''Military backbone for democracy''
online discussion with NATO Deputy Secretary General, Ambassador Mircea Geoană during the Copenhagen Democracy Summit 2020
JEANNE MESERVE [MODERATOR] [Former Anchor and Correspondent, CNN and ABC News]: Hello and welcome to our session on The Military Backbone for Democracy. All of you know, by now I think, that we welcome your questions. We want your questions. Ask them through the virtual conference room or through our social media channels, please.
The NATO Alliance has been pushed and pulled and challenged in many different ways in recent months and weeks and even days, included by . . . including by COVID-19. We’re going to take a look at the health of the Alliance here today and talk about some of the major issues around security and defence with our distinguished guest today. Mircea Geoană is a distinguished Romanian diplomat. He is a former Minister of Foreign Affairs and former ambassador to the United States. He now is serving as Deputy Secretary General of NATO. Thank you so much for joining us here today.
MIRCEA GEOANĂ [NATO Deputy Secretary General]: Thank you so much for having me. And I’m looking forward to this conversation.
JEANNE MESERVE: I want to ask you, first of all, about an item that’s in the news today, which is about a confrontation between French and Turkish naval ships in the Mediterranean. Talk for me, to me . . . just for a minute this challenge this poses to have two NATO Allies having this kind of conflict.
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: You mentioned or you asked the question about the health of the NATO Alliance. And I have to say that we are in very good shape. It’s an alliance that has existed for 71 years.
We’ve seen in our long history already many, many delicate moments, tensions from the Suez Canal, all the way to many other things. So from time to time, an alliance of 30 democracies, not every Ally is seeing eye-to-eye to the other. And it’s true that the complications that are abundant in the Middle East are creating sometimes also some . . . some pressures for us.
But I think as Secretary General Stoltenberg mentioned yesterday, after the second day of our defence ministerial, the two sides are presenting the information to our military institutions; will make, of course, a serious, objective, balanced investigation and we’ll find out.
The most important thing I wanted to mention, that even during this great stress, this great crisis, this great drama, which continues to be the pandemic, the Alliance has behaved very well. Our readiness is still intact. Our missions and operations are fully functional. We had to downsize, of course, some of our exercises, including a major American one on European soil. But by large, the Alliance has vitality. We show solidarity amongst Allies. Many nations have supported each other. My country of origin, Romania, managed to send help to other Allies, to Italy. Germany has helped in many directions. So I would say that sometimes small hiccups do appear, but by large, the Alliance is strong, our resilience is there. And I’m very confident that we will move on for many, many decades to come.
JEANNE MESERVE: So you characterise this confrontation of naval vessels in the Mediterranean just as a hiccup? This is something that does not concern you particularly?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: I’m not trying to diminish this incident that occurred. I’m just trying to say that we are accustomed to, from time to time, hopefully not very often, to have situations where national interest of Allies not to coincide. And Libya is a very complicated issue. You see variable geometry of players trying to influence the game and the outcome over there. We are concerned about a transfer of Russian aircraft, a significant increase of Russian presence in Libya.
We are concerned about the situation. What I’m just trying to say is that there is a tradition, there is a sense that amongst Allies, when we have difficulties amongst Allies, we discuss them in earnest. This was the case the day before yesterday and yesterday, at the defence ministerial; there was a very frank conversation. And we are trying to find a solution, investigating the situation and hoping that this will be an episode that will not occur again.
JEANNE MESERVE: The issue with Turkey is a longer lasting one. It has a larger frame and includes the purchase of Russian missile defence systems, just as an example. And I’m wondering if the democratic deficit, which we’re also seeing in Turkey, presents itself as a strategic challenge to the Alliance?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: Speaking of strategy and strategic, Turkey is an exceptionally important, and full of strategic weight, Ally of ours. So while we are witnessing situations that are of concern, this intention of acquiring Russian missile defence systems is something that is of concern to us. While we see some actions that Turkey has taken that should have been probably brought forward to the Alliance.
We cannot underestimate the massive strategic significance and relevance of this great Allied nation. It’s a major military, has a geography which is complicated. It’s a nation that has been affected by terrorist attacks like no other nation in the world. It has a complicated geography. So we try here at NATO to find the right balance between our interests to keep Turkey as a trusted and important Ally, while, when things are not going as they should, just to have a very candid conversation, which is the case here in Brussels, or amongst the NATO capitals. And this is something which is already of public domain sometimes.
JEANNE MESERVE: I also want to ask you about another recent piece of news, President Trump’s intention to withdraw 9,500 troops from Germany. I know that the defence ministers of NATO met this week, Secretary Esper spoke with them. Is there any indication that there is going to be a reversal or a modification of this decision on the part of the US?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: Secretary Esper informed the Allies about this situation. It’s an evolving situation. There was . . . has been an announcement. We have not seen, as yet, any practical steps.
But I have to put this announcement, which is still work in progress, into a broader context. We have seen American presence in Europe increasing significantly over the last years. The US is leading a battlegroup in Poland. They are part of many rotational presence of American troops in many places. They are present in my country, Romania. They are present in Norway. They deployed in Spain. Missile defence systems at sea. We are witnessing a significant and important and relevant American involvement in Europe.
So we have to keep also, if you want, a certain perspective of the situation. We understand that the US is also analysing its global posture, because it is a global superpower. It’s not only Europe, which is an importance . . . of importance to the US, but I know that this Alliance of ours is important not only for Europe, but also for our North American friends.
America is using many times the geography and the presence in Europe for power projection into areas of interest to the US, not only to us. And I think the bond, including the title of . . . of this great conference, the democracy that unites us is a very important bond. And I think that if we want to have the political West remaining strong and having a decisive say in the world, we need this transatlantic bond. And I’m convinced, and we are convinced that American interest and involvement in Europe will continue.
JEANNE MESERVE: Despite the rhetoric that we’ve heard from President Trump? He’s been very disparaging of the NATO Alliance and some people have said it illustrates a lack of commitment on his part to this transatlantic relationship?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: You know, there was a lot of talk about burden-sharing. And in a way, the fact that President Trump was explicit and sometimes blunt about this thing also expresses a reality. This is why Secretary General Stoltenberg, all of us, are making the case to the Allies that have made a commitment to spend 2 per cent of their GDP on defence to keep up to their commitments. This is not something that is an unusual thing.
I remember in my days in Washington, President Clinton and then President G.W. Bush, and then I remember President Obama and his Vice President, Joe Biden, always telling European Allies, or non-US Allies, to be more precise, to have a fairer burden-sharing. I think this is not a criticism towards the Alliance, it’s I think, an encouragement for us Europeans to invest more in our own security.
So I would say in the last period of time, the relationship between Washington and the Alliance has been positive. And I’m convinced that, irrespective of the outcome of the American elections in November, this will continue to be a robust relationship across the pond.
JEANNE MESERVE: Let me ask you one question about those European contributions to NATO. You’re right, the President has been pressing for an increase and yet, the world finds itself in the middle of an economic crisis because of the pandemic. Is that going to impact European countries’ ability to contribute more to the Alliance?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: Listen, an economic downturn, which is to be expected, is already happening. It’s a severe shock. And I think nobody can underestimate the huge importance for nations in Europe, in NATO, across the world, to find the right balance between economic recoveries, saving jobs and investing into economic recovery. That’s normal. That’s absolutely normal.
But what I’m saying and what we are saying and the Sec Gen is saying, that this, is in a way, a false dilemma. Because we say that we need to invest more in education and healthcare and, of course, financial stimuli for our economy. But it’s a false dilemma to choose between investing in your own security, because without security, there is no economy, there is no social services, there is nothing. So what we are convinced, the nations will, of course, be affected. But the problems to our common security have not disappeared with the COVID. COVID has not replaced the security threats. They are adding up to those things. I’m convinced that in their wisdom, with difficult choices, difficult choices, the leaders of the Alliance will continue to invest in our defence and our security as part, also, of the economic recovery.
If we invest in our defence sector, if we invest in stronger resilience, if we invest in stronger military contribution also for, God forbid, future pandemics, if we invest in innovation and new technologies. This is also good for the overall economy, it’s creating jobs. So we are making this case and I think this case has not only an interest for us in NATO, but makes also strategic, political, economic and social sense.
JEANNE MESERVE: I want to push back just a little bit on . . . on your comment that you thought that COVID demonstrated the strength of the Alliance. The US has taken very much a ‘go it alone’ approach. They have said they’re going to start cutting funding to the World Health Organisation. We saw in Europe some countries hoarding medical supplies. We saw the closure of borders. Some people looked at all of those things and said, ‘This doesn’t represent the strength of the European Alliance. What this shows is that there’s a fracturing.’ What’s your response to that?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: We should not hide behind bushes. The first reaction in many nations, almost probably in all those nations, was basically a return towards your own national interests, towards your own citizens. And the first reaction, like in a major crisis, is to brace yourself. So we are not hiding that. And I think it would be a mistake for us not to tell the truth. The initial reaction was more egoistic, it was more selfish, it was more national.
But the moment we went to the second stage of this fantastic crisis, we have seen solidarity reappearing. We have seen Allies helping each other. We have seen hundreds and hundreds of thousands of tonnes of medical equipment being shipped, also, through the NATO strategic airlift. We have seen our medical doctors in harm’s way. We have seen our military, half a million of NATO military in the 30 Allied nations coming to the rescue. We have seen more than one hundred field hospitals being raised by our military.
So, yes, the first reaction was a sort of a temptation to go national. Indeed, there is a lesson to this crisis and we are all of us, drawing what we call ‘lessons learned’ from this pandemic: that these kinds of situations cannot be dealt on, only on a national level. I’ve been part of many conversations in my job with the European Union, with the UN, with the G7. And the first reaction was, as I said, a little more selfish. But then we realised that together we are stronger and, I think, for the future, also, this initial reaction, which was a bit complicated, will be a lesson to be learned by all of us. And I’m convinced that in the end, we’ll become more resilient and also we’ll become stronger together.
JEANNE MESERVE: We have a question here from the audience. Given that the NATO Alliance was founded as a deterrent to the Soviet Union, how can it continue to evolve and adjust to its new role in the modern world?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: Listen, 71 years of this Alliance. Now we are 30 members. We received our newest Ally, North Macedonia, just a few months ago. First of all, it was, and it is, an alliance of democratic nations. And for my part of Europe, I lived in communist Romania half of my life. And the fact that we were returning to the political West was, in itself, a major statement of our desire to catch up with the lost historical time that we were obliged, basically, to live through.
But beyond the idea of a reunified Europe based on values, on democracy, rule of law and respect for individual freedoms, there is also a strategic proposition into this. We are a defensive alliance. We have not invaded Crimea and amputated Ukraine of part of its territory. It has been Russia. So, we have not invented terrorism and had these horrific attacks on 9/11. We were the ones who have to defend the security of one billion citizens that are living on NATO soil. So adjusting to new security challenges and evolutions is part of our DNA.
JEANNE MESERVE: But one of those . . .
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: So, no . . . no . . . Soviet Union and Russia. Let me say one thing, because I was the one as Deputy Secretary General, to make an invitation to our Russian counterparts, part of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, to resume our NATO-Russia Council, which is that part of deterrence and defence – and Russia has been aggressive lately – but also dialogue and engagement. That’s a dual-track approach. Unfortunately, our Russian counterparts have declined so far to re-engage in the NATO-Russia Council, we still do hope that they will come back to the table and discuss about deterrence, defence and . . .
JEANNE MESERVE: If I may jump in here, Russia isn’t the only issue. There’s been a lot of talk during this conference about China and the threat it poses. As you, I’m sure know, the former National Security Adviser, John Bolton, is promoting a book in which he says that President Trump asked President Xi for help with his re-election effort. Given what Bolton says in his book, when it comes to China, can NATO trust the US?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: Listen, all NATO leaders met in London in last December, and for the first time we introduced in our final communique, some language on China. We basically, our leaders stated, all 30 leaders stated, that we have to explore both the challenges and the opportunities of the rise of China.
This is not about an election campaign in the US or anybody else. That’s a reality. It’s a massive country that has the second largest defence budget in the world after the US, that has invested tremendous resources into high-end military capabilities. It’s a nation that also has a big market and it’s a big economic player globally. So I think it’s only normal for us, not to . . . we are not looking for a new adversary, but we have to look, because we are a defensive security alliance, into the impact on the geopolitical and geostrategic balance of the rise of China. This has nothing to do with one administration or another. That’s a fact. That’s a . . . it’s a strategic trend. And again, we are very, very attentive in making sure that we don’t create new enemies. We don’t need that. But also that we are careful in making sure that China is well-understood also when it comes to their defence capabilities.
And let me make one point. There’s all that talk about arms control. China has developed a significant arsenal of missiles, of high-end technologies. And I think it’s only normal for the US, and also for European Allies, to ask China and Russia to come back with the US to the negotiating table on arms control. So when you have, and you are trying to find global power status, in the case of China, there are also responsibilities that come with that position. And we encourage China to engage in this conversation about the new architecture of arms control around the world.
JEANNE MESERVE: Part of the challenge with China is technological. There is at least the impression that they are ahead of us, certainly with 5G. Artificial Intelligence - they’re making a huge investment there. Can NATO overcome its aversion to risk and come up with the money and come up with a more streamlined purchasing set of procedures, in order to be competitive in this space? Are you up to the challenge or not?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: Let me tell you what we believe in and what’s the reality. It’s also a race for technological supremacy between China and also other authoritarian regimes and us, the political west. And I say the political west, I’m including our partners, NATO partners, in Australia, in Japan, in South Korea, in New Zealand and many others around the world. We also know that we have the top universities in the world. 28 Of the first 30 universities in the world are on Western soil, Western democratic political soil. We still have ingenuity and we have a capacity to adjust and adapt, at national level, but also NATO level.
So I’m absolutely convinced that this competition for technological supremacy, we have the arguments, the ingredients. We should not also underestimate the fact that China is mobilising in a different way, state and private resources in one hand and also amassing significant amount of data that this can and is used for Artificial Intelligence and other things.
But let me say one thing. Of course, sometimes we’re a bit risk adverse. Sometimes our, let’s say, more bureaucratic system is much slower than the private sector. This is why us in NATO, myself, as Chair of the Innovation Board in NATO, we are reaching out to the private sector. We try to find more agile instruments of financing things. We are also in the business of learning what the private sector sometimes is doing much better than governmental or big institutions like ourselves. So, yes, I am convinced that this is a race that we will prevail in because, again, there is nothing more conducive to ingenuity, innovation and progress than a free society.
There’s absolutely no question mark in my head, and I think in nobody’s head, that in the end, an open society, a free society, a democratic society is far more conducive for innovation and, in the end, will have the final say in making sure that we continue to have our technological edge intact in the years to come.
JEANNE MESERVE: Mr Deputy . . . Deputy Secretary General, we have got to leave it there. We’re out of time. Thank you so much for joining us today. Great conversation. I enjoyed it.
MIRCEA GEOANĂ Thank you so much.