens of thousands of extra troops have been committed to protect NATO’s eastern flank. Many of these decisions were brokered and announced last week at the NATO Summit in Madrid.

On Wednesday, I spoke with Smith about these developments, as well as the alliance’s new strategic concept, which labels China as a threat for the first time. Smith was previously a senior advisor to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and during the Obama administration served as then-Vice President Joe Biden’s deputy national security advisor. Smith was also an editor of Shadow Government, Foreign Policy’s platform for opposition views, during the Trump years.

The following interview was conducted as part of FP Live, Foreign Policy’s forum for live journalism. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Foreign Policy: Finland and Sweden were formally invited to join NATO last week. Turkey was the only NATO member state to block their bids until the two Nordic states agreed to a specific set of demands, including handing over Kurdish separatists that Turkey views as terrorists. Can you give us a sneak peek behind closed doors about some of the negotiations that went on, especially the U.S. role?

Julianne Smith: So here within NATO, at the headquarters, within the room where all 30 allies sit at the table, we heard from the Turks firsthand about the issues that were front and center in their minds, what was holding them back from supporting Sweden and Finland in their accession to the alliance, and we tried to not only hear them out but see how we might be able to address some of those concerns—in particular as they related to terrorism. Then what we urged all of them to do separately from NATO was for them to immediately meet.

What they settled on was what we’re referring to now as a joint declaration, and that declaration was negotiated through a series of meetings both virtually and in person and worked through a series of steps that could be taken by the two aspirant countries to help them address the concerns that Turkey had raised once that trilateral agreement was, in essence, signed.

And so, what happened in Madrid was that all the leaders of the 30 countries came together and formally announced that a compromise had been reached. Turkey felt reassured about some of the issues it had raised. And then [on Tuesday] here at NATO headquarters, all the ambassadors of the NATO alliance came together around the table again with the foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland and signed the accession protocols. It was a big day for the NATO alliance.

FP: After Turkey lifted its veto, Washington indicated it would support the sale of F-16s to Ankara. Are the two related?

JS: U.S. President Joe Biden met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the NATO Summit. The contents of that meeting really are off-limits. I can’t get into too much detail. But you’ve heard Biden even last year talk about the fact that the United States supports Turkey’s efforts to modernize its F-16s. We have a message to our friends in Ankara that this is also a question for Congress, which plays a key role here. And that was a message that I believe the president delivered in very clear terms when he sat down with Erdogan.

FP: From my understanding, there’s no timeline for the Nordic countries to join. The language seems a bit vague. Do you foresee additional challenges—perhaps from Turkey—moving forward? What power, if any, do they have to cause problems as the session progresses?

JS: We’ll have to see how quickly the Turkish parliament is able to ratify this agreement. We may have some additional bumps in the road. We don’t know with certainty how it’s going to proceed.

You’re right, there’s no timeline tied to this. For some countries, such as North Macedonia and Montenegro, our two newest members before Sweden and Finland, it took upwards of a year. We don’t think we’re looking at that type of timeline again, given the security situation in Europe right now with Russia’s war in Ukraine.

If we were to encounter any bumps in the road, the alliance draws from its deep experience of dealing with situations when an ally raises its hand and says, “Look, timeout, we have some concerns.” We have 73 years of experience of dealing with those types of situations. NATO operates by consensus. It can be challenging at times and difficult, but we always find a way, one way or another, to build consensus based on those 73 years of experience.

FP: We had former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on FP Live last month. He was pretty blunt in saying that NATO overestimated the strength of Russia’s military and underestimated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to wage war. Do you agree with that assessment?

JS: Sometimes we’ve been spot on, and sometimes we’ve been off.

I think what we saw in the wake of Russia going into Georgia in 2008 was a Russian military that struggled to meet its military objectives on the ground. The Russians seemed to also recognize those challenges, and because of the modernization efforts that were undertaken in the wake of their operation in Georgia, many of us assumed that the investments they were making in their military at that time would necessarily result in a stronger, more capable military.

What we’ve come to find out is, despite those investments, despite that very focused effort to modernize the Russian military, in fact, they have not been able to eliminate some of the core challenges that they’ve faced for many years. And by challenges, I mean things like logistics, where you’ve seen them struggle to feed their troops, to get equipment in a timely manner. They have chain-of-command, command-and-control challenges. They’ve got morale challenges that are very apparent on the ground.

We’ve also seen a situation where Putin doesn’t necessarily make his decisions based on what the Russian military is capable of. It was clear early on that the Russian military was encountering enormous challenges in getting to Kyiv and taking it. And in fact, as we all know now, they had to retreat and let go of that objective. Putin didn’t seem to mind or care, or perhaps he was getting bad information on the ability of his forces to achieve that fundamental objective.

I think all of us—NATO allies but also Ukraine and many other countries around the world—are learning a lot in real time by watching this operation. We’re learning a little bit more about Putin’s calculations, how he makes decisions. We’re learning a lot about the Russian military in real time, its weaknesses, its challenges on the ground to pursue this operation day in and day out. And what NATO will do, and what we’re doing right now, is try to take all of that in and make our best judgments on the way forward, both in terms of NATO’s relationship with Russia and what’s needed to secure the eastern flank but also in how to best support our friends in Ukraine at this moment.

FP: NATO declared China to be a security challenge for the first time, essentially mirroring U.S. foreign policy. Give us a sense of how that played out. Is this the united stance of all NATO members?

JS: The great news is that for the first time ever in NATO’s strategic concept, we now have China mentioned as a strategic challenge. And this is a big step forward for the NATO alliance. We obviously have spent most of our time in recent months focused on Russia and Russia’s war in Ukraine. But many of us around the table here at NATO also felt compelled to ensure that the alliance acknowledged what China is doing in and around the Euro-Atlantic area, in particular.

Allies are very focused on the China-Russia relationship and the fact that these two have only recently announced this “no limits” partnership. They’ve recently issued a joint statement on NATO enlargement. We’re seeing them align on the same messaging as it relates to Ukraine. And because of those actions, because of the ways in which those two countries have joined forces, in some ways, in this moment, allies felt compelled to reference that.

Now, all that said, there are different perspectives around the table. We all have different proximity to, different relationships with, and outlooks toward China. But we are a consensus organization, and the fact that China appears in the strategic concept for the first time is a big deal, and it does reflect consensus across the alliance. I think the language is strong.

FP: What does it mean to call China a strategic challenge? What does it mean in terms of how NATO acts?

JS: What it means in terms of how NATO acts is that, first and foremost, allies are in agreement that we need to strengthen our awareness of the challenges that the China-Russia relationship poses to alliance security. And we need to better understand and process what China is doing, particularly as it relates to technology, where it is working quite actively to erode our collective technological edge. We need to look more closely at the investments that China is making in ports and critical infrastructure in and around the Euro-Atlantic area. We have to look more closely at economic coercion and how China uses that to shape the strategic environment in and around the Euro-Atlantic area.

What you’re going to see is a lot more sharing inside the alliance in understanding what this moment means for NATO and the evolving relationship between China and Russia. But also, over time, we’re going to have to think about how to build resilience, how to create new tools to deal with some of these challenges. An interesting twist on this is to think long term about how both NATO and the European Union can work together on this challenge.

FP: I want to ask you about timelines. How long will NATO stay committed to supporting Ukraine? Specifically, how long will the United States stay committed?

JS: Well, Putin was absolutely certain, and I bet he’s still certain, that he can wait us out and either actively divide Europe from within or divide Europe from the United States as it relates to the support for Ukraine. And what you heard at the summit behind closed doors, all around the table, in the private, off-the-record sessions, was a strong determination for all of us to stay the course, to remain united, to continue to showcase our common resolve as it relates to Ukraine, and ensure that, while we occasionally have differences or we have debates about the best path forward, we stay united and we are able to maintain this moment and this level of support for Ukraine. That was a message that came across in stereo sound.

FP: Many Europeans are asking, “What happens after the midterms in America?” “What happens if Trump decides to run again?” “How do we trust you? How do we believe that you will stay the course?” What do you say to people when they ask you that?

JS: I do get that question from time to time. My focus right now is serving this president and serving in the Biden administration. And so, I’m going to focus on what’s real and what’s happening right now. I’m not going to make any predictions. No one has a crystal ball about the future of U.S. politics. So, it’s hard to say what happens down the road in a year or two or more. What I will say, though, and what I often say to audiences is that the support for the NATO alliance in the United States runs deep among both parties.

And you saw this even during the last administration, when Congress was really tripping over itself to express strong bipartisan support for this alliance. They asked NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in 2019 to come and deliver a joint address to Congress. Why? Because they wanted to ensure that they were signaling how deep the support for the NATO alliance ran. Among Democrats and Republicans, there aren’t many things that have and benefit from such deep bipartisan support. But fortunately, NATO is one of them.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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