with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg for the Halifax International Security Forum

  • 22 Nov. 2020 -
  • |
  • Last updated: 22 Nov. 2020 19:53

Robin Shepherd [Vice President of the Halifax International Security Forum]: Secretary General, thank you so much for joining us at HFX2020. There are a number of issues to discuss. One of them, of course, has been in the news this week. And this, of course, is the Administration has been talking about a drawdown in Afghanistan. I mean, not altogether surprising, not altogether difficult to understand after we’ve been there for 20 years. But you’ve expressed some concerns about drawing down too fast and, you know, a potential rise of Islamic State and associated terror groups. Have you been able to get further clarification from the White House in the last couple of days on that? 

Jens Stoltenberg [NATO Secretary General]: The US position is clear; they are going to reduce their presence in Afghanistan from roughly 4,500 to around 2,500 troops. No NATO Ally would like to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary. At the same time, if we leave too early, if we leave too hasty, we may risk to lose all the gains we have made; and that’s a risky project. 

So what is clear now is that the US is going to reduce, but they are not going to leave. The US will continue to provide support to the other NATO Allies. We have to remember that more than half of the troops in Afghanistan now are non-US – they are European Allies and also partner nations. We are in Afghanistan to make sure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for international terrorists, a platform where terrorists can plan, organise, finance, launch terrorist attacks against our countries. 

But at the same time, we strongly support the peace talks, which are taking place between Taliban and the government. And part of the agreement between the US and Taliban is that all international troops should be out by 1st May next year. So early next year, we need to make a very hard decision. That’s: whether we leave and risk to lose the gains we are made, but then at least we can be out of Afghanistan;  or whether we stay and then continue to be involved in the very challenging and demanding military operation in Afghanistan. 

My message is that we need to assess whether the conditions for leaving are met, together. We need to make these decisions together. And as we have said many times in NATO: we went into Afghanistan together, we should make decisions on adjustments of a presence there together, and when the time is right we should leave together, but then in a coordinated and orderly way. 

Robin Shepherd: As ever, in anything to do with Afghanistan, there are a lot of moving parts. One of those moving parts, of course, is a transfer of power here in the United States. Have you been in touch with President-elect Biden and/or his team? 

Jens Stoltenberg: I have congratulated President-elect Joe Biden. I also congratulated the Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris. And I know Joe Biden as a strong supporter of NATO, of the transatlantic bond, the cooperation between North America and Europe. I have had the privilege of working with him in his previous capacity as the Vice President. And I’m looking forward to working with him. My team is in contact with his team. 

At the same time, we are much aware that in the United States, as in all our countries, there’s only one President at a time. So we work with the current administration. I’ve been in close contact with them now as they have decided to adjust their presence in Afghanistan. And then I’m looking forward to work with a new Biden administration after the inauguration on 20th January. 

Robin Shepherd: After the accession of North Macedonia, there are now 30 member nations in NATO and, as you mentioned a few moments ago, a significant proportion of the troops in Afghanistan are not American. I mean, if the United States draws down to a level that you as Secretary General feel is . . . is risky – it’s hard to find the right words here – I mean, what about the other 29 nations? Can’t they put in a few more troops to hold the line? 

Jens Stoltenberg: I think we have to remember why we went into Afghanistan. We went into Afghanistan after an attack on the United States, and that’s the reason why we all have been there for almost 20 years. And more than a thousand non-US soldiers have paid the highest price, the ultimate price. And US, of course, but also NATO Allies and partners have paid a high price in . . . in blood for our presence in Afghanistan. We have achieved the most important thing, and that is to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe haven for international terrorists. But at the same time, we would like to leave when the conditions are right. And that’s exactly what we’re going to assess together early next year and then make decisions together on whether to stay or whether to leave. And after it is certain that we will then do that, all Allies, of course, including the United States. 

Robin Shepherd: Moving to the bigger international picture, let’s talk a little bit about China. China is a rising power. No one doubts that. No one disputes there’s any reason why it shouldn’t be a rising power, that its economy will overtake the United States at some point, probably towards the end of this decade. It is obviously increasing its military expenditure. To what extent does China pose a strategic challenge to NATO? 

Jens Stoltenberg: China is not an enemy and China is not an adversary. But of course, the rise of China has implications for NATO and NATO Allies. There are huge opportunities, not least economic opportunities. China is a big, growing economy, it provides markets for all NATO allies, and it has actually helped to fuel economic growth also in NATO countries. 

But at the same time, there are some challenges. China already has the second largest defence budget in the world. They are investing heavily in new, modern capabilities, including nuclear capabilities, missiles which can reach all NATO countries, maritime capabilities. And we also see that China is a country which doesn’t share our values: democracy, the rule of law, in the way we believe in it in NATO. We have seen that when it comes to, for instance, the way they deal with Hong Kong, undermining the democratic rights of people living there, Uyghurs, minorities. 

But we’ve also seen it in the way China tries to coerce, intimidate neighbours, both in the region in the South China Sea, but also, for instance, how they tried to punish Australia for raising some issues about the coronavirus; or my own country - the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident some years ago and then for many, many years, China tried actually to force us to express a public excuse for that decision. So all of this is, of course, a challenge. And for me, that just makes NATO more important because when we stand together, all NATO Allies, we are 50 percent of the world’s GDP, 50 percent of the world’s military power. And size matters, especially when you discuss the consequences of the rise of China. 

Robin Shepherd: Yeah, but we actually put out a handbook for democracies on China this week, I don’t know whether you’ve had a chance to look at it, but . . . and I actually mentioned as the author of that . . . that handbook, the Norwegian case, which is interesting, and to me, it highlights it, it’s very easy to blame Norway and to a certain extent, well, you know, Norway is a democracy and has to accept criticism like any other democracy. 

And yet, to me, the important issue was the lack of solidarity. I mean, it’s very easy to blame one European country for not standing up to this enormous behemoth in China. But unless we actually stand together, then China is going to essentially assert its will over . . . over individual nations. I mean, to what extent is there unity within NATO about China? 

Jens Stoltenberg: So, we have just launched a project which we call NATO 2030, which is about the future of NATO. And that project will, of course, address many different issues. But one of the issues we have to address is the consequences of the rise of China. And I strongly believe that, if anything, the rise of China just makes NATO more important and unity amongst NATO Allies more important. And this is not only about, you know, the military challenges, but also about cyber. It’s about the resilience of our infrastructure telecommunication, where we see China is investing heavily. And it’s also about standing together, when we stand up for our values. And I think we all have some lessons to learn. 

I was Prime Minister at that time in Norway when China tried to force us to give in, we were able to stand up against that pressure. But it is hard, and it’s hard when China picks one by one. So therefore, if anything, I believe that NATO should become an even stronger political platform for uniting Allies, but also partners, to stand up when China tries to coerce, to force upon them a policy, or force them to do something which is against their interests. And therefore, we are also working more and more closely with our partners in the Asia-Pacific. I recently visited Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, all partners of NATO, and they all expressed a strong will to work more closely with NATO and we are ready to do so. 

Robin Shepherd: It’s interesting and your last point’s very much in line with what I was just going to ask you, which is that: it seems that the rise of China has concentrated minds. I mean, I don’t want to say that we were complacent for 30 years after the end of the Cold War. But there was a certain element of wishful thinking about China. There was a belief that capitalist economics would inevitably lead to political democracy. And plainly, that simply hasn’t happened. And NATO is staying in the Euro-Atlantic region as an organisation. You’re not looking for members out in Asia or Indo-Pacific region. 

But please just talk a little bit more about the cooperation between democracies that NATO is an integral part of, because it seems to me that reimagining alliances between democracies for the 21st century, rather than embedding ourselves in the thinking of the 20th century, is really the way to go. So I wonder what your thoughts are on that?

Jens Stoltenberg: NATO is a regional Alliance, North America and Europe, and we should remain a regional Alliance. At the same time, NATO as a regional Alliance needs a more global approach, because so many of the challenges, threats we face, are more and more global: terrorism, cyber, space, hybrid warfare, proliferation of nuclear weapons, and then the rise of China, are all global challenges that matters for all the NATO Allies. 

So I think it’s absolutely possible for NATO to remain a regional organisation, but at the same time work more and more closely with like-minded countries all over the world, but including in the Asia-Pacific region. And I strongly believe that democracies of the world should stand together. After the end of the Cold War, we saw some decades where more and more countries became democratic. More and more people lived in democratic societies. Now we have seen actually the trend shifting a bit in the wrong direction. So that makes it even more important that countries that believe in democracy, in the rule of law, have to stand together, especially when we see pressure from outside, from countries that doesn’t share or don’t share our values, like, for instance, China. 

Robin Shepherd: A final question, Secretary General, coming back to NATO, I mentioned a little earlier in this discussion that North Macedonia had joined NATO, bringing the number to 30. There is still this sense that it’s a healthy and expanding Alliance. 

One of the criticisms, which you will be very well aware of and I’m sure quite sympathetic towards, at least privately, from the American side, is that NATO countries have not been spending enough on defence. But since the Cardiff Summit in 2014, there has been progress, hasn’t they? Could you just give us a sense of where we are in terms of the recommended two per cent of – it’s not a requirement - the recommendation to spend two per cent of GDP and where you see things going in the next few years?

Jens Stoltenberg: So, first of all, I welcome the fact that NATO’s door is open and that we now have a new member, North Macedonia. And the Defence Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Radmila Šekerinska, she’s really a great ambassador for her country. She used to be the Deputy Prime Minister, I don’t think she’s that anymore, but at least she’s the Minister of Defence and she will participate in the Halifax Forum and I think that’s just one way of demonstrating the importance of a NATO Ally, North Macedonia. 

Then, on burden-sharing, that’s an area where, actually, we have made significant progress. I’m not saying that we are where we should be, but we are in a much better place than where we were just a few years ago. Because since we made the decision back in 2014 about spending more on defence, fairer burden-sharing, all NATO Allies across Europe and Canada have increased. More NATO Allies meet the guideline of spending two per cent of GDP on defence and the majority have plans in place to spend two per cent. And just over the last years, we have added a significant tens of billions of dollars to our defence spending, to our budget. So that’s good news, mainly because it shows that NATO, actually, we are 30 Allies which are committed and when we decide something, we’re able to deliver. And that’s exactly what we’ve done over the last years. 

Robin Shepherd: NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, thank you so much for joining us at HFX2020. 

Jens Stoltenberg: Thank you so much for having me.