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NATO Secretary General On This Year's United Nations General Assembly


World leaders are at the U.N. in New York this week to talk about some of the thorniest issues on the planet - Afghanistan, climate change and the pandemic. For NATO's secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, you could add the future of the alliance he leads. It's been a rough month for the 72-year-old military and political alliance, from the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal to the surprise deal on nuclear-powered submarines the U.S. reached with the U.K. and Australia shutting out France. Secretary General Stoltenberg joins us from New York, where he's attending the U.N. General Assembly.

Good to have you back on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JENS STOLTENBERG: Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: The dispute between the U.S., Britain and France was so serious that France recalled its ambassador to the U.S. Does this undermine your message that NATO is a strong alliance that can hold together in modern times?

STOLTENBERG: I understand the French disappointment. At the same time, the NATO allies agree on the big picture. We agree that North America and Europe has to stand together, and we also agree that we need to address a world with new threats, new challenges, including the shifting global balance of power and that we need to work more closely with our partners in the Asia Pacific - Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia. And that was the clear message from the NATO summit in June, and that continues to be the clear message.

SHAPIRO: It sounds like you're saying if the U.S. is pivoting to Asia and focusing on countering China, then that's a pivot that NATO needs to make, too. Are you saying that NATO and the U.S. are evolving in the same way right now?

STOLTENBERG: NATO allies agreed. A document called NATO 2030, which is a forward-looking program for how to continue to adapt NATO, there's no contradiction between building partnerships with countries in the Asia Pacific, like Australia, and, at the same time, strengthening NATO as alliance between North America and Europe. And that's exactly what we do. And that's also the very clear message from President Biden.

SHAPIRO: At the same time, the head of the U.N. this week said the U.S.-China relationship is completely dysfunctional. And he said he worries about an impending Cold War. If NATO follows the U.S. down that path, does it risk being sucked into an equally dysfunctional relationship?

STOLTENBERG: We don't regard China as an adversary, and we need to engage with China on important issues, such as climate change or arms control. At the same time, the fact that China soon will have the biggest economy in the world, they already have the second-largest defense budget, the biggest navy in the world - all of this matters for our security. And therefore, NATO as an alliance protecting North America and Europe has to address this change.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to ask you about Afghanistan, where NATO allies fought alongside the U.S. for 20 years. We last spoke to you a month ago as the evacuation was taking place. After the chaotic withdrawal from the country, U.S. military leaders are now asking NATO for counterterrorism help in Afghanistan. What do you see as the NATO role there going forward?

STOLTENBERG: The main reason we went into Afghanistan was to prevent the country from being a safe haven for international terrorists. For 20 years, we have achieved that no terrorist attack has been organized from Afghanistan against any NATO ally. And looking forward, we need to do whatever we can to maintain that significant achievement, demonstrating that our efforts in Afghanistan have not been in vain.

SHAPIRO: And what does that mean in practical terms?

STOLTENBERG: It means that we need to partly hold the new Taliban rulers accountable for what they have promised.

SHAPIRO: Diplomatically, militarily, with counterterrorism operations?

STOLTENBERG: With both, meaning that we need to hold them accountable for what they promised in the agreement with United States that led to the withdrawal. The agreement of February 2020 between the Trump administration and Taliban started the whole process. And in that agreement, Taliban promised to make sure Afghanistan doesn't become a country again where terrorists can operate freely. We will use our diplomatic leverage, economic leverage, political leverage, financial leverage to hold them accountable. Of course, we have less leverage now, but that doesn't mean that we have zero leverage, and we will use all those tools. Then United States and other allies retain the capability of striking terrorist groups from long distance - over the horizon, as it's called. And we have demonstrated in many places that we can strike terrorist groups without having thousands of troops on the ground. And of course, if needed, allies are ready to do that again. And...

SHAPIRO: I'm compelled to note, as you say, that we can strike terrorist groups without being on the ground. The most recent most prominent strike, the Pentagon has admitted, hit civilians, not terrorists.

But let me ask you - Afghanistan was the biggest NATO mission of the 21st century. As you watch the achievements of the last 20 years disappear under Taliban rule, can you say that this mission was successful?

STOLTENBERG: It was not in vain. We have paid a very high price in blood and treasure. Thousands of U.S. troops, but also more than a thousand Canadian and European NATO allies and partners have paid the ultimate price. Many have been wounded. And of course, tens of thousands of Afghans have lost their lives. And it has cost billions for United States and for other NATO allies and partners. But it has not been in vain. Partly, we have prevented Afghanistan, for 20 years, to be a place where terrorist organizations like al Qaida could organize something similar to what happened on 9/11 2001.

Second, NATO has helped the broader international community to support social and economic progress, not least education. Millions of people, especially women, have got education, which was impossible before we went in. Some of this can be reversed, but much of this is very hard to reverse, for instance, the fact that millions have been educated. That is something which is a lasting achievement. So both in the fight against terrorism and at least some of the socio-economic progress is something that is very hard to reverse.

SHAPIRO: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in New York City for the U.N. General Assembly.

Thank you for speaking with us.

STOLTENBERG: Thanks so much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.