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Former NATO Secretary General Talks to VOA about the China Challenge, Changing Security Landscape

FILE - Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former NATO secretary-general, speaks during the annual Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Feb. 16, 2019.
FILE - Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former NATO secretary-general, speaks during the annual Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Feb. 16, 2019.

Below is a transcript of VOA’s recent interview, conducted in writing, with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who served as prime minister of Denmark from 2001-09 and NATO secretary-general from 2009-14. Rasmussen founded the Alliance of Democracies Foundation in 2017. One of the foundation’s signature initiatives is the Copenhagen Democracy Summit, which concluded its 4th annual conference earlier this week.

VOA: In your congratulatory message to Mr. Biden on his winning the presidential election, you stated that “we will support him in strengthening the spine of the world’s democracies and reinvigorating democratic alliances.” What, in your view, constitutes the “material” that goes into the “spine” and the making of the/a spine of the world’s democracies?

Rasmussen: The free world has become weaker, more divided and more dependent on autocratic regimes. These “macho men” [leaders of autocratic regimes] have taken advantage of this and sought to sow discord and dissent that has crumbled the spine of the free world from within.

At the same time, our free democratic societies by definition have self-doubt hard wired into them. We are taught to doubt and to mistrust those in power, but that also leaves our free and pluralistic societies vulnerable to spoilers both from within and without.

President Biden and I have worked on these questions for the past few years as he was an early supporter of my foundation, the Alliance of Democracies. The aim is to make the free world more united again under a banner of U.S. global leadership, and to create a mutually reinforcing democratic alliance that can counter the autocracies.

Bad actors increasingly taking advantage of our freedoms

VOA: Is the “West” or, put more accurately, democratic governments and societies, paying enough attention to political warfare? What, in your view, defines “political warfare?” How can the West/democratic societies do a better job on this front? Is trade, economics, foreign and domestic investment also part and parcel of this “political warfare” that Russia and China have both shown expertise at?

Rasmussen: The lines have undoubtedly been blurred between what constitutes a security threat. In my view, we are seeing an increasing trend of our own freedoms weaponized [by our adversaries]. Our open economies have made us susceptible to massive Chinese strategic investment that has then been leveraged to serve China’s campaign of economic coercion. Social media platforms that have facilitated democratic discourse have been turned into tools to spread disinformation by Russian bots. And our dependency on energy and rare earth minerals from non-democratic regimes has created strategic vulnerabilities.

The question is how we can defend against these security challenges without surrendering the freedoms we hold dear.

America’s greatest global comparative advantage

VOA: What made you decide to put yourself on the frontline of fighting for democracy after having served two four-year terms as Prime Minister of Denmark and one five-year term as Secretary General of NATO?

Rasmussen: I left NATO shortly after Russia invaded Crimea and stoked a war in Eastern Ukraine that is still active, the Syria disaster was unfolding, and the autocracies were starting to become even more emboldened. With the election of President Trump, and Brexit, in 2016, I began to fear for the future of the free world and the certainty that our democratic way of life would continue. So, I decided I had to act. I formed a foundation to make the case for the world’s democracies to unite and defend freedom together. United we stand, divided we fall.

Ever since I was a young boy I have looked to America as the “shining city on a hill” and I firmly believe that when America retreats, the bad guys advance. Both as Danish PM and NATO Secretary General, I sought to advance the transatlantic relationship and I continue to believe it is critical to the future of the free world. For America too, its ability to build and lead like-minded alliances is its greatest global comparative advantage. President Biden understands that.

NATO has always been both a military and a political alliance

VOA: Do you see or wish to see NATO reform or transform to be more than a military alliance (understanding of course that a military alliance is inherently political)?

Rasmussen: NATO has always been both a military and a political alliance. The paradox with President Trump was his tweets and threats helped make the alliance militarily much stronger. But he and other leaders in Europe have made NATO politically weaker by calling into question their own commitment to the Alliance and its mutual defense clause, Article 5.

NATO’s greatest strength is its ability to adapt. Today the security landscape does require hard power capabilities, but security is now also a question of soft power capabilities, cyber, energy security, supply chain security, resilience to disinformation campaigns and much more. NATO has to adapt to this, and that process has already begun with work towards a new “Strategic Concept” — NATO’s blueprint — under way now.

VOA: Jonas Parello-Plesner, the executive director of the Alliance of Democracies, wrote an op-ed on the necessity of an economic Article 5, what are your thoughts on this?

Rasmussen: China is using economic coercion as a weapon. Australian wine exporters have been at the sharp end in recent months with China launching an embargo against them based on Australia’s stance on human rights. Taiwan has been at the sharp end of this work, too, [recently] affecting its pineapple farmers. But many other democracies have been threatened with economic consequences by China for standing up for our values. If economic coercion is being weaponized, then the free world must find ways to counter it, otherwise short-term economic interests will lead us to become silent and complicit in these human rights and democratic abuses. That’s what China wants, but we must maintain our own autonomy.

VOA: The Alliance of Democracies was put on Beijing’s recent sanctions list. Does this reflect Beijing’s particular concern toward NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) and individuals who are actively promoting democracy? Has being put on the sanctioned list affected you and your organization’s work one way or another?

Rasmussen: In effect, China sanctioned the 27 governments of the EU, through their EU ambassadors, as well as a large number of MEPs and even a European Parliament committee that promotes human rights. I want us to have good relations with China as we must cooperate on global challenges like climate change. But the need to work together cannot lead to our silence when they trample democracy in Hong Kong, threaten democratic Taiwan, spread disinformation in free societies, weaponize our open economies, and commit industrial scale human rights abuses. Our work in the foundation will continue regardless.