Biden presents NATO chief with Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Biden on Tuesday opened the 75th anniversary summit of NATO by acknowledging the decade-long leadership of the outgoing secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the U.S.

In a moment that appeared to take the secretary-general by surprise, Biden invited Stoltenberg up on stage of the Mellon Auditorium during his remarks at the ceremony kicking off the three-day summit, which is celebrating the alliance’s milestone but is focused on supporting Ukraine in its defensive war against Russia.

“The secretary has guided the alliance through one of its most consequential periods in its history. I realized, talking to your wife, I personally asked you to extend your service, forgive me,” Biden said and gained a laugh from the audience.

“You put your own plans on hold when the Russian war in Ukraine began, you didn’t hesitate. Today NATO is stronger, smarter and more energized than when you began. And a billion people across Europe and North America, indeed the whole world, will reap the rewards of your labor for years to come, in the form of security, opportunity and greater freedom,” Biden said.

“For these reasons, I’m pleased to award you the highest civilian honor the United States can bestow, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway, will be succeeded this year as secretary-general by Mark Rutte, former prime minister of the Netherlands.

Stoltenberg stepped into the NATO leadership role in 2014, when Russia launched its first invasion of eastern Ukraine and took over the Crimean Peninsula, taking the alliance by surprise.

That event led to the NATO pledge for each member state to commit to spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on domestic defense spending, a goal that Stoltenberg announced will be reached by 23 of NATO’s 32 member states in 2024.

The secretary-general is credited with leading the alliance amid political attacks throughout the years — from French President Emmanuel Macron’s assertion that the alliance is “brain-dead” in 2019 and former President Trump holding back a commitment to NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense pillar.

The alliance’s mission of operating by consensus has, at times, been hijacked by Turkey and Hungary, who most recently delayed the accession of Finland and Sweden over political demands.

In remarks at the opening ceremony, Stoltenberg laid out the stakes for the alliance for the summit, which is focused on scaling up support for Ukraine to survive Russia’s war of aggression. The alliance is expected to announce a significant package of military and financial assistance and new commitments to bring Ukraine closer to joining NATO, but has held back a formal invitation over concerns of provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Let’s be honest, not even our support for Ukraine has been a given, it is not straightforward because our support comes with costs and risks,” Stoltenberg said.

“The reality is that there are no cost-free options with an aggressive Russia as a neighbor, no risk-free options in a war. And remember the biggest cost and the greatest risk will be if Russia wins in Ukraine. We cannot let that happen.”

“Our alliance is not perfect, and we’ll continue to face difficult decisions in the future,” he continued.

“I don’t know what the next crisis will be but I do know that we are at our best when we take difficult decisions with political courage and moral clarity, and I know that we are stronger and safer together in NATO. It is good to have friends.”

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