Biden surprises NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg with the Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Joe Biden awarded the United States’ highest civilian honor to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in remarks marking the alliance’s 75th anniversary Tuesday evening, gifting the Norwegian diplomat with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a surprise ceremony kicking off this week’s NATO summit.

“So much of the progress we made in the alliance is thanks to the secretary – he’s a man of integrity and intellectual rigor, calm temperament in a moment of crisis, a consummate diplomat who works with leaders across the political spectrum and always finds a way to keep his moving forward,” Biden said.

Last year, Biden asked Stoltenberg to extend his tenure as NATO secretary general an additional year, citing Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. The former Norwegian prime minister has served in the role since 2014. Former Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was formally selected as the next NATO secretary general in late June and will begin the job on October 1.

“I realized – I was talking to your wife, I personally asked you to extend your service, forgive me, that you put your own plans on hold. When the Russian war in Ukraine began, you didn’t hesitate,” Biden told Stoltenberg Tuesday. “Today, NATO is stronger, smarter, more energized than when you began. A billion people across Europe and North America – indeed the whole world – will reap the rewards of your labor for years to come.”

Biden, himself a recipient of the medal when he was vice president to Barack Obama, most recently awarded the Medal of Freedom to 19 Americans spanning decades of accomplishments in athletics, politics and civil rights.

Biden honored Stoltenberg with the medal at the conclusion of his closely watched speech to open the summit, during which the president announced that NATO would be donating new air defense systems to Ukraine.

During his own remarks earlier in the event, Stoltenberg urged members of the alliance to continue their support for Ukraine.

“Our alliance was created by people who had lived through two devastating world wars,” Stoltenberg said, “They knew only too well the horror, the suffering, and the terrible human cost of war.”

“Russia’s war against Ukraine is the biggest security crisis in generations,” he said, “Ukraine has showed remarkable courage and NATO allies have provided unprecedented support.”

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

Biden’s decision to award the honor was not part of the announced program, though the president did appear to accidentally read stage instructions from his prepared remarks.

“Ask the military,” Biden said, before correcting himself. “Military come forward – I’ll ask you to read the citation.”

Biden is expected to give a solo news conference as part of the NATO summit on Thursday.

This story has been updated with additional details.

CNN’s Mitchell McCluskey contributed to this report.

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