Kurt Volker is a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and member of the Council’s Strategic Advisors Group. He is also a former US ambassador to NATO and current managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies. I had the opportunity to discuss his thoughts on some key issues of interest to the Atlantic Council community.

At a recent Atlantic Council conference, you discussed the future of NATO. How would you assess the state of the alliance?

I am concerned about the state of the alliance because it is facing three serious problems.  

One is the global economic crisis which is starving NATO of resources just as the demands on NATO to address a wide range of security threats are growing.  

Two is Afghanistan, which carries tremendous risk for the transatlantic relationship should NATO fail.  Such a failure would reinforce a growing U.S. attitude that it is not worth working with reluctant Allies who do not do their share, as well as a growing European belief that NATO should not have gotten involved in Afghanistan in the first place, and should pull back from a global role.  

Three is that NATO still has no common approach to dealing with Russia.  While the tone of NATO-Russia relations appears calm, this is not because Russia has become a more constructive player, but because NATO has been willing to downplay problems, such as Russia’s lack of compliance with the CFE Treaty, it’s occupation of parts of Georgia, it’s pressure on many neighboring states, and its reversal of democratic freedoms at home. 

You are very experienced with previous NATO Summits, how would you improve the plans for the upcoming NATO Summit at Lisbon?

I know it is flippant, but I would cancel the agenda at Lisbon and lock the Heads of State in a room for 3 hours so they can actually talk with each other.  NATO Summits have become too scripted, too set-piece, too boring for leaders, and too focused on mini-deliverables rather than strategic dialogue and commitment.  So much of the negotiations leading into summits is about defining the limits — what allies will not do — rather than defining our shared commitments and responsibilities.  We are far from a genuine trans-atlantic consensus about the world we live in today – What is the nature of the “West,” and how do we tackle together a complex set of challenges in the wider world?   It would be far more productive for leaders to discuss these questions among themselves, than to run through the usual trappings of Summitry.  

What is the role of the public in the health and future of NATO?

There is a growing disconnect between NATO’s security experts, on the one hand, and NATO’s political leaders and the public, on the other.  There has been a decline in public support for NATO.  The public doesn’t see the value of NATO, NATO has not had a good message to communicate its value, and leaders of Allied countries are not engaged.  Ultimately, NATO can only be effective if it enjoys the support and understanding of publics.  The first step is for leaders to communicate the value of transatlantic cooperation, including on security issues through NATO, and then NATO itself needs to draw the connection between its day-to-day activity and the welfare of our publics.  

How would you articulate the value and relevance of NATO to the public?

I always start with values.  The United States and Europe are part of a single community, based on shared, democratic values:   freedom, democracy, rule of law, human rights.  These are universal values – embedded in the Universal Declaration on Human rights, and shared by people around the world – but they are deeply reflected in the societies of Europe and North America.  

These values are challenged in the world – from authoritarians, extremists, terrorists, and so on.  If our democratic community is divided, we will never confront these challenges effectively.  So we must act together.  For the past 60 years – and unless we create something else – NATO is the only device we have for concerting U.S. and European efforts to tackle the challenges we face in the world together. 

What is your view of the debate within NATO over whether it should continue to have an expeditionary role or focus on its regional role?

As the Albright report says, it has to do both.  A NATO that does not focus on Article 5 and the European theater is not doing its job.  But at the same time, a NATO that does not tackle threats “from wherever they arise” – such as the sources of terrorist plots against Europe and American from the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area – is not dealing with the most serious challenges our nations face.

Jorge Benitez is the Director of NATOSource and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.