With a smile and a nod, President Obama kicked off the NATO summit by welcoming over delegates from 62 countries around the world to Chicago, the first U.S. city to hold the event outside of Washington, D.C.
Gathered under the brightly lit pavilion of McCormick Place, leaders and ministers convened to discuss a host of important issues – including the war on Afghanistan, continued cooperation on missile defense in Eastern Europe, as well as partnerships and potential threats that the alliance faces.
In a press conference before the official arrival of delegates, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated that the first day of the summit would focus on “security in an age of austerity,” including missile defense, and reaffirming partnerships that have been strained after more than a decade of coalition war in Afghanistan.
“Keeping NATO strong and capable in the 21st century is a central goal of the summit,” said the Secretary-General, “as today’s security challenges are global and they need global solutions.”
Discussions on the continued transfer of security responsibility to Afghan forces and the draw down of coalition forces from the country in 2014 are expected to be addressed at length on Monday, according to the Secretary-General.
When asked about Afghanistan, Rasmussen said, “Our strategy, goal, and timetable remained unchanged,” adding that NATO will “stay committed to our operation in Afghanistan, and continue to transfer lead responsibilities to the Afghans according to the 2010 plan.”
Rasmussen called for a “renewed culture of cooperation” among NATO member-states, in a time where budget cuts and austerity measures have curbed military spending in Europe while the U.S. shifts its attention to East Asia, in response to growing Chinese influence in the region.
President Obama and Secretary-General Rasmussen greeted heads of state and ministers as they arrived, posing for pictures on a red-carpeted stage adjacent to the massive circular conference table that symbolizes the equal partnership that all NATO countries share.
Before beginning the bilateral talks, an opening moment of silence was observed and a military procession paid tribute to coalition soldiers who have fought and died for almost a decade in Afghanistan. Currently, 135,000 NATO personnel are deployed in coalition operations.
“For over 65 years, our alliance has been the bedrock of our common security, of freedom and of prosperity,” President Obama said. “And though the times may have changed, the fundamental reason for our alliance has not. Our nations are stronger and more prosperous when we stand together.”
Despite the serious nature of the summit, Obama sought to lighten the mood by highlighting Rasmussen’s remarks on Chicago’s “very impressive” skyline, which he observed in greater detail during his run along Lake Michigan. The summit presents a unique chance for Chicago to promote itself to an internationally attentive audience, a point not lost on the president’s offhand remarks.
“Chicago has always been a place where Europeans and North Americans have come together,” Secretary-General Rasmussen said. “And now, we have come together to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between us.”
The first day of the summit culminates in a working dinner of Heads of State and Government at Soldier Field, as well as one for the Ministers of Foreign Affairs at the Adler Planetarium. The Ministers of Defense will also attend a banquet meeting at the Chicago Cultural Center.