VOA Serbian Service’s Jela de Franceschi spoke with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg about the shifting global alliances in the current political environment.
Q. Both sides of the Atlantic are undergoing political upheaval, unprecedented in a sense. We have impeachment proceedings in the U.S., the fourth time in American history, and we have Brexit in Europe, which has been a prolonged process. Does that affect larger security issues at all?
Stoltenberg: I think what we have seen is that despite issues like these over decades on both sides of the Atlantic that NATO has proven that while we come to different opinions about Brexit and different opinions about the issues in the (impeachment) hearings in the Congress, we will continue to be a strong and adaptable alliance. That has happened so many times before. These important issues will not undermine NATO.
Q. They don’t affect NATO?
Stoltenberg: As I have stated many times, it is about how to manage differences and small and big crisis — from the Suez Crisis in 1956, to the French withdrawal from the NATO military cooperation in 1966, when actually France, one of the major allies, left the military cooperation with NATO. It was also an issue when Turkey went into Cyprus in 1974, or when we had the Iraq war, some allies were in favor, some were against it.
So, these are serious issues where we have seen differences between allies, but again and again we have been able to unite around our core task to protect and defend each other based on the idea ‘one for all, all for one.’ And the reason why we do that is because this in our own national security interest; we are safer and stronger when we are together.
That is the reason why we are able to overcome these differences. I am not saying that the differences are without importance. We see them today on trade and climate change, and the situation in northeast Syria. However, again I, if we look back, I think what we can learn from history that it is possible to overcome these differences if we have the political will. Moreover, I feel that the political will is there to maintain a strong bond between North America and Europe.
Q. There is also a huge global shift that is taking place. NATO started as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, which disappeared. It had a relatively peaceful period after the Berlin Wall fell. Now we have rising powers. We have Russia, which maybe is not a power in the economic sense, but military it is. Then we have China that has declared that it wants to overcome America by 2025. From NATO’s perspective, how would you signify this?
Stoltenberg: NATO is the most successful alliance in history for two reasons: partly because of a unity, that we have been able to unite around our own core task despite differences on many other issues. The other reason why we are the most successful ones in history is that we have been able to adapt to change when the world is changing for 40 years, we did only one thing. We deterred the Soviet Union in Europe.
Then the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended, and people started to ask do we need NATO? And they said either NATO has to go out of area, meaning to go into operations outside the NATO area, which was never done before.
So out of area, or out of business.
And what NATO did, we actually went beyond NATO territory. We went into the Balkans. We helped to end the bloodshed there.
We also did something we have never done before. We became part of the fight against international terrorism. After 9/11 we went into Afghanistan. And since then we have been participating in different missions.
Now NATO has to adapt again, partly because we see a more assertive Russia, illegally annexing Crimea, but also because we see new threats, new challenges — cyber-hybrid, but also the rise of China. We need to understand all kinds of implications of the shifting global balance of power has for our security. There are some opportunities but also some obvious challenges. China has the second largest defense budget in the world. They are modernizing their armed forces.
The recent display of many new hypersonic advanced missiles intercontinental missiles. In addition, of course we need to fully understand the consequences. So, what we are doing is this, that we once again are proving that we are adaptable, that we are able to change the way the world is changing.
Q. One thing that China also is doing is it has a combination of military and economic power. And it has also, it has a strong presence in Europe. At a recent hearing in Congress, some experts were saying that China is building infrastructure in some countries that are defaulting on the financial, enabling China to take over the various infrastructure projects to the point that it could threaten NATO. Let’s say if they have access to European ports, they could block movement of NATO’s ships in various circumstance. Are you worried about that?
Stoltenberg: Our military operations and forces depend on civilian infrastructure, on roads, bridges, harbors, airports, cables crossing the Atlantic and telecommunications networks and so on. That is the reason why we also developed what we call resilience guidelines. And we recently updated one of them the way we call them basic requirements actually for a civilian infrastructure.
Recently we updated our basic requirements for the telecommunications to include 5G, which is one of the areas where we really are seeing big changes and where societies will be completely transformed by the move from 4G to 5G.
And that’s a way for us to make sure that we have functioning safe and secure critical infrastructure in peace, in crisis, and of course also in conflict.
Q. Is that something that NATO can influence while accepting new members like Macedonia, like Serbia in the future.
Stoltenberg: Well other countries that join NATO they have to meet their two standards. They have to have of course a safe and secure way of communications. For instance, there are requirements for civilian infrastructure and telecommunications as 5G, they also apply for new members like North Macedonia.
They do not apply for nonmembers. We cannot force nonmembers. We can ask them and again, we can advise them and zone. It is for Serbia to decide what kind of telecommunications they have and how they organize their civilian infrastructure. We welcome the fact that Serbia is a close partner. We work with Serbia. We recently had the will of our civilian preparedness exercises in Serbia. And I visited Belgrade. Met with the Serbian president. And we actually inaugurated the start of that exercise, which shows that we are working together. Serbia is a neutral country. Serbia is not aiming or striving for NATO membership. It is up to Serbia to decide.
Q. Why is it important for NATO to have open doors and take in countries, small countries, which are militarily- and security-wise not that strong and cannot contribute in a substantial manner.
Stoltenberg: Because when our neighbors are more stable, we are more secure. And, of course, when neighbors join NATO then we become even more stable and even more secure. One of the great successes of NATO is that we started with 12 countries. We had a significant increase at the end of the Cold War with 16 members of NATO. Now we are soon to be 30, almost twice as many.
Those were former countries in Eastern and Central Europe joining NATO and many of them also joining the European Union. That means that hundreds of millions of people were invited into the community of NATO. And that has helped create democracy that underpins the prosperity and peace. We see a Europe, which is more united, more at peace than Europe has probably ever been.
The normal situation in Europe was conflict, war between European countries for centuries and then another Cold War dividing totally Europe. There are problems. We have Ukraine, we have Georgia. We have all other challenges where we see instability and Russia crushing sovereignty.
But overall, what you have seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago is an enormous achievement for everyone who believes in peace, democracy, freedom because we have a much more united and much more peaceful Europe. And that’s where much because of a need to want enlargement.
Q. What is the biggest challenge that you think NATO faced during these 70 years of existence?
Stoltenberg: The greatest success is of course that NATO made it possible to end the Cold War without a shot being fired in Europe. And by doing that we created the conditions for the fall of the Berlin Wall for the unification of Germany and for the reunification of Europe.
Q. So, the Berlin Wall is the pinnacle?
Stoltenberg: It’s a symbol of the most important achievement that that after 40 years — from 1949 to 1989 — 40 years of existence we were able to prevent war, a confrontation between the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact, and NATO and actually contribute to the opposite, peace and reconciliation between countries in east and west of Europe.
Then there are of course, there are many other challenges. We are now living in a totally new time where we have terrorism. We have a shifting balance of power globally and we have cyber and many other things. But historically then I think that the end of the Cold War and the way it ended is NATO’s greatest achievement.
Q. What is the greatest challenge now?
Stoltenberg: The unpredictability. During the Cold War it was very clear what was the challenge. Now there are so many that are more different threats and challenges. It is hard to predict. It is hard to foresee the unforeseen. However, we have to be prepared for the unforeseen. That is the reason why we need an agile NATO ready to be able to react when a new crisis occurs.