by NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană at the Brussels Forum

  • 17 Jun. 2021 -
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  • Last updated: 18 Jun. 2021 11:45

(As delivered)

Steve: Let me jump to Jonathan.  And while I'm doing that, welcome to Mircea Geoană, the Deputy Secretary General of NATO.  Mircea, I just introduced you to everyone.  It's awesome to have you with us today.  But Jonathan, I guess my question as we look at now, how do you put the building blocks back together?  As Mark said, you know, we're on our heels, we need to take this seriously, we've got to jump forward.  But when you sort of look at that challenge, I guess my question is, if you're sitting, as I am now, in Slovakia, or you look at those Allies we've had that say wow, the G7 is back, they see green sprouts of American leadership, again, at NATO.  But would you blame them if they had a little bit of doubt, after four years of a White House that was spitting on those very multilateral institutions, which I know many of you think are so vital to this time and this challenge, Jonathan?

Jonathan Katz: Yeah, no, that's a constant refrain that we hear, concerns about what... that Trumpism is not gone, could come back, and that you can see the devastation wrought in terms of [inaudible] engagement in multilateral organisations, democracy globally over the last four years.  But Mark pointed out that this didn't start just in the Trump Administration, during that period, this has been ongoing.  Those Freedom House scores talk about 15 years of democratic backsliding and I think President Biden, you point to that speech on the tarmac, and everybody should sort of really look at that, he points to January 6th and he says, I can't believe that that happened.  And I think, so the impact of that is huge, but you're already seeing quickly, I think the US, you know, is back again, five months into the Administration, you're seeing, you know, at these summits, all of these summit communiques are so heavily laden with a democracy focus.  And I think a lot of people, five months ago, doubted that European partners and Allies, G7 partners, others globally, would start to move back into this direction.  But I think it's been a success for this Administration.  But the hard work is about to come because you have to fulfil those agreements.  Those are just communiques, they're a language on paper, so we'll see.

Steve: That's great.  Mircea, I'm going to jump to you next and then to Karen.  And feel free, as I told everyone, to jump on each other and interact on what each of you say.  And I should also tell our audience, we're already getting some very good questions, so feel free to send them in and there'll be fed my way.  But Mircea, I want you to take off your Deputy Secretary General hat for a minute, you know, you and I talked in the middle of the COVID crisis and you highlighted things about partnership in America, with Romania, that I didn't know about flights, that there was more going on beneath the surface collaboratively than much of the world saw.  But let me ask you the question to ask, that I just asked Jonathan Katz, if you want to feel your neighbourhood, our mutual Allies in NATO, wanted to feel the robustness of re-engagement of America around democratic values and norms, what would be those elements on that list that you think we have to check off those boxes, as opposed to just kind of going incrementally and by inertia into this?

Mircea Geoană [NATO Deputy Secretary General]: Steve, first of all, thanks for having me and it's a pleasure to see you even, you know, still virtually.  Listen, I'm still under the euphorical impression of the very successful NATO Summit we had just last Monday here in NATO Headquarters.  And I do not believe that Summit was incremental.  I think it was a major leap towards our continuous relevance as an Alliance, towards our permanent adaptation, and what makes this NATO Alliance so unique, we always say with great pride, the most successful Alliance in human history, even President Biden is repeating this quite often, because we always managed to put together two indispensable ingredients, number one, common values, and democracy and rule of law, and respect of individual freedom, your right to choose your leaders, your right to choose your life, your right to choose as a nation what kind of organisation you would like to join.  That's the number one glue, if you want, of this Alliance.

 And the other one is, of course, the ones of [inaudible] adaptation and relevance because you have to move forward to times that are changing.  What I think that President Biden has done in this, you know, sequence of high level engagements over the last few days, he started not only with G7.  We looked at G7 because it's G7, that's the name of the format, but President Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, they invited India, Japan, South Korea and South Africa. 

Only a few years ago, we were talking about the BRICS.  Remember the BRICS, the acronym?  Now we are basically moving into something else.  And then President Biden came to NATO, he rallied his European Allies and Canada and then he went to see the European Union leadership, and then he went to see President Putin in Geneva. 

So, I'm saying that there is both a moral imperative for us to defend our values, it's also an organising principle of a democratical political West.  Without this, we have absolutely no competitive advantage when we talk about our epical fight with authoritarian counter propositions to how to organise human societies. 

So, in a way, both from a moral, from a practical, from a strategic, from a tactical viewpoint, we have to do something about this.  Coming from a country that lived under communists only a few decades ago, I'll also tell you something else, and I think sometimes we are also complacent, and probably the events, the dramatic traumatic events in Washington on January 6th, this was a trauma also for me as a Romanian.

 I think this was a trauma for all the friends of America and all the friends of democracy worldwide.  We realised that even the most robust, if you want, the flagship of democratic world, is so fragile.  So, my word of caution, of concern and hope that I have with you, taking off my DSG hat from NATO, is that democracy is a work in progress, that our public opinions are many times discontent for the right reasons, that of course our adversaries try to amplify these fractures, micro or macro fractures in our societies but, in the end, it's up to us to continue to modernise our democracies, to regain the trust of our public opinions.  And this is in fact what political leadership is supposed to be doing.  Internationally, President Biden is doing exactly the right thing that he was supposed to be doing.

Steve: Thank you for that.  Karen, let me ask you a similar question but from a different perspective.  You look at development, you look at aid, you look at the kind of broad level of multilateral organisations working together, you know, as a vital part of the picture.  And these institutions have been pushed back [inaudible]  I've talked and interacted with many of them.  I think morale has been low the last four years.  I'm interested in what you feel needs to be put on the agenda to revitalise the strength and role of global cooperation, strength and role of multilateral organisations, much of what Mark Malloch brown just shared.  Tell us what your agenda is, and what do you need?

Karen: Many things, but I would actually not... I will not start by answering your question but rather responding to the panellists, friends on the panel here, and take off my hat as leader of a Government agency in Sweden.  Democracy has, as Mark pointed out in the beginning, the belief in democracy has declined over the last 15 or so years, but also the trust in democracy to deliver, to deliver jobs, to deliver healthcare, education, or whatever.  And in the long run, or rather very rapidly, we have to make the democracies deliver for everyone in societies.  Deliver good healthcare, now it's evident in the wake of the pandemic, but also in other areas.  And I think that we have, and I'm now putting on other hats from my past, we have underestimated how people in all our countries, also Sweden, feel put aside by leadership in our societies.  And the disbelief for the decline in trust in democracies is based on our societies not delivering as firmly as before, and we have not been able to provide sort of a positive view on the future in the democracies.  So, that is the biggest, to my eyes anyways, to my view, the biggest challenge for everyone wanting to work with democracies. 

Of course, press, it's a right for everyone to be allowed to organise yourself or put the vote in a ballot a box, but it's also a right for everyone to get the promises delivered by the politicians elected.  For us, we work with trying to support the creation or the strengthening of democracies in other countries, and I think that our biggest challenge is actually to be allowed to have very long term goals, to where it takes 10/15/20 years.  If I look back at Swedish development cooperation, one wrong thing with it was leaving South Africa too early.  We said it's all done, 1994, there is a democracy, the constitution is fantastic, they've had the fantastic elections, etc., etc.  We should have stayed and continued to work with building of trust and strong institutions in the country, to support that process.  When it comes to the multilateral institutions, many of them deliver very strongly, but we expect them also to be able to stand up for the values of the United Nations, or of the multilateral banks or whatever multilateral institutions we have.  For the multilateral institutions to be able to do that, the individual members, i.e., countries have to give them that possibility.  And then we're back to the individual voter in the individual country giving thoughtful and brave leaders the possibility to actually press the multilateral system.

Steve: Well, thank you for that.  Mark, let me jump back to you for a moment, both to kind of broaden this discussion but I think, whether you look at Europe, where I'm sitting now, and we see a fairly illiberal leader like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, we see in NATO, Turkey is there, if you look at the German Marshall Funds recently, just released public attitude surveys, you know, there's not a lot of trust between Turkey and NATO, and particularly the US objectives in this.  And I'm just interested in if there's a Mark Malloch Brown playbook, you know, you can you can draw lines and say we're not going to talk to somebody, butI mean, I hate to put it this way, but how do you seduce them back, so they believe in what Karen and Jonathan just shared, and Mircea Geoană, that they buy the project, they see it's delivering, as opposed to becoming a federation of tribes, with each tribe trying to knock each other out?  Mark?

Mark Malloch Brown: Look, it's a good, very good question, Steve.  And I think, you know, Karen half answered it, you know, by making the really important point that democracy has got to be seen to deliver.  You know, I like her example about Sweden, which was such a powerful force in funding the liberation movements in Southern Africa.  With hindsight, pulling out too far, but it's also, you know, OSF remain very engaged in South Africa, as in fact Sweden is too but, you know, George Soros who started us, you know, in the case of South Africa said OK, we've got this problem of how do you build a black middle class in South Africa.  And interestingly, his approach was not to sort of go and argue for rights legislation, there were lots of other people doing that, he started a housing market for black South Africans by funding black housing construction through revolving loans.  And, you know, so he understood immediately that link that democracy must deliver. 

There was this massive pent up aspiration demand by black South Africans that needed to be met and addressed, and it was imperfectly met and addressed.  And now there's finally a crisis in South African democracy in some ways but, you know, you've got to deliver in that way.  But I think also the other point is, you know, multilateral institutions can't just become battering rams for democracy, they need to, you know, incorporate their full membership.  You know, it's important that Turkey stays in NATO even, you know, though it does not meet the democratic norms one would wish to see.  But, you know, and that's even more true of the UN.  I mean, I get quite alarmed when, you know, I hear American leaders talk about sort of making the UN a vehicle for the democratic half of the world versus China.  You know, we've both got to promote democracy but we've also got to keep a universal conversation going, an inclusive conversation of everybody.  And I think actually, as the world is getting so polarised, we're seeing a strange jump in options on the UN.  I'm amazed at how many problems my colleagues say, can you give us an access point at the UN? 

Because, you know, the US and China are so butting heads or, you know, that often it is the multilateral approach which is the only one which gets a bit of oxygen or progress.  You know, now people are turning to the UN for the post-US/Afghanistan.  It's the UN envoy who's looked to, to try and get some kind of dialogue going in Myanmar.  It couldn't play that role if it just became a standard bearer for the democratic approach alone.

Steve: Well Mark, you've mentioned China and we have so many questions.  Doctor Bob Holly has asked about how can the EU and NATO best, you know, work the China question on democracy given what we've seen in Hong Kong?  And given what we've seen is outrageous abuses, like Xinjiang and the Uyghurs and whatnot.  And Ned Wiley has asked, lots of talk about NATO Summit about China, but President Macron puts out that NATO is an Atlantic focused Alliance so, you know, what's the connection to Asia?  So I guess, you know, [inaudible] you'll have to work these out, but I'd love to hear from Geoană, Deputy Secretary General of NATO, this time with his hat on, but also Jonathan Katz.  You know, as you think about illiberal regimes out there, you know, this is where I had hoped topics like climate change, or some of the great migration crises and refugee crises in the world, these big transnational global problems that take everyone's, you know, shouldering in, including countries like China and Russia and others, I thought that would create an opportunity for overlap of interests.  But there seems to be growing divide.  So, Mircea, would you like to jump in, and then Jonathan?

Mircea Geoană [NATO Deputy Secretary General]: Listen, of course there was lots of attention, like almost never before, to a final communique of an international organisation like NATO, I have seen in many years, so much media interest in looking to the wording and the language that our leaders have agreed. 

So what you read in this final communique of the NATO Summit, it's consensualised language from all Allies.  From all Allies.  Because we work by consensus, so we have to make sure that we strike the right balance.  Listen, where we are coming from as NATO and where I'm also coming from, as somebody who has spent a little bit of time into international affairs and politics, first, competition, which is going to continue to intensify, should not preclude cooperation and dialogue.  Because there are some issues that we need global cooperation, even if we don't see eye to eye, or even we are competing harshly on many other fronts, that issues of climate change, the issues of the pandemic, they are issues of formulating global norms for the issues that are not yet regulated internationally, like cyberspace has basically no international rules and norms.  Outer Space has something from the 60s or 70s. 

There are lots of things that we need to work together, including good countries that do not share our values and with whom we also have intense competition.  And in a way, the way in which President Biden is approaching these things, both Russia and with China, on different levels, it's exactly that.  OK, listen, we don't agree on many things but can we agree that we need some form of predictability in the way in which we organise the architecture of world affairs?  And I think this is, in a way, the challenge we have.

Steve: Yeah.

Mircea Geoană [NATO Deputy Secretary General]: And I do believe that competition and collaboration and dialogue with Russia, we call it in NATO, in our jargon, dual track approach, deterrence and defence very robust, you're doing things, we are taking measures to defend our people and our territories.  At the same time, we are waiting, the NATO-Russia council to reconvene.  I've made four offers to Russia to come back to the to the dialogue table.  So, I hope that there is room for competition, defending our values, defending our principles, but also collaboration, because that's a world that needs also some predictability and some stability in some form.

Steve: Thank you for that.  Jonathan?

Jonathan Katz: Yeah, I mean I think that last point is correct and I certainly think that there are areas where the Biden Administration, particularly you've seen an openness to work on, whether it's climate change, China sat at the table when the President hosted a climate summit in April, and I think there's other areas, common spaces where there will be conversations.  But I just wanted to go back to what Karen said about commitment to democracy and sort of continuously feeding and supporting its growth, because I think that's important.  Karen pointed out South Africa but I could also point to the US pulling back in places, including in Central Europe, you mentioned hungry before, V4 countries.  And I think it's really important that when we look even at China too that a continuous investment in democracy, without ending, it should be something that we consistently do.  I know, SIDA does in the Swedish government, but we really need to be looking carefully, we almost need an early warning system for backsliding democracies.  And one thing I'm not hearing in the conversation on China is democracy and also the Chinese people.  We talk a lot about the Russian people who are being oppressed right now, there's an election this year, it's not going to be a free and fair election in any means.  But thinking about the competition of democracy in Asia, Turkey was mentioned before, I think it's been a mistake for the United States, which has focused so heavily on security, that it missed the opportunity over the last several decades to really engage Turkey on democracy.  And I would say the same thing for the EU, as well.  So I just want to add competition of democracy is important.

Steve: Right.  I want to jump to Mark with a big question but, before I do that, Jon, Isabel Eyanedus asked a question, if you could just give a short slice of an answer.  I'm wondering how Erdoğan's Turkey fits the NATO 2030 framework for shared values and democracy.  You've mentioned Turkey, can you give us your view of how Turkey should be approached, real fast?

Jonathan Katz: Is this for me?  Or is it...

Steve: Yeah, for you.  I mean, I'm asking you a follow on, you just mentioned Turkey, so...

Jonathan Katz: Yeah, no, I think...

Steve: Quick follow on, give me 30 seconds on that.

Jonathan Katz: Yeah, Turkey, you know, this issue of Turkey's democracy, I know the Biden- Erdoğan meeting didn't really produce a lot of news.  But I know that this Administration is really concerned about human rights, about freedom of press and democracy.  You know, NATO needs to figure out, [inaudible] speak, we obviously have somebody, a very senior level NATO official, but NATO itself really needs to figure out how it deals with, you know, countries within NATO, that are democratic backsliders or turning towards autocracies.  I really think that when we have these weak links internally within the security structures, our collective defence is weakened.  So, it needs to be high on the agenda.  And I think if you look at polling numbers in Turkey, you see the Turkish public is split.  So, democracy is strong internally, they just have a leader right now that doesn't necessarily believe in democracy.

Steve: Thank you.  Mark, I want to throw a left, you know, curveball at you and have all of you respond.  I was up in Davos, when we were still meeting in Davos and George Soros, some years ago, laid out his concerns about major social media platforms and how destructive they were to democracies.  He anticipated in so many ways, and may have kicked off the debate that we're having now today, about many of these platforms.  A year later, he was the one, before most of the world had kind of tuned into Huawei and issues about technology, artificial intelligence and, you know, much to like Brad Smith, the President of Microsoft has written that they can be tools or weapons, you know, George said in some parts of the world they're being used in a weaponised way against their own populations and thus, again, undermining democracy.  I often find these democracy discussions don't involve those sorts of elements.  And I'm wondering, is open society, in trying to as it sort of looks at multilateral institutions, to approach those areas that George put on the table, and would love to get your reactions and other reactions from the panel?

Mark Malloch Brown: Thanks Steve, and just one comment on Turkey in response to Jonathan, you know, actually, I think Biden missed a real opportunity in the Erdoğan meeting.  There are a list of very prominent individuals who are imprisoned in Turkey, apparently he didn't raise any of them with Erdoğan and I think that is, you know, actually close to shameful.  But just moving on to your point, yes Steve, I mean I think, you know, to sort of view the threats to open society or democracy, as solely today coming from governments, is to miss half the problem. 

You know, the other half of the problem is changes in our political economy which have created, you know, a lot of corporate and financial interests, which have escaped national level regulation, and often not malignly or intentionally but nevertheless contributed to dramatic increases in inequality within countries and between countries.  And then the very special case of the social media, which is a global platform escaping a lot of regulation, weak self regulation structures of its own, not really accepting responsibility for the content it puts on that platform and, and, it having undermined the business model of traditional journalism, with people like you who check their sources.  At least I think you still do, Steve. 

Steve: I always double check [inaudible].

Mark Malloch Brown: And, you know, so we have indeed widened our sort of targets, if you like, from just governments to these other threats to human rights and freedoms.  And we think some of them are quite insidious because some of them are perfectly benign CEOs who don't even understand the impact their businesses are having on, say the pattern of global inequality.  And I think this very final point, you know, the whole model of human rights promotion of the 80s and 90s and early 2000s, of shaming governments to live up to their responsibilities, is broken.  You can't shame the governments and if some of these threats come from social media and other actors, there's no point in even trying to shame the governments alone.  So, I think looking at much more robust strategies of tackling economic interests, so you take China and the Uyghurs, well China's vulnerability may not be complaining directly to it about human rights, so much as really going after its international economic profile, to squeeze and push and try and incentivise China to change its behaviours.

Steve: Well, thank you.  Karen, let me ask you, you know, again, about the building blocks and what we can shape in the system to be cooperative.  You work so much in the private sector, you've talked about private sector partnerships, at least in the United States, I don't know the global situation, ESG investing, you know, revolutions in governance, you know, trying to think through how they can be better, has sort of emerged.  And I think some of them, some of that is greenwashing and some of it is real.  But when you look at multilateral institutions and governments in private sector, what are the elements there that you think we need to add to this equation?

Karen: I don't know if we need to add new organisations as such, but we need to have better collaboration between the multilateral development banks, the United Nation systems and other multilateral institutions.  The norms are set in certain parts of the multilateral systems, and the project pipelines so to say, are created in the banks more or less.  I'm making a simplistic picture.  So, we have to have more organised work together within the multilateral system.  We work a lot, as you say, with institutional investors, but also with other parts of the private sector.  We have good, good, very good talks and work together with the World Bank Group and other multilateral development banks.  We have good talks with the United Nation systems.  But they are clearly separate and they work separately together.  So, that's one, we have to link them together, that's for sure, and we will press for that. 

But I would, again, like to answer another question what you posed to me, and that is around digitalisation and human rights online, because this is really an area where the multilateral system and the global system should take a firm stand, otherwise [inaudible] different, private companies are setting the norms and standard in an area, which is a human rights issue.  Human rights should be applied online, as well as offline.  We have a biannual event at SIDA called the Stockholm Internet Forum, where civil society organisations are taking part, governments are taking part, but so is Google, Facebook, and others.  And there is always, always a demand, especially from civil society actors, for governments and the multilateral institutions to take a firm grip on human rights online and set up standards and follow them up.  That's an area where the multilateral system should take a stronger grip actually.

Steve: I would totally agree with you and I'm glad you raised that issue, because it just serves to be that that seems to be a deficit in the multilateral organisation world.  And also, how do you create norms?  I just want to put it on the table.  If we divide, if we end up with a splinter net, you know, you're going to have a lot of the future of the global middle class living under one [terms], that is not where the Transatlantic values base is and you've got to figure that out.  Anyway, that's just my little editorial comment.  Let me come back to all of you in our last few minutes and come back to Geoană and Mark, and all of you.  We have both a question from Sawyer Barnett, who's a student at the University of Nevada at Reno, about the call for an international summit on democracy and what can the Transatlantic relationship do, what can NATO do to strengthen democracy?  And the other is Pedro Siebra, and I apologise if I butchered names, should membership accession to multilateral institutions have more explicit democracy clauses?  Should there be elements of that where we're building in and baking in to some of these institutions, more of the guardrails for democracy?  So let me start with Mircea and then jump to Mark.  Mircea?  And we have like four minutes, so maybe a minute each.

Mircea Geoană [NATO Deputy Secretary General]: OK, let me say also one word about NATO and European Union cooperation because I'm in charge of this on behalf of the Sec Gen.  I try to do a lot on NATO-EU.  Because speaking of regulating and speaking of creating a new, not only democracy that delivers for our citizens, but it's equally true that our economic model is in huge transition and transformation, that our social contract is under huge transformation and transition, that the big portion of the new technologies impact everything we do, from security and defence to daily life of our citizens around the world, are unregulated at all.  And I give you the example of something we are working, NATO and EU, give you an example...

Steve: Just real fast.

Mircea Geoană [NATO Deputy Secretary General]: Yeah.  On artificial intelligence and how do you use ethically, morally, in accordance to an international law that still doesn't exist?  So my call to all of you, private sector, public sector, multilateral institutions, NGOs, universities, from Reno, Nevada, let's try also for the things that are now in flux, some things are in flux, some things are not yet written.  These things need to be done together.  That's my message.  I'm doing this from NATO-EU.  I think whenever UN is needed, we should go to them.  When the OECD is needed, we should go to them.  When we need also our civil society academia and private sector, and the media, we should try to do something together.

Steve: Thank you.  Great idea, great proposal.