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The U.S. ambassador to NATO outlines the challenges ahead for the alliance

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At the summit, we had a chance to talk about some of these issues with Julianne Smith, who represents the U.S. at NATO. She's had a long career in defense and diplomacy and co-wrote NATO's 2010 Strategic Concept. That's sort of like the alliance's mission statement, which is drafted roughly every 10 years. Given that she's been to a number of these summits, we asked what stood out to her about this year's gathering.

JULIANNE SMITH: First and foremost, it's not every day that the alliance adds two new members, and we were able to finalize Sweden and Finland's intent to join the alliance, and now we are at a position where we will sign what is called the accession protocol in the next couple of days, and they'll be well on their way to a full-fledged membership. The other thing that made it historic was really to see the remarkable level of unity around the table in this moment - in the wake of Russia's war in Ukraine. To see 30 allies come together and showcase this level of unity and share a common purpose as it relates to Ukraine is nothing short of remarkable.

MARTIN: You know, you can't help but remember that, in 2010, the Strategic Concept said that NATO-Russia cooperation is of strategic importance, as it contributes to creating a common space of peace, stability and security. You were part of the administration then. I think you were at the Pentagon then.

SMITH: Exactly.

MARTIN: And, I mean, some of the Eastern European nations who were really on the front lines have suggested - they've been saying this for years - that that was naive. And do you think that that's fair?

SMITH: So in 2010, we had a different vision for the future of the NATO-Russia relationship. It was aspirational. Now, we're obviously reflecting Russia's aggression in Ukraine. We're reflecting the war crimes that are taking place in that country. We're reflecting these indiscriminate attacks on civilians. And so it is a shift, but it is hard to have a document that's relevant for a full decade, which is why the U.S. government tends to rewrite its own national security strategy with greater frequency. So NATO does the best job they can in the moment, and what we did over the last couple of weeks is do the best job to describe what we're seeing right now with Russia. But we also did some other notable things, and that was mentioning China for the first time in NATO's history.

MARTIN: I want to point out some of the concrete decisions that were made here - I mean, a lot of which has already been reported - increasing the number of troops at high readiness - at so-called high readiness, assigning people specific areas that they can get to if they are needed, you know, on the eastern flank. Since you've worked in this area for such a long time, what do you think is going to make the biggest difference in allowing people, particularly on the front lines, to sleep better at night?

SMITH: The allies decided to take the battalions that exist in eight countries in Eastern Europe and make sure that they're scalable to a brigade, which means that, at a moment's notice, if any crisis were to occur, those countries have the assurance that NATO allies have the plans in place and the forces preassigned to respond within hours. And that is, I think, extremely reassuring to our friends on the eastern flank.

MARTIN: You know, obviously, a major story of the Trump administration was his distaste for, disdain for, lack of interest in American involvement in some key international institutions. And do you think that President Biden has repaired that?

SMITH: I think a lot of allies heard President Biden talk about revitalizing alliances on the campaign trail, and I think now, a year and a half into his administration, they understand full well that he was quite serious when he said that. And he and his team - and I'm happy to be a small part of it - are doing everything that they can to deliver on that pledge. I think we are in a much better place at NATO. I think allies are very content with the way in which President Biden has showcased his personal commitment to this alliance, and we feel that each and every day at NATO headquarters.

MARTIN: And what do you think the biggest challenge to NATO is going forward? Because, you know, enlarging any institution poses challenges, obviously, in coherence, in administration, organization, priorities. When you look at this alliance, what do you think the biggest challenge is going forward?

SMITH: Unity takes work. And at 30 around the table, we have some fierce debates sometimes, and we do bring different perspectives to the table. Soon, we're going to be 32. It doesn't mean that we can't maintain unity, but we'll continue to have debates and have moments where we will have to work towards consensus. It is hard to get 30 friends to pick a restaurant. And so when you're dealing with questions of national security, it's even harder. But we will keep at it. We have 73 years of experience of working towards consensus, and we know that when Sweden and Finland soon sit at the table with us, they will bring an enormous amount of value to the alliance, and we'll look forward to having those debates with them as well.

MARTIN: Ambassador Julianne Smith, thank you so much for talking with us.

SMITH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.