Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary general of NATO, told The Chicago Council Monday that the United States must resist any "tendency to retrenchment" from world leadership. If Washington pulls back, he said, other powers "that don't necessarily share our values" will move into the vacuum.
"The question is, will you fight terrorists overseas – or here?" Rasmussen said. A retreat by democracies will only encourage other, and possibly hostile, powers to advance.
"I am concerned by a tendency to retrenchment," Rasmussen said. "For a superpower like the United States, retrenchment is not an option. With its "global reach," America is affected by any crisis, no matter where it occurs.
NATO shares this global role, he said.
"Effective protection may start far from our borders," he said. "This is not a global NATO but a NATO with a global perspective."
Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister, has been NATO secretary general since 2009. He appeared before a lunchtime crowd in conversation with Council President Ivo Daalder, himself just recently arrived from NATO, where he was the American ambassador.
Rasmussen didn't cite any examples of US retrenchment, but said it remains necessary for the US and its European allies "to take on our global responsibilities." He said the departure from Afghanistan of all NATO combat troops by the end of next year, plus the NATO summit in Britain next year, provide opportunities to rethink and refinance this commitment.
Rasmussen said that President Obama's "credible threat" to strike Syria in retaliation for that government's use of chemical weapons led to the diplomatic agreement between Russia and the US to control chemical weapons in Syria. Such diplomatic advances don't work, he said, unless they're backed by hard power and a believable threat to use it.
But gaps in this hard power, especially in Europe, need filling, Rasmussen said. The Afghanistan war has consumed huge resources not only from the US but from Europeans involved there. As this combat presence ends, he said, these resources can be freed for other neglected but crucial security tasks – missile defense, for instance, or cyber-defense, or strengthening NATO relationships with partners outside Europe.
In addition, the transition from Afghanistan presents an opportunity "to re-affirm the transatlantic bond," he said. The Europeans want the US to re-affirm its commitment to European security, he said, and the US wants the Europeans to share more of the defense spending burden with Washington.
America has been urging the Europeans to increase defense spending for decades. Instead, this spending has fallen in most countries. Daalder reflected this history when he asked Rasmussen if the Europeans really will reinvest their Afghan peace dividend in new equipment, especially in view of struggling economies and domestic needs there.
Rasmussen agreed that the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, while a success, revealed shortcomings in European military preparedness. He suggested that any new European spending go to fill three gaps – in surveillance, with more observation drones; in air-to-air refueling; and in heavy transport capacity.
"We have more [European] troops in Europe than the United States does," he said, "but we can't move them."
But this military reaffirmation is only part of strengthening transatlantic relations. "We should aim higher," he said, with more economic cooperation, especially in upcoming trade talks, and more people-to-people contacts.
The Afghanistan transition is "on track," he said. On the military side, Rasmussen said he is confident that the Afghan security forces "will take full responsibility as planned." On the political side, he said, arrangements for elections in April to replace President Hamid Karzai "are in place."
Both transitions will be discussed at the summit in Britain, he said, but "at the end of the day, it's [the Afghanis'] responsibility to provide in an efficient manner basic services to the Afghan people."
In the wake of the fighting in Libya, the unrest in Egypt, and the civil war in Syria, NATO finds itself caught "between disengagement and nation-building," Rasmussen said. Part of NATO's future, he said, lies in helping such "countries in transition" without committing to "boots on the ground."
Already, he said, NATO has been asked to help stabilize the security forces in Libya. He suggested that NATO could offer similar help to other nations as "part of staying prepared for the future, to help countries in transition from dictatorships to democracy."
Asked about NATO's relations with Russia, Rasmussen noted ongoing cooperation to fight narcotics trafficking, terrorism, and piracy. But real cooperation on missile defense "would be a game-changer."
"I sometimes wish I knew what's going on in the Kremlin," he said, noting that, despite Russians fears, "Russia is not threatened from the West."
Rasmussen praised the recent conciliatory statements from Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, but said they must be backed by deeds.
"Words are nice," he said, "but actions are better."