WASHINGTON (Reuters) - European countries must shoulder more of the political and economic responsiblity for NATO's common defense to ensure the continued relevance of the alliance in coming years, Norwegian Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide said on Thursday.
Soreide, who met with an number of U.S. lawmakers this week and is due to meet with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday, said the United States could not be expected to continue paying for over 70 percent of NATO's defense needs.
"European allies need to step up to the plate, take a bigger part of the political and economic burdens," Soreide told Reuters in an interview after a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
"We need to do our part. We need to be more than a net importer of security. We need to export security," she said.
In her speech, Soreide said her meetings with U.S. lawmakers revealed that both Democrats and Republicans in Congress were increasingly questioning the value of continued U.S. investments and engagement in Europe.
Soreide said European fears of being abandoned by Washington had been fanned by U.S. plans to focus more on the Asian-Pacific region, but those concerns were likely overblown.
Still, some changes were clearly needed, she said, calling for greater investment in Europe's own security, increased planning for future crises, and development of high-end capabilities that could be easily deployed if needed.
"Norway believes that global stability depends on the ability of Europe and the U.S. to work together, and that this will become even more important in the future," Soreide told the think tank, citing threats from terrorists, emerging state powers and the re-emergence of old powers such as Russia.
She called for increased NATO exercises and training, greater engagement in areas outside allied terrorities, and said European allies should be more willing to address U.S. security concerns outside Europe.
The participation of Norway and Denmark in efforts to destroy Syrian chemical weapons was a good example of "trans-Atlantic burden-sharing in practice," Soreide said.
"I don't think that the alliance will be irrelevant any time soon," Soreide told Reuters. "It could be a feature that haunts us over time if we're not willing to do something about the burden-sharing issue. The risk is that the U.S. will continue to invest in security outside the alliance and that would be harmful ... over time."
Soreide also criticized NATO's "smart defense" plan and said it was a slogan aimed at dressing up military spending reductions. "If you do that in an uncoordinated manner, the risk is that you end up losing vital capabilities that are crucial to the alliance and to alliance security," she said.
Soreide expressed particular concern about gaps in intelligence capabilities such as maritime patrol aircraft, as well as the lack of a coherent missile defense plan, she said.
She also voiced concerns about Russia's military modernization and its increased military activity in the Arctic, as well as human rights abuses inside the country.
Changing climate conditions in the Arctic could also give rise to other threats, such as disputes over oil and other natural resources, as well as acts of terrorism, she said.
A strong NATO was also important given other worrying trends in Europe, including rising nationalism, increasing social unrest and massive youth unemployment, she said, adding, "In a sea of instabilty, there is no better anchor than NATO."