Round table

with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and representatives of the media at the Munich Security Conference

  • 15 Feb. 2020 -
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  • Last updated: 15 Feb. 2020 19:39

Round table with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and media representatives

Question: Do you have any news to tell us? I’m particularly thinking of the NATO, Middle East, you know, rebadging of units in Iraq and so on. Is there more to say on that?

Jens Stoltenberg [NATO Secretary General]: What is to say about that is the decision we made at the Defence Ministerial Meeting. And there we made a decision to enhance our presence in Iraq and start a process looking into what more we can do in the wider Middle East and North Africa.

And we do this in close consultation with the Global Coalition. I met with the Global Coalition yesterday morning. We had a meeting with different ministers representing the Global Coalition.

And of course, we are doing this also in close coordination with the Iraqi government. And we are in Iraq on invitation by the Iraqi government. We will only stay as long as we are welcomed by the Iraqi government. And we will support and help the Iraqi security forces, so they are even better in fighting Daesh. So that’s, in a way the decision, and then we will implement and then follow on step-by-step.

Question: How quickly do you think you will get some sort of a decision about numbers and people rebadging?

Jens Stoltenberg: I think the first steps can be taken quite soon, it’s a question of careful …, a few months or so, quite early. Then of course, some of the other steps may take a longer time. But I guess there’ll be different things. So some things, some of them can take place relatively early, other measures will require more time and more consultation before we decide.

Question: Secretary Esper this morning suggested that maybe NATO could entirely take over the training mission in Iraq. Is that something that’s already been discussed with members? And if so, how have members seen that?

Jens Stoltenberg: The US-led coalition conduct many different types of training and the United States has raised the issue of whether NATO could take over at least most of it, perhaps all. Now, we will look into that and then decide how much we take over, how much is transferred to NATO.

You know, at the end of the day, this is . . . NATO has to . . . NATO can do much more. I mean, we have . . . so we have been responsible, we have conducted big military operations before - in the Balkans, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

What we are looking at in Iraq is non-combat. But of course, we can scale that up, if there is a political will both in NATO but also in the Coalition. Because if we cannot, we will only take over things from the Coalition in coordination with the Coalition. But we have the capacity to do so. At the top we had 130,000 troops in Afghanistan. We have . . . our presence in, our current presence in Iraq is much smaller than that, it’s less than 1,000. So . . . but of course, we can scale up if there is a will among Allies.

Question: Can I just . . . Can I ask about a slightly different topic? The French President’s speech about French nuclear doctrine last week and his call for some kind of greater European role in the sort of nuclear thing. I just want to get your views on that. I don’t recall hearing your thoughts on that. And separately, completely different, I understand you had your first meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister yesterday. What did you talk about? And what was the, sort of, the outcome of it?

Jens Stoltenberg: The French nuclear deterrent contributes to NATO’s overall security. And France is a highly-valued Ally. We have to remember that we have a European deterrent today. And 28 Allies deliver that every day. And it’s not only a promise, but it’s something that has been there for decades. It’s tried and tested. We exercise it. And it’s institutionalised. And it is the ultimate security guarantee for Europe. And that’s the NATO nuclear deterrent. So that’s there. And it provides deterrence for Europe with structures, with command and control, with decades of experience. And, yeah, and that’s there already.

Question: So, there’s no need to review or change that?

Jens Stoltenberg: Well, so we are constantly developing, adapting the nuclear NATO deterrent. But I’m saying that we already have a European nuclear deterrent. And that’s the NATO nuclear deterrent. And, actually, this is something we do together, North America, or the United States and European Allies. They have forward deployed their weapons. We have Europeans providing support, bases, infrastructure. So we do this together and we exercise together. So we have that already.

Then the other question was about China. I met the Chinese Foreign Minister and I made it clear to him that, of course, we don’t look eye-to-eye on all issues. And NATO is an Alliance based on some core values: democracy, rule of law, individual liberty. And there are differences between NATO and China.

Having said that, I think, I believe it is value in having a dialogue - NATO-China - on issues like, for instance, arms control. Like the situation in the Middle East or Afghanistan, neighbouring China. And of course, what we see happens, the developments now in Afghanistan are important for NATO. It’s important for China.

And I made it clear that, of course, NATO strongly supported the efforts to find a peaceful solution. We are consulting closely with the US on the talks with Taliban. We are ready to adjust our force level in Afghanistan, if the Taliban demonstrate a clear will and ability to reduce violence and we see a path to peace. We have to remember that we have a NATO presence there of 16,000 troops – and I will speak more about Afghanistan and China – but . . . that’s one of the issues that is relevant to discuss with China. We have a NATO presence of 16,000 troops in Afghanistan. Close to half of them are non-US. So, of course, any agreement with the Taliban will affect all NATO, the whole of NATO.

And we are closer to an agreement now than we have been perhaps ever before. But there is a long way to a lasting peace agreement. This will be a first step that can also hopefully initiate an intra-Afghan negotiation. And the only lasting, sustainable political solution to the crisis in Afghanistan is an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process.

Question: Just a very quick follow up on the China thing. You talked about the importance of dialogue between NATO and China. Would you like to see that formalised in the sort of form of a kind of NATO-China Council, like the NATO-Russia Council?

Jens Stoltenberg: There have been no proposals about that. So I will not speculate about that. We have staff-to-staff contacts with them, we have some military Alliance contact with them, on staff level, also on some military staff. And China is now higher on the NATO agenda, after we made the decision at the Leaders Meeting in London, where we, for the first time, stated clearly that we need a better understanding of the implications of the rise of China for NATO. And we are now, based on that, addressing both the challenges and the opportunities related to the rise of China.

Question: Oh, I did have a follow up question on Iraq and the possibility of NATO contributing more to help the American side. One of the things that I’ve heard suggested is the possibility, actually, of not Iraq in itself, but of NATO maritime assets in the Persian Gulf, could then take some of the pressure off of the Americans from that area and free them up to do some other things. Is that something that’s under discussion at any level in NATO, or is that something that you can see as a possibility?

Jens Stoltenberg: I think we have to distinguish clearly between NATO presence in the Persian Gulf and NATO Allies being there on bilateral basis. And of course, some NATO Allies are already in the Persian Gulf. And I know that there are discussions between those Allies involved. But there has been no request for a NATO mission in the Persian Gulf.

Oana Lungescu: We’ll just go round the table.

Question: Yes. I wanted to follow up on Afghanistan. Yesterday you met the President, President Ghani. What is your impression on his view of the recent developments on the recent announcement by the US?

Jens Stoltenberg: So, first of all, I had a very good meeting with President Ghani yesterday. Of course, we are very closely consulting with the Afghan government on these issues. We had the meeting of the Resolute Support mission, meaning all the NATO Allies and our partners, including the Afghan Defence Minister. He attended the meeting in Brussels this week. And I met with the President yesterday.

And as we move forward, of course, this will be closely consulted with the Afghans. The whole aim, and President Ghani has clearly supported this many times, is that we would like to initiate an intra-Afghan negotiation process. We can support the Afghans, we can help them, but we cannot negotiate peace for them. They have to do that themselves. And they want to do it themselves. That’s the aim. And we all understand that that’s a long way and will be a difficult process with a lot of uncertainties and possible setbacks and surprises.

But, of course, the aim for NATO is not to stay in Afghanistan forever. At some stage, we need to find a way to, first adjust, reduce and then eventually leave. But the best way to create the conditions for a lasting and credible peace deal is to be committed to Afghanistan, because the Taliban has to understand that they will not win on the battlefield. They have to sit down at the negotiating table.

So, we have conveyed a very clear message that we are committed, we will continue to support the Afghans. There’s a train, assist and advise the Afghan security forces, continue to provide financial support. But the aim of this is to help them find a solution with the Taliban, an intra-Afghan peace deal. And then, based on that, enable us to reduce, leave. But everything we do will be conditions-based, and the first step is the Taliban has to prove that they actually can deliver reduced violence.

Question: This security conference is always a kind of venue for the American congressional delegation to come and offer an alternative, or less antagonistic view of transatlantic relations, at this point between … [inaudible]. My question is: when Trump leaves office in one year or in five years and there is a new president in place and a different tone about defence spending and NATO, probably a less antagonistic one. What effect is that going to have on European defence spending? Do you think that increases will stop and it kind of flat lines? Or do you think that there’s some other trend that will hold on in the post-Trump Europe?

Jens Stoltenberg: The Europeans are investing more in defence because it is in their security interest to do so. Europeans are investing more in defence because they agreed to do so. They were all sitting around the same table and agreed that they had to stop the cuts and start to increase.

And the United States has been clear and the President has been very clear on the need for NATO Allies to deliver on that pledge. And the good thing is that that’s exactly what they are doing. So I have said many times that, of course, the Europeans should invest in defence, not too please the United States, but because it is in their interest to do so. And the good thing is that that’s exactly what Europeans are doing.

And I think there’s no reason to speculate now. I think the most important thing that will decide the size of the defence budgets in Europe into the future will, of course, be the development of the threats and the challenges we’re faced with. After the end of the Cold War, we saw a significant reduction in defence spending because tensions and threats went down and then European Allies reduced budgets. And now, threats and challenges have increased and then we increase. And then, what will be the case in the future depends on the security environment.

Question: Just a follow up on the Middle East stuff. Obviously, the focus at the moment is largely on Iraq, although there’s been discussion about how you can develop the partnership process with Middle Eastern partners and so on. One of the things that Mr Esper mentioned the other day, I think. On his way, or in Brussels, in a briefing, was the Saudi air defence problem in the wake of the attacks on the ARAMCO facilities. And the requests for European members of NATO to do more to provide assistance to the Saudis. I think he mentioned that the French may have supplied some radars, but he rather underlined the point that they also need interceptors as well. The Americans clearly perceive this NATO-Middle East thing as something more than just filling in behind them on trading issues. There is a kinetic element to it, albeit perhaps a defensive one. Is that something that you are also talking to the Americans and others about? How you could provide defensive infrastructure in the region to replace American equipment that could be moved, perhaps elsewhere?

Jens Stoltenberg: I think we have to, when it comes to the mission we are enhancing, scaling up in Iraq. We have stated that that will be non-combat. But of course, it can be many different things, like also training, it can be force protection, it can be logistics. It’s too early to speculate.

NATO has the potential to do many things. We have many tools in our toolbox. But exactly which we will use and how, when we speak about Iraq, it’s too early. The one thing I said is that we are not looking to combat. The main aim there is actually to enable the Iraqis to fight . . . to improve further their abilities to fight ISIS.

Question: The Saudis, are … [inaudible] sent missiles to the Turks . . .

Jens Stoltenberg: Yeah, but . . .

Question: . . . who are a NATO member?

Jens Stoltenberg: Yeah, but as I said, it’s also because I think the whole idea of enabling local forces to fight themselves is really very important in our efforts to help to stabilise the Middle East.

When it comes to efforts beyond Iraq, we have started now a process. I understand that you asked the question, but it’s just too early to answer. We can do many different things. NATO has been engaged in many different operations before. Of course, we can do a wide range of tasks. At the end of day, that depends on the political will and agreement among 29 Allies.

Question: So, last year here at the Munich Security Conference, the audience didn’t clap when Vice-President Pence delivered his greetings from President Trump. This year, it seems like the Americans were welcomed. Do you see a better dialogue between the US and NATO Allies and more of an acceptance of the Trump administration? So has the dialogue improved in the recent year?

Jens Stoltenberg: I think that what they see is that we are 29 different Allies, and, of course, if you go to one European capital, you will have a different assessment of the transatlantic relationship and US policies than you may see in another European capital. The whole idea that there is one European opinion I think is overseeing the fact that Europe is . . . we speak about many different European countries and there are different views about many things among Allies and also, of course, among European Allies. That’s reflects the fact that we are 29 different Allies. So, sometimes I feel that any disagreement, any difference is a sign of weakness – for me, very often, it’s a sign of strength, that there are different opinions, that it is an open debate, we have different views and we discuss.

And we meet here in in Munich, and we’ve met here in Munich for years, and we always discuss the future of the West and the transatlantic bond. And that’s fine. But then the strength of the transatlantic bond is that despite, or perhaps even because of these discussions, we are delivering a lot together. And the reality is that we are delivering more together now than we have done for many years.

So I think people mix sometimes that that there are discussions, different views within countries, between countries with a lack of ability to act. No, we are very good at discussing, but we’re also very good at acting and taking decisions. And if you look at NATO, we are taking more decisions together and implementing more decisions together now than we have done for many years. Increased the readiness of our forces, combat-ready troops in eastern part of the Alliance, increased defence spending, many more new capabilities and more exercises and more infrastructure than we have had for many years. New commands and so on.

So I don’t know whether I respond to your question, but many people, they are looking into all this . . . debates, and debate is fine, as long as we are able to act and NATO has proven a very strong ability to act.

Question: So trying to read between the lines, it sounds like the decision process is actually improving and you’re able to make decisions quicker?

Jens Stoltenberg: So, first of all, I don’t deny, I don’t try to, in a way, say that there are not differences between NATO Allies. And you see differences within Europe, you see differences between European Allies and North America, you see differences on different issues across the Alliance all the way. I’m only saying that those differences have not impeded us, not hindered us from delivering on what is NATO’s core responsibility, and that is strong collective defence. And also stepping up, for instance, in the fight against terrorism.

So whether you speak about fighting terrorism, or you speak about deterrence in Europe, we stand together, both when it comes to concrete things as defence spending, new capabilities, higher readiness, deployment of our forces, new command structure, but also when it comes to political processes. NATO’s has been fully united in dealing with the demise of the INF Treaty. That’s important. We all agreed that Russia was in violation of the treaty. We all agreed that it was right of the US to withdraw, because Russia violated the treaty. And we all agree on a defensive, measured response, where we’re not going to deploy new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe, but we are going to do other things related to conventional air and missile defence exercises and so on.

So we had a very strong and common response to the Salisbury attacks and so on. So, we have declared space as a new domain. So, yeah. Again, I’m not saying that it’s not important that there are differences on climate change and trade. But the reality is that NATO is delivering more than we have done for decades, North America and Europe are delivering more than they have done for decades.

Oana Lungescu: Frankfurt Allgemeine.

Question: Secretary General, you are saying NATO is not a bloc, which is obviously true, but it’s also true for the Taliban. What do you think, how big is the risk that the Taliban could split, even after a ceasefire? And how big is the risk that NATO and the Afghan government might find itself in a situation which is pretty similar to the status quo ante, before the negotiations?

Jens Stoltenberg: What we will do in Afghanistan will be conditions-based. It will be based on that the Taliban is delivering.

Second, we are not leaving Afghanistan. What I announced today in my speech was that we are ready to adjust our force levels if Taliban proves that they can deliver reduced violence. And I said that today because we are ready to do so. And also because we are closer to an agreement with Taliban now than we have been for, perhaps ever, or at least for a long, long time.

We have to understand also that we cannot stay in Afghanistan forever. We need to try to find a way to be able to leave without jeopardising the gains we have made. And that’s not easy. But that’s what we are trying to achieve. We should not jeopardise the most important gain, meaning that achievement, meaning that Afghanistan should not once again become a country where terrorist groups can train, prepare attacks on us.

We should also try to safeguard as much of the social, economic progress that has been made, especially for women. And we have to do that through supporting that intra-Afghan negotiations, maximizing the likelihood for them being able to safeguard those achievements.

So I think, as all Allies agree, the aim is not to stay forever. And therefore, we are looking for ways to, in a responsible and measured way, reduce. But that has to be dependent on developments on the ground.

Let me also add that we have already reduced significantly in Afghanistan. So, not so many years ago we had 130,000 troops in a combat operation, now we have 16,000 troops in a train, assist and advise mission. But it’s critical for the support of the Afghans.

Question: Yes, back on Iraq and the training mission. If I understand correctly, most, if not all countries doing a training mission are also NATO members, whether they are under the NATO umbrella in Iraq or not. Now, NATO has agreed in principle to transfer, or to take over, most of it, if not all of it. Why does this need more discussion, more detailing, because all those NATO members who have agreed can just switch? Or is that too late?

Jens Stoltenberg: No, so to move or to take over some of the NATO training, especially the . . . sorry, the training in the Coalition, which the Coalition is conducting, especially those training activities which are done by NATO Allies, it’s quite easy to transfer that to NATO.

Question: There’s still a discussion ongoing?

Jens Stoltenberg: Yeah. But I mean, we are a serious Alliance. So, first of all, for us it was important to consult closely with the Iraqi government. We have done that. And we are welcome to continue our training. And then, of course, the different NATO Allies have to also agree to transfer their training activities from a Coalition framework to a NATO framework. And then we also need the advice from the military commanders precisely on which activities that will better work under a NATO flag.

So, we made the decision three days ago or when was it, Thursday? So, now it’s Saturday, so we will deliver on this as soon as possible. And, as I said, some steps can be taken quite soon. I’m just afraid of giving exact dates, but quite soon.

What NATO has, is that we have well-established structures for political decision- making, consultation, force generation, which involves all Allies. And that’s a good thing. It’s a multilateral framework. And I believe in multilateral institutions. And NATO is a multilateral institution, delivering a platform for all Allies to sit around the table and agree on how we conduct the mission in Iraq.

Question: Can I just follow up on Thomas’s question? In your discussions with the Iraqi leaders on this possibility of NATO taking over the training, is part of their concern that, given, in the in the aftermath of American killing of General Soleimani and these calls for the Americans to leave Iraq, including the parliamentary non-binding resolution, that a simple rebranding of the American presence to under a NATO umbrella might not be satisfactory?

Jens Stoltenberg: I have spoken many times with the Iraqi Prime Minister. I spoke with the President recently and the Foreign Minister, and we are consulting on all levels very closely with the Iraqi government. We have an invitation, we will only stay there as long as we are welcomed. And we fully respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Iraq.

NATO is a multilateral framework. The NATO mission in Iraq is now commanded by a Canadian General. Later on, by the end of the year, Denmark will take over. And this reflects, in a way, the multilateral character of NATO. And my impression is that’s something that is welcomed in Iraq and elsewhere in the region and also something that many Allies appreciate, to have the structures for decision-making, for consultation.

Oana Lungescu: Yeah, I think we need to wrap it up now.

Jens Stoltenberg: Yeah.

Oana Lungescu: Thank you very much. Thanks.