WASHINGTON – Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will meet with members of the world’s most powerful military alliance on Wednesday for the first time since joining the Biden administration.
NATO meets Wednesday and Thursday to discuss an array of challenges facing the 30-member group. The virtual meetings will be a glimpse into President Joe Biden’s foreign policy agenda and comes on the heels of his calls to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with America’s closest allies.
“When we strengthen our alliances we amplify our power as well as our ability to disrupt threats before they reach our shores,” Biden said during a speech at the State Department. “America cannot afford to be absent any longer on the world stage,” he added.
Biden’s message broke sharply from his predecessor’s “America First” policy, which on occasion seemed to vex NATO members.
Under former President Donald Trump, Kay Bailey Hutchison served as the connective tissue between Washington and the alliance in her role as the U.S. Ambassador to NATO.
“There was never a rift or tension among the ambassadors and me,” she told CNBC when asked if the alliance was impacted by Trump’s approach.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg greets NATO’s US Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison on the second day of the NATO summit, in Brussels, on July 12, 2018.
Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt | AFP | Getty Images
“Now, that’s not to say that some of the allies weren’t upset with what the president had said or done on a given day. But overall we had a great relationship and always kept everyone informed,” Hutchison explained, elaborating on the wider policy goals shared by NATO members.
“I think the alliance is strong and unified and I think everyone knows that the U.S. is essential in NATO,” the former Senator from Texas said, adding that the United States will continue to take a prominent leadership role within the group.
Ahead of the virtual meetings this week, Hutchison shared what she expects will be high on the alliance’s agenda.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, attend the Tsinghua Universitys ceremony, at Friendship Palace on April 26, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Kenzaburo Fukuhara | Getty Images
The tension between Beijing and Washington soared under the Trump administration, which escalated a trade war and worked to ban Chinese technology companies from doing business in the United States.
Over the past four years, the Trump administration blamed China for a wide range of grievances, including intellectual property theft, unfair trade practices and recently, the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden previously said that his approach to China would be different from his predecessor’s in that he would work more closely with allies in order to mount pushback against Beijing.
“We will confront China’s economic abuses,” Biden explained in a speech at the State Department, describing Beijing as America’s “most serious competitor.”
“But we’re also ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so. We’ll compete from a position of strength by building back better at home and working with our allies and partners.”
Hutchison said that many of the issues the Biden administration looks to address with China also fall into shared interests held by the NATO alliance.
“We have been really focusing on China much more in the last two years,” Hutchison said. “When the Belt and Road initiative came out and then, of course, the crackdown on Hong Kong, Covid-19 and the lack of transparency on that, all really brought China into the NATO radar.”
Hutchison explained that the members will discuss the great power competition, which is used to describe the friction between the United States and China in shaping security practices and setting trade norms worldwide. Russia is sometimes included as an element in the power struggle.
She also said that as the Pentagon began to stand up a new military branch dedicated to space, the United States Space Force, the NATO alliance also expanded its mission and declared space a security domain.
“That was because China is doing a lot up there with satellites and artificial intelligence, and we are now having to focus on that and begin to build deterrence as best we can,” Hutchison said of the move by NATO leaders to include space in its security portfolio.
“Cyber and hybrid, of course, is another big area where both China and Russia are active,” she added.
Russian President Vladimir Putin enters the St. George Hall at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow.
Mikhail Klimentyev | AFP | Getty Images