NATO's top official is signaling that it would be a mistake to see the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan or simmering tensions between France and the United States as a weakening of the trans-Atlantic alliance.
Instead, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned would-be adversaries that NATO will remain unified and resolute against a growing number of threats from old adversaries and new ones.
"Questions are being asked about the strength of the bond between Europe and North America," Stoltenberg told an audience at Georgetown University in Washington following a series of meetings with top U.S. officials.
"They do not change the big picture," he said. "We do not know what the next crisis will be, but we do know that whatever happens, we are safer when we stand together."
Specifically, Stoltenberg pushed back against charges that U.S. President Joe Biden cast aside NATO allies when he decided to make good on the previous U.S. administration deal to pull American troops from Afghanistan.
"The idea that the United States did not consult is wrong," Stoltenberg said. "That's factually wrong."
The NATO leader also said that while France was "disappointed" by a new security pact between the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia — the so-called AUKUS deal in which the U.S. and the U.K. will share technology with Australia to help it build nuclear-powered submarines — "NATO allies agree on the big picture that we need to stand together also working with our Asia-Pacific partners."
"China has the second-largest defense budget in the world. They're investing heavily in new military capabilities, including nuclear long-range weapons systems," Stoltenberg said. "I expect that the upcoming new strategic concept for NATO will actually reflect a much more comprehensive and unified position on how to relate to China."
But the NATO secretary-general saved his toughest talk for Russia, warning that relations between NATO and Moscow are "at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War."
"They have deployed new, advanced weapon systems. They have violated one of the cornerstones of arms control, the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) that banned all intermediate-range weapon systems," he said. "And we have seen a more aggressive Russia abroad, in many places, and then a more repressive Russia at home."
And Stoltenberg went even further, appearing to chastise Moscow for its stance on NATO enlargement, specifically its opposition to membership for Georgia and Ukraine.
"It is the right for any sovereign nation to decide its own path. The whole idea that it's a provocation to Russia that small neighbors join NATO is absolutely wrong," he said. "That's the provocation, that anyone is saying that."
Stoltenberg declined to say when Georgia or Ukraine might gain NATO membership, calling it a matter for the two countries and the alliance, and "no one else."
Stoltenberg also said that during his time in Washington, specifically during his meeting Monday with Biden, he pushed for NATO members to do more to help aspiring members.
"We need to step up and do more for those aspirant countries, because as long as they are not members, we should provide more support, more training, more capacity building, help them implement reforms, fight corruption and build the security and defense institutions," Stoltenberg said.
"We need to establish that there is a lot in between nothing and full membership," he added.
A White House readout of Monday's meeting said the two leaders, "discussed the international security environment and NATO's ongoing efforts to safeguard Transatlantic defense."
It also said Biden "reaffirmed his strong support for NATO and the importance of bolstering deterrence and defense against strategic competitors and transnational threats."