Trump called the organisation ‘obsolete’ but Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg says the alliance is stronger than ever and ready to deal with cyber threats, bullying nations and the shifting global balance of power.
On the face of it, one would assume that the past few years have been tough for Jens Stoltenberg. As secretary-general of Nato, Stoltenberg has overseen the alliance, which now has 30 member states, since 2014. But over the past several years that alliance hasn’t seemed all that, well, allied. There was Donald Trump’s public and prolific denigrating of Nato (days before his inauguration, Trump called the alliance “obsolete”). That, in turn, had European members rattled (both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron publicly commented that they felt they could no longer rely on the US). Then there’s the ongoing dispute between Nato members Turkey and Greece over Mediterranean waters and energy rights.
Balancing all of that, alongside dealing with concerns such as Russian aggression in the Baltic, China’s growing military and economic might, ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, global terrorism and, of course, the pandemic, would be enough to tax anyone. But Stoltenberg, who before taking on the role with Nato served as prime minister of Norway, is nothing if not optimistic. On a recent Friday morning, behind his desk in Nato’s HQ in Brussels, he spoke to monocle about why the alliance is stronger than ever, how priorities are shifting and what the Biden presidency will mean for the organisation.
How is Nato planning to evolve in the coming years?
We are entering a new chapter for the alliance [when it comes to] the bond between North America and Europe. We have a new US administration. Then we have a project called Nato 2030, which is about how to ensure that we continue to change as the world changes. I will put forward my proposals for the heads of state and government when they meet later this year. It will be an ambitious agenda. And it will be an agenda about how to make sure that Nato is able to respond to many different threats at the same time. We see cyber-attacks, we see pandemics and epidemics, we see climate change. And then, of course, we have terrorism, Russia and, not least, we see the rise of China changing the balance of global power. So all of this together is reshaping our world and Nato has to deal with this new world.
We’ve seen, particularly under the previous US administration, that trust between some member states has faltered. Has this weakened the alliance?
There’s no way to deny that the past few years have been difficult at times. And that we have seen some differences between allies. At the same time, what is impressive is that despite these differences, actually, Nato has flourished. And Nato has been able to implement the biggest reinforcement – or collective defence – in an entire generation. We are seeing more co-operation with North America and Europe now than we have done for 40 years. But we cannot be complacent; we have to continue to change.
Then there is the new US administration with president Biden, who is a strong supporter of Nato and has declared that one of his main projects will be to rebuild alliances. I look forward to continue to work with him.
You mentioned increased co-operation between North America and Europe – what specifically are you referring to in this context?
First of all, we see more of a US presence in Europe. The country is leading one of the battle groups Nato has in Poland. For the first time in many years, we had a US aircraft carrier [the USS Harry S Truman] exercising in the Norwegian Sea as part of Trident Juncture. Beyond Europe, for instance, we are now expanding our training mission in Iraq. We fight global terrorism together: the Nato allies and the US have been the main contributors to the global coalition to liberate the territories in Iraq and Syria that were under partial Isis control. Let me also mention the pandemic – it’s not a military issue but the military has played a key role in providing support to the civilian efforts coping with the pandemic. We have used Nato capabilities to provide support to the civilian health services.
“The fact is that we now see a fundamental change in the global balance of power. The rise of China makes Nato even more important”
In recent years we’ve seen allies pledge to increase their spending on defence to meet Nato targets. Is this increase still realistic, considering the pandemic and the subsequent economic crunch that so many countries are facing now?
Yes, because not only has the US stepped up but also European allies are now investing more in defence. And since we made the pledge to increase defence spending at our summit in 2014, that’s what they have actually done. I have been a politician for many years and I know that this is very difficult; it’s difficult because you need to prioritise. Almost all of our allies reduced defence spending after the end of the cold war, because tensions went down. But if you cut defence spending when tensions are going down, you also need to be able to increase that defence spending when tensions are going back up – as they are now.
You mentioned the year 2014. Donald Trump has famously taken credit for the increased funds pledged by European nations and Canada.
This has been a consistent message from the US over a period of many years. I’ve seen speeches by John F Kennedy calling for more burden sharing in this alliance. This was also a clear message from President Obama and vice-president Biden in 2014. The good news is that European allies agree – and they are investing more.
You’ve mentioned China as an increasing concern. What does this mean for Nato?
Well, the rise of China has provided huge opportunities for our economies and for trade, and it has helped to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. At the same time, its rise also presents some serious challenges. China is investing heavily in new modern capabilities, which include nuclear weapons. It is threatening Taiwan; it is trying to take control over more of the South China Sea and it has been bullying its neighbours. And it is also violating basic human rights. China explicitly says that it doesn’t share our liberal values. The fact is that we are now seeing a fundamental change in the global balance of power. The rise of China makes Nato even more important. Because none of us can deal with that alone – not even the US.
Nato members are in theory bound by their shared liberal democratic values. But what happens when a member state unequivocally deviates from these values?
Of course, sometimes questions are asked: to what extent we are able to live up to those democratic values ourselves? We saw, for instance, the attack on the US Congress on Capitol Hill in January – that was a serious assault on the heart of US democracy. It was great to see that democracy prevailed.
But I strongly believe in Nato as a platform for allies to sit down, address their concerns and discuss the way forward on how to further strengthen these values. We are also working now on revising or updating our Strategic Concept [the official document that outlines Nato’s purpose and fundamental security tasks] – and I absolutely think that part of it should be about looking into how we can continue to recommit to our values.