Strategic solidarity after Madrid, a conversation with Jens Stoltenberg

Strategic solidarity after Madrid, a conversation with Jens Stoltenberg


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Strategic solidarity after Madrid, a conversation with Jens Stoltenberg

Since 24 February 2022, war is back on the European continent. Members of the Atlantic alliance have increasingly supported Kiyv since the beginning of the war, now sending heavy weapons. At the same time, they have been careful not to get dragged into a direct conflict with Russia. This poses two questions: First, how much does the risk of a greater conflict with Russia weigh on the support that NATO is prepared to give to Ukraine? And second, for how long can NATO’s balancing act last in this regard?

NATO has two fundamental tasks when it comes to Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine. One is to bring support to Ukraine, and the second is to prevent an escalation of the conflict beyond Ukraine. We fulfill those two objectives partly by providing an unprecedented level of support to Kiyv. Concretely, NATO allies provide more and more advanced weapon systems as well as heavy and modern equipment, including air defense systems, long-range precision artillery, rocket launchers, drones and other weapons, which are making a difference on the battlefield every day. We also coordinate our efforts through the US-led contact group for Ukraine, called the ‘Ramstein group’, that was established early this spring. 

At the same time, we also made it clear that, although we support Ukraine, including via military, financial, humanitarian support and the economic sanctions against Russia, we are not part of the war and NATO is not present on the ground. I spoke with president Zelensky when he asked for instance for a no-fly zone – and I understand that Ukraine asks for that. But I still believe that it was the right decision for us not to be directly involved because that would have led to a full-fledged conflict between NATO and Russia. We do not want that because it would lead to even more suffering, more damage and more destruction.

However, the second thing that we do to prevent such a situation from occurring, beyond not being directly involved, is of course to significantly increase our military presence in the eastern part of the alliance. We now have more than 40 000 troops directly under NATO command, most of them in the east (France is part of this effort, with its increased presence in Romania) and these forces are backed by strong naval and air assets.

How long can this last? We have made it clear at the Madrid summit that we will provide support for as long as it takes. Wars are unpredictable. No one can foresee exactly how long this one will last but we are prepared to stay the course, ready ourselves for the long haul and provide support to Ukraine for a long time. That was the message delivered by leaders at the NATO summit in Madrid.

In Madrid, precisely, NATO adopted its new Strategic Concept to which Spain’s Foreign Affairs Minister Albares referred to in le Grand Continent. The document argues that its ‘key purpose and greatest responsibility is to ensure our collective defence’ but also that the Atlantic alliance ‘will continue to fulfil three core tasks: deterrence and defence; crisis prevention and management; and cooperative security.’ Is there now a complete consensus that collective defence is the key priority for NATO? And, if so, what will that mean on the ground, both at the conventional and nuclear levels?

Collective defence is one of NATO’s three core tasks, as reflected in the Strategic Concept which you just mentioned. At the same time, of course, NATO’s main responsibility is to protect and defend all allies against any threat. This task remains the same since the alliance was founded in 1949. But the security environment and the way in which we deliver and conduct our responsibility depends on the type of threats we face. For forty years, our main focus was to deter the Soviet Union from attacking any NATO allied country. After the end of the Cold War, people asked whether we still needed the Atlantic alliance and the saying was that NATO had to either go ‘out of business’ or ‘out-of-area’ – and we clearly went out-of-area. NATO played a very important role to help end two brutal ethnic wars in the Balkans, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Then, after 9/11 and the terrorist attacks against the United States, NATO has been on the frontline of the fight against terrorism. After 2014, we have again focused more on collective defence and the threat coming from Russia.

So my answer is that our core task, the main responsibility of protecting allies, has remained unchanged since the founding of the alliance. But the kind of environment in which we conduct our task varies, and NATO is the most successful alliance in history because we have been able to adapt as the world has been changing. In 2014, the world changed with the illegal annexation of Crimea and Russia’s support for the separatists in Donbass. Since then, NATO has implemented the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War, with higher readiness forces, battlegroups in the eastern part of the alliance, increased defence spending, reversing years of budgetary cuts, and also the establishment of new military domains such as cyber and space.

Thus, the war in Ukraine did not start on 24 February 2022, it started in 2014. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, however, made a difficult security environment even more dangerous and challenging. We are now in the midst of the most serious security crisis since the Second World War, with a full-fledged war taking place at a scale unseen since then.

Therefore, it is even more important that we continue to invest in conventional capabilities, as we have already done. It is in fact remarkable that, after years of reducing defence spendings, all allies have now increased their defence expenditures and added 350 billion extra euros since we made this pledge at the Wales summit in 2014. We thus see a lot of new and modern capabilities being fielded by allies, including fifth generation aircraft, unmanned systems and other advanced equipment, as a direct outcome of NATO’s adaptation. 

What we also did at the Madrid summit, as reflected in the Strategic Concept, is to invest more to keep our technological edge. We have established a new NATO Innovation Fund and a Defence Innovator Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA), with offices and sites across the alliance, to strengthen the way we work together as allies, but also with public and private actors.

And of course, we have to continue to ensure that our nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure and effective. France is playing a key role in this regard. It has key, high-end capabilities, it is very close to meeting the 2 percent target on defence spending and it is a nuclear power.

You just mentioned NATO’s new projects regarding emerging military technologies. The European Union has also developed over recent years a number of initiatives in the field of defence industry. How can the Atlantic alliance make sure that its own projects do not duplicate those of the EU, which, for its part, has always recognised that NATO remains the cornerstone of the collective defence of its members? In other words, how to make sure that complementarity between NATO and the EU goes both ways?

The main way of doing that is to work closer together and to also include non-EU allies as much as possible in the EU efforts on defence. I welcome these efforts because I believe they can help provide new capabilities which are strongly needed. I also believe for instance that the European Defence Fund (EDF) and PESCO (permanent structured cooperation) are instruments that can help overcome the fragmentation of the European defence industry. Of course, any meaningful EU efforts on defense will require more spending. But if there is one organization that has asked for more defense spending by European allies over recent years, it is NATO. So we naturally welcome that European allies are now increasing their investments.

The EU and NATO have so much in common. We share the same neighborhood, we share most of the same challenges and we increasingly share the same members: with the accession of Finland and Sweden, ninety-six percent of the EU population will live in a NATO country. So there are many ways that you can strengthen EU efforts on defence and at the same time NATO.

However, it is also important to realize that, although we have much in common, we are two different organizations. We have seen that throughout the Ukraine crisis, as NATO and the EU have been working closely together. For the first time ever, myself, as NATO Secretary General, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, we went together to Lithuania and Latvia at the beginning of the crisis, sending a very clear message.

But what we need to prevent is for EU efforts to overlap with existing NATO structures. For instance, we have a NATO command structure that is also vital for the defense of Europe. Any duplication of that command structure would undermine the strength of us all. We have the NATO Response Force (NRF), which is a higher readiness force, and every time Europe asks for that help, we step up. We have seen that in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo but also in Libya. You have to remember that Libya was not a NATO operation. In the beginning, that was a European initiative. And I remember that when this initiative was launched at the Élysée Palace (I was there as Norway’s Prime Minister), NATO was not at the table. After some time, European allies came to NATO and asked for help – and, of course, the alliance responded. Also, NATO’s Defense Planning Process is a well-established process which has served European allies well for many years to define their defence capabilities. This should not be duplicated either because we risk ending up with contradicting demands made to the same capitals.

What I have just said also applies, of course, to the nuclear domain. We have a well-established European nuclear deterrent, which is the NATO nuclear deterrent, with forces in Europe, doctrine, command and control, exercises and European allies working together and providing different capabilities in this regard.

What is also important to underline when it comes to EU-NATO complementarity is that NATO includes in total around 1 billion people, from both North America and Europe, and that there are roughly 150 million Europeans who do not live in an EU country but in a NATO country. And non-EU allies are important for the defence of Europe: eighty percent of NATO’s defense expenditures comes from them. Geography also matters, with Norway in the north, Turkey in the south, and the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom in the west. And with the current crisis, we have seen the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom playing a pivotal role both in the increased presence in the eastern part of the alliance and in the support provided to Ukraine. But most of all, it is about politics: any attempt to weaken the transatlantic bond would not only weaken NATO, it would also divide Europe. 

To follow up on the case of Finland and Sweden which you have mentioned: an agreement was found with Turkey during the Madrid summit over the accession of the two former countries to NATO. Yet, Turkish authorities have since then kept threatening to veto Helsinki and Stockholm’s accession, insisting in particular on the need to comply with their extradition demands. Isn’t there a problem with Ankara using its veto power under the NATO umbrella in this way, putting democratic values and the rule of law at risk in Finland and Sweden?

When there are differences within NATO, then we have to sit down and find common ground. That is what we did in this case and it is of course not the first time that one ally has problems with a specific decision. It is in the nature of an organization based on consensus that, every once in a while, we need to spend some time addressing specific concerns. It is my responsibility and NATO’s strength that we are able to address them. This is what we did with the Turkish concerns. 

We have to remember that no other NATO ally has suffered more terrorist attacks than Türkiye. The trilateral memorandum of understanding agreed by Finland, Sweden and Türkiye is not a NATO document but one which we helped facilitate. It was the result of hard work over many weeks that made this possible and I thank the three countries for their constructive approach. The main message in the document is that they will work closer together to fight terrorism. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) is proscribed by the European Union and NATO allies as a terrorist organization. At the same time, all decisions on extradition or expulsion of individuals from Finland and Sweden will be taken according to Finnish and Swedish law, by the legal institutions in these countries.

The new Strategic Concept mentioned China for the first time. Another first at Madrid was that partners from the Indo-Pacific region – namely Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea – participated in a NATO summit. Does this mean that NATO now considers that there is a summa divisio of the global geopolitical landscape between the United States and its allies on one side and a Russia-China axis on the other? And, if so, is this division the product of a return to great power competition or of an ideological struggle between authoritarian and democratic regimes?

I think we see both. We see more great power competition but also that authoritarian powers like China and Russia are challenging our values more openly and aggressively than before. We also see that China and Russia are working more closely together. They exercise together militarily, they increase their collaboration in the diplomatic field. We have seen that in particular in connection with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, insofar as China has not been willing to condemn the invasion. In fact, the Chinese authorities do not refer to it as a war and use the term ‘special military operation’, thus imitating Russia’s rhetoric. They are also spreading the same false narrative as Russia about the causes of this war. We also saw that in the lead-up to the war President Xi and President Putin made a joint statement in early February in which China challenged NATO for the first time. They actually challenged this core principle of every nation’s right to choose their own path.

At the same time, China and Russia are of course two different nations. That is reflected in the Strategic Concept, in which we refer to China as ‘a challenge to our interests, security and values’, while we refer to Russia as ‘the most urgent and imminent threat to our security’. So the two countries are not the same but they are working more and more closely together and they do not share our values. They are two authoritarian powers that do not believe in democracy nor in the rule of law. We have seen that for instance in Hong Kong or in the way they treat minorities in China, just like we see it in the way President Putin is cracking down on the different democratic forces in Russia.

In this global geopolitical landscape, NATO’s unity remains a key issue. Yet, the ideological divide between democracy and autocracy also runs through the organization, if we look for example at Turkey, but also Hungary or Poland. In addition, there are disputes between members threatening the cohesion of the Atlantic alliance, with renewed tensions for instance between Greece and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. Is NATO actually as united as it seemed during the Madrid Summit, both in terms of values and interests?

NATO is based on some core principles such as the rule of law, individual liberties and freedom. These values are extremely important – I attach great importance to them myself. At the same time, you are right that we see, both in the European Union and in NATO, that some countries raise concerns about the extent to which they fully adhere to these values. It is not for me to speak for the European Union but I can say that I believe that NATO is an important platform for countries to raise these concerns and to address exactly these issues. Over the years during which I have been Secretary General of NATO, I have raised such concerns in different capitals. I think that it is better if we discuss those issues openly and frankly within the organization because it is the best way to ensure that these values – democracy, freedom – are respected to the highest degree possible.

What we saw in Madrid was an alliance of thirty allies. When you have so many countries from both sides of the Atlantic, with different cultures, different history, different political parties in government, there will obviously be important differences among them. So if one defines unity as something that is monolithic, where everyone agrees on every issue at all times, then of course that is not how I see it. We are different, there will be disagreements between allies, as it has been throughout NATO’s history. We could go back to the Suez crisis in 1956 or when France decided to leave military cooperation in NATO in 1967, or the Iraq war and many other issues. There have been differences in the past and there will be differences in the future.

The unity of NATO is demonstrated however through the fact that despite these differences we unite around our core task to protect and defend each other. We have done that successfully for more than seventy years, by preventing any armed attack against any NATO ally since our foundation in 1949 and by helping to secure peace throughout Europe and the North Atlantic area. War used to be the normality in this area, but now we have seen an unprecedented period of peace. This is because of the role played by many different institutions – the EU in particular has played a key role, as well as NATO. It is also important not to forget that NATO’s enlargement has helped to pave the way for EU enlargement. So I strongly believe that in uncertain times, it is even more important to have strong international institutions.

At the Madrid summit, NATO has also announced that it will start addressing the issue of climate change. How big a challenge does this issue represent for the alliance, in particular with regard to the geopolitics of energy? On the one hand, there is the absolute necessity of reducing dependencies on fossil fuels, notably from Russia, for both environmental and security reasons. But on the other hand, green energies create new dependencies, particularly vis-à-vis China, regarding critical materials and production chains. Has NATO sufficiently integrated this dual problem in its strategic vision?

Climate change is a defining challenge of our time and NATO is committed to playing our part in mitigating the impact on our security.  For NATO, this means three things: increasing our understanding, adapting the way we work and operate, and reducing our own emissions.  NATO has conducted its first-ever assessment of how climate change affects our security, our military assets, installations and activities, as well as our resilience and civilian preparedness. We have identified the initial steps in our adaptation and we now take account of climate change when planning our missions and when developing new capabilities. Allies have also agreed a new methodology to map military greenhouse gas emissions and concrete targets to cut NATO’s emissions, moving towards net zero by 2050. 

The war in Ukraine shows the danger of being too dependent on commodities from authoritarian regimes. Throughout Russia’s war, we have seen how Moscow has manipulated energy supplies, using them as an instrument of blackmail. This has shown the importance of developing alternative sources for energy supplies to Europe. At the same time, we must not swap one dependency for another. Lots of new technologies and the rare earth minerals they require come from China. We must diversify our energy sources and our suppliers. In NATO’s new Strategic Concept, allies agreed to enhance our energy security and invest in stable and reliable energy supply, providers, and sources.   

You have been NATO Secretary General since 2014. Over the past eight years, you have seen NATO respond and adapt to geopolitical upheavals, notably the first and second war in Ukraine. You also had to keep the Atlantic alliance together, particularly during the turbulent Trump years – and some may say that such turbulent years could come back as soon as 2024 with the next presidential elections in the United States. Has there been a set of principles, a doctrine that has helped you navigate these challenging times?

First of all, the importance of standing together – the importance of realizing that as long as North America and Europe stand together within NATO, we are safe. Together, we represent fifty percent of the world’s economic might and fifty percent of the world’s military might. We also have the ingenuity and the technology which make it possible for us to be strong together. I do not believe in the United States alone, just like I do not believe in Europe alone. I believe in North America and Europe together, in strategic solidarity – that same solidarity that has kept us safe for decades and will keep us safe for decades to come, despite our obvious differences.

No one can predict of course who will be elected president of the United States or of any European country in the future. But what I can say is that if you are concerned about any political leader who is not, let’s say, enthusiastically in favor of the transatlantic bond, then it is important to strengthen the institutions we have. During the Trump years, we saw the strength of NATO as an institution, thanks to its organization, its command structure, all the people working in the building where we sit today and everything we do together. All that makes us an all-weather organization that cannot be dissolved by one individual or one election. So, yes, in democracies we can never guarantee who will be elected. But what I can guarantee is that the likelihood of NATO continuing regardless of individual political leaders will be much higher if we ensure the strength of the transatlantic bond, institutionalized through NATO. Therefore, and again, I am a believer in strong international institutions in unpredictable and uncertain times.

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Sébastien Lumet, Elie Perot, Strategic solidarity after Madrid, a conversation with Jens Stoltenberg, Jul 2022,

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