Army Secretary Mark Esper, who will become acting secretary of defense on June 23, speaks to soldiers and family members in Ft. Bragg, N.C., Monday, April 15, 2019.

Army Secretary Mark Esper, who will become acting secretary of defense on June 23, speaks to soldiers and family members in Ft. Bragg, N.C., Monday, April 15, 2019. AP Photo/Chuck Burton

Mission No. 1: Esper Will Attend NATO Meeting Next Week

Avoiding international embarrassment, soon-to-be Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper will attend a regularly scheduled defense ministers meeting.

For his first overseas duty as President Trump’s acting defense secretary, Mark Esper will fill the seat intended for Patrick Shanahan at next week’s NATO defense ministers meeting. He will thus ward off an embarrassing absence for the U.S. but likely not yet another round of questions about Washington’s leadership in the alliance.

NATO defense ministers usually meet three or four times per year at the alliance’s Brussels headquarters in Belgium. The focus is often on the U.S. defense secretary, who hosts sideline bilaterals, convenes counter-ISIS coalition member states, and stands solo for press conferences with the large international press gathering. Shanahan’s abrupt resignation on Tuesday as acting defense secretary and deputy secretary of defense left the American presence in doubt, if briefly.

Esper is scheduled to be sworn in and take over from Shanahan when the Sunday evening clock strikes midnight at the Pentagon. Typically, in the past decade a new defense secretary's first overseas trip has been to visit U.S. troops deployed to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, in Brussels, Esper will join NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Tod Wolters, who made his own first public appearance as NATO chief two weeks ago. (Wolters said NATO’s military-to-military relationship with Turkey “is strong and as thick as it’s been in the last decade.”)

The Trump administration's relationship with NATO had a tumultuous start, with the president calling the alliance “obsolete” in his 2016 campaign and using blistering rhetorical attacks to pressure alliance member states to increase their defense spending to the pledged 2 percent of GDP. While several states had spending increases already in the works, others responded to Trump’s badgering with increases of their own. Yet critics say Trump’s stance comes at too high a cost to public unity, especially for injecting doubt about whether the U.S. would honor the alliance’s Article 5 commitment to defend any member that is attacked by an outsider. Trump officials have insisted they would meet that obligation.

Despite early fears that Trump would kill NATO, the alliance has persisted. German, British, French, Norwegian and other ministers and heads of state have, if with brave faces, held their own ground against Trump’s attacks, while steadfastly standing with the United States in their commitment to collective defense. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has been credited with promoting NATO’s cause (and the need for its very existence) while deftly avoiding having to answer for Trump.

Related: Defense One's complete coverage of NATO
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Next week, Esper will have a lot to answer for. NATO is juggling a long list of ongoing and emerging threats and concerns. Russia remains the most urgent, with fresh military movements into Ukraine, confrontational patrols with NATO member aircraft and vessels, and stepped-up cyber attacks on elections and information systems. Central and Eastern European states more urgently look westward for protection and unity against a resurgence of Russian threats and authoritarian political movements. Meanwhile, the U.S. and NATO continue towards new agreements to send additional troops and resources to Russia’s neighbors, especially Poland. The ISIS campaign continues in practice if not the public eye, and Afghanistan peace talks linger as fighting continues across that country. And all of European security conversations more and more involve China, especially the transatlantic debate over the future of 5G networks.

"The focus of his meetings will be reinforcing the U.S. commitment to strengthening the NATO Alliance, ensuring more equitable burden sharing, bolstering NATO readiness and addressing regional security issues," said Jonathan Hoffman, chief Pentagon spokesman, in a statement. 

Stoltenberg, General Wolters and at least half a dozen other NATO defense ministers gathering next week are scheduled to appear on stage Thursday at the annual Brussels Forum, a conference hosted by the German Marshall Fund that this year is aligned as a sideline event to the ministerial meeting. Esper is not expected to attend.