by NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană at the Brussels Forum
DR IAN LESSER [Vice President for Foreign Policy, The German Marshall Fund]: Good afternoon from Brussels and welcome back to Brussels Forum 2020. We are pleased to have everybody with us this afternoon and we’re going to continue our conversation to talk about anticipating the unknown after COVID-19. And maybe we’ll even talk about anticipating some of the unknowns during the COVID-19 crisis, because there are certainly no shortage of those.
Let me say, we’re really delighted to have this conversation in, well, the next-to-last day of Brussels Forum with two long-time friends of Brussels Forum, in fact: Deputy Secretary General of NATO, Mircea Geoană and the US Deputy Secretary of State, Stephen Biegun. We’re really grateful to both of you for joining us. Mircea, Steve, if I may, welcome. Thank you for coming with us.
Let me say a thanks to our partners, as always, to our Founding Partners, Daimler and the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and to our Forum Partner, Deloitte, and to all our associate and supporting and knowledge partners. We’re really very, very, very grateful. And let me, on this occasion, also say a special word of thanks to NATO, to the US Mission to NATO, to the US Mission to the European Union, to all of them for their support to Brussels Forum, but also to GMF throughout the year.
And let me now turn it over to our moderator and let me introduce our moderator, Katrina Manson, who is US Foreign Policy and Defence Correspondent of the Financial Times, based in Washington. Katrina, thanks so much for being with us. Thanks to everyone for joining. And Katrina over to you.
KATRINA MANSON [Foreign Policy and Defence Correspondent, Financial Times]: Thank you so much, Ian. Well, it’s lovely to be here. And with my guests today, let me introduce them. We have Stephen Biegun, the Deputy Secretary of State. He joined the Trump administration as the Special Representative for North Korea. After fixing that in a year, he became Deputy Secretary of State. And he’s also a long- time student of Russia. So we’re delighted to have him. And he’s joined by his old friend, they first met 25 years ago, Mircea Geoană, the former Foreign Minister of Romania, a presidential aspirant himself at one point, so no stranger to politics, diplomacy, economics or indeed now security. He’s Deputy Secretary General of NATO. And they both took up their positions, their latest positions in December. They met in D.C. in February and, of course, have not met since in person because of coronavirus. But I’m delighted to have them both here.
And I’m delighted to have you here, too. Please send in your questions. There are a couple of ways you can do it. The first is via Twitter at #BrusselsForum and the second is via email at BrusselsForum@gmfus.org.
So, here we are to talk about the transatlantic relationship in the time of COVID – a little bit like love in a cold climate. Even before COVID, the Trump administration made it clear that this was a tricky relationship on the campaign trail. We all know he called it obsolete. He’s chastised NATO members for not making their defence spending commitments. And that’s before French President Emmanuel Macron said that NATO was heading for brain death. So even then, the conditions were tricky. And then along comes coronavirus. America is home to a quarter of the cases, a quarter of the deaths, with only a little bit more than four per cent of the world population. So having a very outsized experience of coronavirus, and this weekend’s numbers were really very bad, record highs, 45,000 new cases on Friday, 42,000 new cases on Saturday.
So there’s a lot going on, even before we consider the foreign policy dimensions. And I just wanted to let you all know a little bit of a secret. Tomorrow, the German Marshall Fund is releasing the results of its Transatlantic Trends survey. And I’d like to share just one of the bits of information with you all here now, which is that in a poll of Germans, French and Americans, the impression of China’s global influence of the world has actually doubled throughout this coronavirus crisis, which is perhaps extraordinary to think, especially given coronavirus originated in China.
So that’s a lot to put to Deputy Secretary Biegun, but if I can start with you. Tensions in the Alliance, haemorrhaging global influence to China through this coronavirus and, of course, facing a very difficult struggle in America. How has the US got coronavirus so wrong? And if you haven’t got coronavirus so wrong, let me hear it. Thank you and over to you first.
STEPHEN BIEGUN [US Deputy Secretary of State]: Thank you, Katrina, and before I start, let me extend my thanks also to Ian Lesser and to my colleague on the panel here Mircea Geoană. The German Marshall Fund Brussels Forum is something that I put on the calendar every year for the better part of a decade and a half, as I look forward to this each year. But again, as I walked over here with a mask, facemask on and to participate in a virtual discussion, I was hit by the same thought that I’ve been plagued with many, many mornings over the course of the last five months, that: how did it come to this? How in the world did we get to the point where a global pandemic is preventing us from most of the normal features of life? And I know that everybody has felt that in different ways, some very personally. And my, certainly my sympathies to any of you who have suffered personal tragedy as a consequence of this pandemic as well.
I have had a ringside seat, or maybe even in-the-ring seat on the US battle against COVID-19 from the very beginning. In fact, after my official swearing in on January 17th, just a week later, we first saw the intelligence reports coming in, in press reports, really, more importantly, that suggested this novel virus in China was beginning to spread out of control. We’d known about it a bit longer than that, but the magnitude of it, combined with a wariness on the part of many of our health professionals because of previous experiences with pandemic outbreaks out of China, led us to very quickly stand up an effort that was initially chaired by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, ultimately starting in late February by the Vice President of the United States, the Coronavirus Task Force, which was entrusted to steer to a large part the efforts of the country as we navigated our way through the crisis.
The initial stages of this did significantly involve the Department of State. And my role was much more active in the beginning of the process, because at that point, the goal was to try to contain the virus from reaching into the United States of America. We enacted very aggressive restrictions on travel here into the United States and also a number of advisories warning American citizens against travelling abroad to hot spots. As much as we moved and as quickly as we moved, it turns out we were already too late and we were too late in two respects. One is that the . . . between the onset of the virus in China and ultimately the closures that were put in place in Hubei Province and Wuhan, approximately five million Chinese citizens travelled out of Hubei Province and many of them out of China. And even though we imposed travel restrictions on direct travel from China starting in late January, right at the end of the month, the virus had already metastasised to many other parts of the world. And in fact, a significant amount of the infections came to the United States indirectly through Europe and through travellers that reached Europe first and then came to the United States.
All of us were struggling to move quickly, but the virus moved faster than virtually any government could. The Chinese did, very successfully, crack down on internal movements and were able to successfully contain the virus largely to the Hubei province, although they did have a number of outbreaks in other parts of the country, which they turned back. Europe then quickly moved. A couple of European countries were hard hit, in particular, Italy and Spain, but France too. And so on and so on. I mean, I won’t recite in progression. We know how the virus spread around the world.
Here in the United States of America, as we saw, in late February and early March, the cases begin to expand dramatically, we enacted social distancing measures that were successfully implemented in many states around the country. There were some states that had moved a little bit too late and saw a tragic expansion of cases. This was particularly the case in the northeast, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, Massachusetts to some extent. A number of metropolitan areas suffered rapid outbreaks, but then ultimately were able to contain them. And by the end of May and into June, it seemed like the United States had been able to largely overcome the outbreaks and moved into a flattening of the curve.
But as is well known and as Katrina referenced, we are facing a number of very serious upticks again. And I will just say that, somewhat cautiously, that we expect this to continue to be a challenge that we will face here in the United States, but also other countries around the world as well. There are many severe outbreaks around the world as we speak. And the risk is constant for additional cases and clusters to develop, including in countries which have already been successful in turning down the infection rate substantially.
We are finding that COVID-19 and the effects of a pandemic have in some ways laid bare some of the challenges to operating and living in a democratic society with distributed governing power. The United States of America has always prided itself on being a federal . . . a federation of states, a federalist system in which the states have significant authority, but also it falls upon those states to exercise effective governance. And the federal government has to work with them, the federal government has to be clear with them. And it’s been a challenge to implement evenly across the entire country a set of policies that is going to be able to keep us systematically low on caseload. I am confident that the recent steps taken by the governors are going to address this, and we’ll probably see a bit of a lag. But I expect, and certainly hope, that we will be seeing a downturn here in the United States in the very near future.
The news isn’t all bad, although that news is bad. We are making tremendous progress in the development of therapeutics and vaccines, not just here in the United States, but globally. We have found a positive success in Remdesivir, a therapeutic treatment, as well as a few others that are under study. And also the United States has about a dozen vaccine candidates that are currently being pursued. A number of them also look promising, so much so, that like many other governments around the world, we are already investing in the production of hundreds of millions of doses of these vaccines, as well as putting together the means to distribute and administer them as quickly as possible. Of course, we’re doing this not by ourselves alone, but alongside many other partners around the world, in collaborative research and also we’re working very actively through the Gavi Global Vaccine Initiative, where the United States now rates as the biggest donor, we’ve made a major contribution at the donors conference earlier this year, held in London.
Just a last word, if I could on what I think what really is at the centre of this, though, rather than a reflection back on what has transpired over the past five months, is: what are the consequences for the world? And here, I’d just like to share a couple of thoughts. First, as I said, that the coronavirus pandemic, not just in the United States, but in many places around the world, has laid bare some of the challenges in global governance and in national governance. It’s also amplified some of the challenges that we face in today’s world, including political polarisation, including division over global systems of government. Even that . . . even challenges between authoritarianism and democracy. And we have to be mindful that the facts on the ground will be very much important in how we are able to . . . to really win that debate, which we must do. And I think the first priority for all of us has to be: make our own countries and societies health better. Second, has to be to work together with each other to achieve that end.
For my part, early on here at the State Department, I was given the assignment by the Secretary of State to make sure that we are gluing together the most important parts of the international coalition of likeminded countries, our partners and allies around the world. And so we began a regular consultative process, which included my counterpart on the call today, Mircea Geoană, where we held weekly conference calls, where we addressed a very short agenda of items amongst the European … [inaudible]: the United States, NATO, the European Union and Canada. This transatlantic group met on a weekly basis for several months, regularly comparing notes on any recent developments in each other’s countries, any urgent requests for assistance and then also longer-term issues for our ministries and our governments to cooperate on.
I won’t go into those in detail here until Q&A, Katrina. But let me just cite a couple that we worked very closely initially on: repatriation of citizens around the world, the United States has brought 100,000 American citizens back, largely through a State Department-run airlift process. But likewise, our friends and allies in Europe had citizens stranded around the world and together we worked to facilitate their return.
We’ve been coordinating our assistance efforts with more vulnerable countries around the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. And we’ve also successfully aligned ourselves in combating disinformation and other challenges to the unity and to the democratic foundations of our government as we work through this process.
Future challenges include restarting our economies, reopening our borders and making sure that we are working collaboratively to distribute lifesaving medical supplies and also vaccines and therapeutics, when they are proven and available, in scale.
So lots to do, lots to do with our friends and allies in Europe. At the same time that we have a lot of challenges to overcome, including the ones that you mentioned, that continue to require the Alliance to work on a way forward to maintain that set of shared values across the transatlantic relationship that have guided us for 70 years.
I think I’ll leave it there and expect a lot more detail we can get into Question & Answer. And let me turn it back to you, Katrina.
KATRINA MANSON: Thank you. Well, I appreciate the outline of the opening remarks and I’ll encourage you both to engage in discussion from now and permit that under the auspices of opening remarks, but move on to a little bit of debate, perhaps.
If we reach out now to Deputy Secretary General Geoană. NATO, of course, is more used to focussing on Russia than on a disease. Can you tell us the way in which you’ve tackled coronavirus and give us a sense, a little bit of insight into the kinds of challenges.
You’ve obviously been criticised for, not acting fast enough. Are those criticisms acceptable to you and what have you found hardest?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ [NATO Deputy Secretary General]: Thank you, Katrina. I mean, that’s a super professional journalist, knowing that Steve and myself, we met 25 years ago, that’s quite . . . that’s quite an information. Steve, I remember that my first weekend as a very young Romanian ambassador to Washington, a little bit scared a little bit confused and I think you and many friends and our generation, we have been paving the way for a Europe whole and free, enlarging NATO, enlarging European Union, bringing 100 million of the European citizens who were left in the cold, coming back to our natural family. That’s always here in my heart and our hearts.
Katrina is also knowledgeable of the transatlantic trends tomorrow. Ian, also, my thanks to go to you.
Steve Biegun was mentioning these weekly conversations we had for . . . for a few months now. I have to thank him and the US for keeping us together in very difficult moments. I also do believe that what we are doing, almost on a daily basis, with the other likeminded institutions like the European Union, like the UN – I just had today a long conversation with the leadership of the UN on lessons learned from this virus.
Also, we are very happy that Secretary Esper was able to visit in person a few days ago with Secretary General Stoltenberg and to reconfirm the US commitment to European security.
Now, let me, Katrina, answer in reverse your question. First, the biggest challenge for NATO during this crisis is quite simple, because that’s the heart of our mission. It’s to make sure that this health crisis and economic downturn does not become a security crisis as well. That’s . . . that’s about it. And of course, as Steve has mentioned earlier, this pandemic, which is so, you know, much magnifying lots of trends and sub-trends and things we are not aware about so much. This is adding up to security challenges that are already here. They have not disappeared. They’ve been only amplified. This crisis has distorted and amplified pre-existing security challenges. The Russian military and hybrid activities, the nuclear-capable missiles arsenal, which is growing, terrorist groups are still active and they are committing atrocities against innocent people in many places. Cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns. We have seen something that I believe is a red line.
I have nothing to . . . against a nation, irrespective of its system of political organisation, to promote its own interests and to make a little bit of propaganda around things that they do, sending, supporting one country or another. But when cyber-attacks and misinformation are hitting our health systems, it was the case, we have seen healthcare services having suffered cyber-attacks in the midst of a global pandemic. This is dangerous and irresponsible, because this is not just a game of influence. This is costing innocent lives.
Was NATO slow in responding? I would say that, initially, nations in the first days of the pandemic and us as an organisation comprising 30 Allies, of course, the first instinct was the reply . . . to go towards your own interests, protect your citizens. But I have to say that after a short period of time when nations, including in the Alliance, tried to find answers for their own citizens, which is what politicians are, in the end, supposed to be doing, then we’ve seen a remarkable surge of solidarity. We’ve seen tens of thousands of our military people joining ranks with military and civilian personnel. We’ve seen thousands and thousands of shipments of medical equipment with our strategic airlift. We’ve seen solidarity in action. And this is something I believe proves that our Alliance is strong, is vital, and also is learning the lessons of this thing. And this is my last comment to this first part, because I also want, like you do and Steve wants to, to engage with the audience, thanking the GMF again for this wonderful opportunity.
We are obliged as democratic nations to come out from this pandemic stronger. There is a risk that the lessons learned at a national level could draw, in some corners of the democratic world, to some divergent conclusions. I say one thing and I believe strongly in this, and we believe here in NATO and I know Steve believes in this and I think all of us believe in this: that if there is, today, a challenge for all the democratic nations around the world, is the ascent of less democratic, more totalitarian narratives, that for the first time in half a millennia, the West is, for the first time, confronted with a competitor that also is trying to get supremacy on the technology front. And I think the only lesson we can draw from this, that here in Europe, across the Atlantic, in NATO, but also with all the other global allies of ours, from the Asia Pacific, from India, from many other places they’ll have to join forces, because this is just the beginning of an acceleration of a global competition, when our very values, our way of life, are threatened and menaced.
This is what NATO is all about. And this is what I believe all democratic nations and leaders and people around the world, freedom lovers from around the world, we have to stick together, learn the lessons and come out of this thing stronger together.
KATRINA MANSON: Thank you so much. Well, let me stay with you, Ambassador Geoană, because you reference the rise of other countries that don’t share the same view. And I would like to press you on this information that the German Marshall Fund has gathered, which says that China’s standing in the world, its perception of its global influence amongst Germans, French and Americans has actually risen. It’s approximately doubled throughout this coronavirus pandemic. What’s going wrong in your responses, in your coordination with your Allies, with the US that that is happening, that that trend is actually going against the way you wish to see it go?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: Listen, again, we all recognise that at the beginning of the pandemic, that reactions were a little bit less coordinated. But after this, we have joined forces, us in NATO, with our friends in European Union. Us in NATO with our friends at the UN. Us in NATO, Steve remembers, that we’ve been talking also to the G7 Strategic Communication Task Force. Because, to be honest, it’s sometimes more difficult to fight with the power of truth against disinformation and conspiracy theories. Sometimes crazy news, invented stories, totally outright lies, travel faster than the fact-based thing that we usually present.
But I still believe one thing, and we are seeing progress being made, that we have only one way forward: number one, to join forces; secondly, to get allies in the public opinion and with professional journalists from the free world, from around the world, because alone we cannot communicate. We need you, Katrina, and all your fellow professional journalists that are doing their profession with integrity and commitment to loyalty to their readers; and thirdly, also to making sure that once there is a red line crossed, that we also say that very clearly and making sure that there is a line where we just cannot accept disinformation and outright lies to affect lives and our way of doing things.
And there is one thing that, as a Romanian, that lived half of my life under . . . in the dark, out in Communism. I’m a . . . an absolute believer that, in the end, democracy, as a form of organising human mankind [sic], is much better than closed societies. And I think there is a limit to what this kind of combination of state power and private sector power in the hands of the government and together with intelligence and again with lots of other things, will be able to be doing. Because there is one thing I know, from my experience, there is something that I know from the tens of millions of fellow European citizens, from my part of European geography: that there is no way in which, in the longer term, a closed society can be more competitive, provide better social services, provide better ways of raising your kids, than open societies. So it’s up to us to defend our story. All of us, not just a few spokespeople from one organisation or the other, or professional politicians. I think we are in this together to defend our way of life. And I’m convinced we’ll prevail.
KATRINA MANSON: And Ambassador, can you – and I’ll come to Mr Biegun in a moment, but could you just explain a little bit about NATO’s new focus on China? Obviously, it was only a few months ago that, I think around the time you joined, that China became an issue of strategic challenge and also an opportunity for NATO. I’ve been asked by experts, they’re trying to work out if this is a real concern, an intrinsic concern for NATO, who, obviously, has normally looked at Russia as the number one concern, or if you’re trying to please America, because we know that the Trump administration’s focus is very hard, you’ve sharply focussed on China.
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: Katrina, you’re right. In London, the NATO leaders, basically in the final communique, they mentioned for the first time explicitly China, both as a challenge and an opportunity.
Meanwhile, you also see the European Union, how they developed some form of updated, let’s say, objective analysis of the implications of the rise of China. This is no small country. This is not something that we can take lightly. And there are some things that are positive about a big country moving up, becoming, let’s say, stronger, economically, engaging in global trade. And there are also challenges. Today, China has the second largest defence budget after the US. In the last five years alone, China has added to its navy submarines and ships and frigates the whole size of the UK navy. They are deploying now and investing a lot in missile, high-end missile capabilities. They are working in hypersonic and super-glide, they are going in space.
So we are not going in Asia, NATO is a transatlantic alliance. Russia remains a major concern for us. Terrorism is a concern. But we just cannot pretend we are blind. This is changing the balance of power. China is building up its military might. And we have to make sure that all these things are done in a way that will protect our interests. We don’t . . . I’m not seeking for new enemies or adversaries, but to be lucid and to look to the rise of China also with the lenses of prudence is something that we should do.
And this is not something to please the Americans or anybody else. This is something that also European allies, UK, in Germany, in France and also expressed in the last EU-China summit by VTC, just the other day, there were things about China’s purchasing strategic infrastructure in Europe. China also purchasing crown jewels of our technology companies. We have to find a way to protect also our intellectual property from sometimes actual theft and industrial espionage. These are things that are real. So there is no need to please anybody, it’s just a fact of life. It’s a fact of geopolitics. And democratic nations have to stick together in finding a common answer against this massive transformation of global affairs.
KATRINA MANSON: Thank you, Mr Biegun, what would you like NATO to do about China?
STEPHEN BIEGUN: You know, one of the things that I’m struck by, Katrina, is the degree to which Chinese interests, Chinese influence touches virtually every dimension of the work that we do here at the Department of State. There’s not a part of the world, there’s not a . . . not a function that we do that isn’t somehow, in some way, shape or form brushing up against or touching on China-related issues.
Now, not all of those are negative. The United States and China do work with each other on some issues, Afghanistan, North Korea to some extent, and others. But, at the same time, it also is not a question of us extending NATO into Asia or into China, but rather having a shared view of exactly what the challenges are from that Chinese influence. Mircea identified several of them, including acquisition of strategic technologies, potential infiltration into our communications networks.
The . . . one of the issues that the United States and Europe have long collaborated on is strong global institutions, in order to maintain a rules-based order in the world, one that’s served both of our interests for more than seven decades. We made a bet, 20 years ago, that we would bring China into many of those institutions. And our thought was the institutions would be resilient enough to slowly, slowly shift Chinese behaviour into a support for that rules-based system. But what we found instead was that China grew so quickly and so, so significantly, that China actually began to influence those institutions. And that’s a challenge that we confront together with our European friends and allies in many other countries around the world.
You know, the relationship with China is not one dimensional. China is not a monolith, just as none of our societies are. So we have to have some nuance in our approach. But for sure, I couldn’t agree more with Mircea, that the foundation of democratic governance, free market societies is . . . is absolutely something that we need to work together to defend and one that we do every day with our partners in Europe.
KATRINA MANSON: And why do you think China has emerged more politically influential throughout this coronavirus pandemic? And if I can add another one, that also reflects a question from a member of the audience: how do you characterise the relationship between China and Russia at the moment? Is it becoming a de facto alliance?
STEPHEN BIEGUN: Yeah. So I heard you reference the GMF poll a couple of times and I don’t have the benefit of seeing exactly what it is. But in terms of . . . if it’s a measure of . . . if it’s a reflection of China’s assertiveness in the world, hands down, we’ve seen that in, particularly in the aftermath of China’s outbreak of COVID-19. If it’s a rise in the appeal of China’s system, that would be a very different, different kettle of fish. And if it’s . . . just a measure of China’s raw, naked power, that is a slightly . . . a third, slightly different, nuance.
But let me say, for sure, we’ve seen what many of your participants in your poll have seen since January, as have the Indians in the Galwan Valley, as have the people of Hong Kong in the National People’s Congress passage of a new national security law, as have the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, who are currently in concentration camps to the tune of, potentially, up to a million Chinese citizens of Muslim descent, Muslim faith, who are being held in prison, as well as the people of Taiwan who have faced unprecedented pressure after a strong and democratic election that brought President Tsai back to power again. Australia has felt it in the wake of China’s economic might in . . . in pushing back against Australia’s reasonable requests that an inquiry be held through international organisations to check the . . . the history and performance and details regarding the outbreak of COVID-19.
And many of your European neighbours, Katrina, have felt it in the disinformation and the heavy overtones of wolf diplomacy in Germany, in Belgium, in the Commission itself and elsewhere.
These are, in some ways, measures of power, are measures of effect and influence in the world. But at the same time, they are also simply laying bare what has been happening now for some time, which is: China has made a fundamental shift. And I’ve pondered the question of why. Because, without a doubt, it is . . . China has been much more assertive and even aggressive. I didn’t even mention the South China Sea, I should add that to the list that I just ticked off.
I think that the COVID-19 crisis in China in December and January may have very well in some quarters been seen as an existential threat to the rule of the Communist Party. I actually think that the brittleness of the system became apparent to many in the Chinese government when unconstrained criticism on Weibo regarding the arrest of the doctor who initially tried to alert colleagues in Wuhan as to the risks associated with this novel fever virus that was breaking out in their community. I think the Chinese government felt ever so slightly that it was losing control. It very quickly moved to reimpose its control. In fact, in those . . . in the months of February and March, I’d say the Chinese government devoted as much effort to getting control of the information on the coronavirus as they did to get control of the coronavirus itself. And they seem to have been successful at this point, in both respects.
This comes at the same time that we ourselves were, many in the democratic world, in the Western world, being hit by the coronavirus. In relative terms, our ability to assert ourselves in a way that counters much of that has been challenged, for sure. I wouldn’t dispute that for a second. But we have the resilience of democratic societies. We have the innovation of our scientific and medical base to draw upon. And even with the constraints of free people who are allowed to make decisions, sometimes decisions that put themselves at risk and hopefully to the extent possible, conforming to a sense of social responsibility, not under threat of arrest or imprisonment, as a doctor in China might face, but under a sense of civic responsibility to their fellow citizens.
I’m confident we’ll get through this. This is not . . . this is not an easy moment for the democratic world, for the free world, for the transatlantic community. But it’s one that I have every confidence that we will be resilient and get through. It’s just going to . . . it’s just going to take us a while, as it does oftentimes with a challenge the magnitude of this COVID-19.
KATRINA MANSON: And while I have you, can I ask you to characterise the relationship between China and Russia? Is it getting closer? Is it a de facto alliance?
STEPHEN BIEGUN: Yeah. So . . .
KATRINA MANSON: And what is your response?
STEPHEN BIEGUN: You know, I think that . . . I think that relationship is . . . is transactional. And I think it rests largely on the foundation of the two current leaders, both of whom seem intent upon putting themselves into office for life, or at least until they otherwise choose on their own initiative to leave.
Now, in the Russian system, which has at least the trappings of a democratic system, President Putin will go to a referendum in just a couple of days, which many consider to be a . . . have a foregone conclusion as to the extension of his rule for what effectively is his natural life.
In the case of Xi Jinping, when he altered the standing precedent since 1976, that would have limited the Chinese leader to essentially two terms in office, not by law, but by custom, Xi Jinping has clearly made a bet that he can stay in power for the foreseeable future as well. And I think in both cases, that’s what sustains that relationship.
There is no . . . there is no single unifying factor between those two systems, other than a mutual determination to challenge the United States of America. Even in the case of other countries and other regions of the world, their views differ. For example, the Indian government is heavily dependent upon the rapid acquisition of arms from Russia in order to put itself in a better position to defend itself against China. I doubt very much that’s a shared interest between the two countries.
We have to think through how we address this. We want to be careful not to mobilise a condominium of China and Russia against our interests on a global basis. At the same time, those two countries do pose a number of challenges. I’d go back to what I said about China a moment ago, though: it’s not a monolith, nor is Russia. There are places where we can make inroads and we seek to do so with both. It is a constant source of challenge to find the political space to do that. In our system, the tendency is to reduce to black and white the relationships with many countries around the world. But I’m confident that . . . that with a little application and effort and some . . . and being a bit more agile, we can find that the weak seams in that relationship between China and Russia that’s currently held together by transactional interests.
KATRINA MANSON: Thank you. And Ambassador Geoană, do you think that NATO’s focus on China is . . . is helping to, in the words of Mr Biegun, mobilise a condominium?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: Listen. Let me say also a few words about the threats that Russia’s build-up of their . . . of their systems is posing to our . . . to our security. That’s something which is for real. They have moved up on a number of capabilities that are of concern to us. And just last week, NATO defence ministers met and we are looking into this very seriously.
Let me say just one thing, because Steve has mentioned resilience a few times and then he also mentioned agility. If I’m looking to the word that NATO has been doing for the last five years, since the Warsaw NATO summit, when our leaders instructed us to work on baseline requirements for resilience, we’ve been doing this for seven different fields, including infrastructures, energy security, problems related to civil-military cooperation, you know, situations of major crisis or conflict. And last week, we just upgraded our resilience indicators, if you want. And we are working now actively with the European Union to have even a broader understanding of what resilience means to our societies. Exchanging this to supply chains, foreign ownership of critical infrastructures and industries, strengthening our cyber defences, countering disinformation and so on and so forth.
So what I’m just trying to say here, that we also have to do a better job in getting stronger ourselves as democratic societies after this pandemic, but also to do a better job in assisting the other side of the coin. Resilience on one side, fragility on the other side. And lots of nations around the world, around the world – and this is also, probably, reflected in some polls that you mentioned, Katrina – need to see us, the West, the political West, us in Europe, our friends in North America, democratic nations around the world, in doing a much better job in . . . in making sure that the more fragile nations see a more coordinated response from our side.
I also share Steve’s view that even if the label for the Russia-China relationship is called a strategic partnership of sorts, or enhanced strategic partnership, in many ways it’s a tactical arrangement. It’s a tactical arrangement trying to . . . to undermine the existing global order. They are, you know, revanchist in essence, but still tactical. So we have to find the right balance between responding to this threat and also making sure that we don’t encourage this strength to go in the wrong direction.
KATRINA MANSON: Thank you. And you mentioned coordination, so of course, I have to talk about one of the big issues of the weekend, which was that the report in The New York Times that US intelligence had determined . . . military intelligence arm of Russia, the GRU had reached out to Taliban-linked militants to offer a bounty to kill NATO troops in Afghanistan. This was targeted at US forces, but not only US forces. A very serious set of circumstances, if it’s the case. And I understand NATO was briefed about it by the US side in the past week. But the information had been held by the US for much longer than that. Are you concerned about a lack of coordination? Would you have wanted to know that information sooner? And how do you view the actual information in the report itself?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: Listen, we . . . we don’t, and we are not and I am not commenting on intelligence reports, per se, publicly. This is something that is done by essence in more discreet ways.
But I have to say one thing, and this is our number one priority: is to do everything we can to keep our men and women in uniform and everybody working for the Resolute Mission, the NATO operation in Afghanistan, safe. We are working very closely with our American friends and Allies to making sure that we create these conditions for all of us, including for the Afghan security forces. And next week here in . . . at the Headquarters, we’ll be having a new conversation on Afghanistan.
So for us, it’s paramount to keep our troops safe. And we also encourage countries like Russia to adopt more constructive policies and attitudes, because in the end, a stable Afghanistan is not only in the interest of the US or of NATO, this is an interest of resolving, for the sake of the broader region – you mentioned the condominium, you mentioned Eurasia – a stable Afghanistan, this is something that we try to do, is good for Russia’s interest, is good for China’s interest, I think it’s good for . . . for everyone. So we are very much keen in keeping our people safe and we do the utmost to doing that for our people.
KATRINA MANSON: But in the . . . and I respect you don’t want to talk about intelligence issues, but do you trust – you spoke about trust – do you trust the Americans to give you the information that you need to keep your troops safe?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: Listen, there is such a strong bond of trust, not only between the US and us here at NATO, but between all Allies. And if there are sometimes, let’s say, more complex issues, we always discuss and then get it through. So I have to say that the bond of trust is there. And I’m absolutely convinced that any episode is . . . is easy to be worked out when you have such a climate of influence, of trust and confidence amongst us. There is absolutely no . . . no whimper of mistrust in what we do.
KATRINA MANSON: In the focus on NATO 2030 and the desire to become more political, how do you tackle issues today where you see some of your members on different sides acting sometimes unilaterally? Let’s take Libya. Let’s take some of Turkey’s actions, some of the things France has said, actions in Syria. What is NATO’s approach to this? And are you being . . . taken in too many directions to cope with this political mission?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: Listen, first of all, life is complex, so you don’t expect 30 nations, democratic nations to see every single day on every single issue I try. That’s . . . that’s, you know, a statistic . . . a difficult proposition to make. So it’s not the first time in 71 years since NATO was . . . was invented, thanks God, after the Second World War that Allies have seen things differently, be it for political or strategic interest or for economic interest. So, this is not the first time that sometimes, on . . . on specific topics, there is not perfect harmony in the family.
But what Secretary General Stoltenberg basically launched, also at GMF just a few days ago, and his vision on NATO 2030 is basically referring to three things. Number one, which is paramount, is vital, is decisive: to keep the Alliance strong militarily, as we are today, as we have been in the past, as we should remain in the future.
Secondly, where the Sec Gen, as we call him in . . . in abbreviated, friendly appellations, is also calling for, let’s say, a more robust political NATO. Because NATO is not just a defence organisation. We are also a political body. We are an alliance of democracies. And when sometimes things are becoming complex, where we need to anticipate the future, or we have to deal with the current crisis, we have to become stronger politically.
And thirdly, something that he said and I also believe just to finish on this thing, he also is making the point, and he’s right: for NATO to become even more global, not only geographically, because we are, in a way, constrained by our Washington Treaty, we are Euro-Atlantic, a transatlantic organisation, but to become even more global. And when you become more global, also some of the issues that might appear on NATO’s table are not deriving only because, let’s say, our immediate geography, also because the global situation is becoming more complex.
So we had some issues in the past. We have, even today, some conversations. We always find a way to move forward as a united body.
KATRINA MANSON: So, let’s take you at that offer to take a more robust political position. France’s Macron said to Turkey, it’s playing a dangerous game in Libya. Is that the case, or is it France that’s playing the dangerous game?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: Listen, we have two Allies that have basically raised this issue, France raised this also publicly and also politically in NATO. Turkey has responded. Secretary General Stoltenberg instructed our military commanders, our specialised bodies, to look into this thing. They are preparing a report. And I’m absolutely convinced that the whole reality of that incident will be . . . will be very clear to everybody and also that we create the political conditions for such incidents not to occur in the future.
That’s the essence of the conversation amongst Allies. Not always easy, I have to say, it’s not always easy. But there is always a way, because in the end, things that we share are far more important than things that tactically or punctually can make Allies differ on a solution for one situation or another.
KATRINA MANSON: Mr Biegun, would you like to weigh in there on Libya and what Allies are up to?
STEPHEN BIEGUN: Yeah, so Libya certainly gives us a look at the kind of challenges that we’re going to be facing in the foreseeable future. And it’s a very important test for . . . for Europe, for the Alliance and also for the United States. I have to say, Katrina, that most days I feel like I need a scorecard to keep track of who’s on what side in the Libya conflict. I do want to commend the German government for playing also a very important role in Europe, in the Berlin Process to try to bring an end to the fighting. The United States stands side-by-side with Chancellor Merkel and I want to commend German leadership on an issue.
So, you highlight the divisions but you also . . .
KATRINA MANSON: How many times has the Trump administration commended German leadership on an issue before?
STEPHEN BIEGUN: So, you, when you highlight the divisions, I think it is important also to highlight where we’re able to work together. And this is a good example. But there are others and, as Mircea says, we just have to work through each of these problems. So we are and we will, that’s a hallmark of the Alliance.
KATRINA MANSON: Thank you. And I while I have you, of course, I’ve got to ask about North Korea, an issue very close to your heart and, by extension, very related to what NATO might be trying to look at with arms control and China. Your boss, Secretary Pompeo has said, in 2018, that there would be very substantial nuclear disarmament by the end of President Trump’s first term. Is . . . is that any way going to happen? And what . . . what has North Korea been doing since Singapore in terms of developing its own weapons?
STEPHEN BIEGUN: Yeah, so the . . . getting a deal in North Korea is going to depend upon the North Koreans, not just us. We’ve laid out a quite a robust and detailed plan, that if the North Koreans would engage with us in negotiation, we could make progress very quickly. Our goal is, and remains, the final and complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea is a substantial . . . it certainly has a substantial supply of nuclear material, bombs grade material, likely, according to many public estimates, a number of weapons as well. And our challenge throughout this process has been North Korea’s unwillingness to cease those activities in order to allow a diplomatic process to move forward.
We do believe there is a much brighter future available on the Korean Peninsula for all the people of the Korean Peninsula. It also would be very important to Russia, China, Japan and a number of other countries around the world. But ultimately, it hinges upon whether or not the North Korean government is prepared to sit down and discuss substantive steps that will get us there.
So far, as the lead negotiator, I’ll tell you that I have felt repeatedly that negotiators are put across from us that simply don’t have the authority to make those decisions on behalf of their government. And that’s a fundamental challenge. In fact, in the run-up to the Hanoi Summit, the North Korean negotiators were largely prohibited from discussing matters related to the nuclear weapons at all. They saved that all for the summit meeting itself between the two leaders. And the result that came from that summit was somewhat predictable, on that basis.
We’ve had subsequent meetings, hosted . . . one hosted late last year in Europe, where, again, the discussion was largely us describing a substantial plan to move forward on all the issues of concern to both us and the North Koreans, but we haven’t been able to get them to engage at a political level. We were puzzled as to why, because the hardship in North Korea is palpable. In fact, very likely by open estimates, the North Korean economy is going to take an even more substantial step backwards than it has in previous years.
So the pressures are immense on the regime and the regime continues to prioritise the expenditure of its resources on its military capabilities. So that, also, is going to require us to maintain a full deterrent, which we will and we do – I don’t think anybody doubts that – and . . . and continue to leave the door open to diplomacy.
We believe there is still time for the United States and North Korea to make substantial progress in the direction that we believe that both . . . both sides want to go. Certainly that’s . . .
KATRINA MANSON: And can I just stop you . . . sorry, your answers are very helpful, we’re just running out of time, does that mean you would foresee another summit between the two leaders?
STEPHEN BIEGUN: In the time remaining and with the wet blanket the COVID-19 has put over the entire world, it’s hard to envision circumstances where we could do an in-person international summit, but certainly engagement between the two sides and we’re . . . we’re prepared to do so if the North Koreans . . .
KATRINA MANSON: Between the two leaders? Between the two leaders, even – engagement?
STEPHEN BIEGUN: I think that . . . I think it’s probably unlikely between now and the US election, as we see events being cancelled around the world, including programmes like the GMF. In fact, the UN General Assembly has announced it’s cancelling the September session. We’re struggling, hoping to have an in-person meeting of the G7 later this year, but circumstances are quite challenging to hold those kind of meetings in person, anywhere in the world.
KATRINA MANSON: I’m going to end by just asking you both a very rapid fire question, because we’ve come to our time. On the nature of Zoom diplomacy, have you found any benefits to jumping from meeting to meeting, looking at people in the face instead of in person? Or has it been a real nightmare for you both? Perhaps if I start with you, Deputy Secretary Biegun?
STEPHEN BIEGUN: Yeah. So I can’t say that I love the format, but I will say this: that I have had more interaction with my counterparts in Europe and in North America via this technology than I would have in a normal course. If you look back the last six months and we didn’t have these circumstances, I may have seen counterparts, like the German State Secretary or the Parliamentary Secretary of the UK, maybe once or twice, and a phone call or two in between. I’ve spoken or met with them virtually on a weekly basis for months now. Many of them I’ve never met in person. But I feel like we are on a very close basis and first name relationship even, with . . . with each other, because of this technology. It’s not a perfect substitute, but it has allowed us to develop a workaround that in some ways, has led to more familiarity than we might otherwise have.
KATRINA MANSON: Thank you so much. And let’s give the last word to NATO. More familiarity than you might otherwise have had, would you . . . would you countenance that with . . . with COVID?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: You know, this is lessons learned. We learned that we can do things in a different way. We have conducted successfully two defence ministerials, one foreign ministers. As I mentioned, we . . . we invite, also, friends from around the world. But I think we should not jump into the conclusion that from now on we can deal with global affairs just by Zoom diplomacy. I think a combination, a smart combination, an interesting mix, a hybrid between traditional diplomacy. Because sometimes meeting people, you know, drinking a coffee, exchanging some views in a personal way is important. But I think we have learned that we can do much, much more in a more efficient way using new technology. So NATO is a very agile organisation. So we are learning fast. And I think we will find a new normal, quite attractive to all of us.
KATRINA MANSON: Well, thank you so much, Deputy Secretary General, Deputy Secretary, it’s been a pleasure. And thank you for all your insights and thank you to the audience. And it’s farewell from me.
STEPHEN BIEGUN: Thank you.