Newsmaker Interview: George Robertson served as secretary general of NATO from 1999 to 2003
Russia would be “ill-advised” to take great comfort from Donald Trump’s election, said George Robertson, a former secretary general of NATO, adding that NATO’s commitment to the defense of its member states must be at the core of any future reset in the relationship between Washington and Moscow.
In an interview with the New Atlanticist, Robertson exhorted NATO member states to meet the goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense in order to prevent the Alliance from turning into a “paper tiger.” So far only five of the Alliance’s twenty-eight member states meet this goal. At NATO’s Wales Summit in 2014, all member states had pledged to meet this target.
However, it is a US commitment to NATO that is at the top of the minds of most European officials these days. On the campaign trail, Trump described NATO as “obsolete.” He also appeared to make US military support for NATO member states conditional on whether those states had met their financial obligations to the Alliance. Since his election on November 8, Trump has told officials, including US President Barack Obama, that he will preserve the US commitment to NATO.
Robertson, who served as NATO secretary general from 1999 to 2003, said the United States has two very good reasons to remain committed to the Alliance. The only time that NATO invoked Article 5, its self-defense clause that states that an attack on one member constitutes an attack on all members, was in support of the United States after the attacks of September 11, 2001. “So, there is a good selfish reason why America needs to be close to and involved in NATO,” said Robertson.
The second reason, he noted, is that NATO’s role is crucial “in this day and age where there is a huge conflict between the ordered world—that is the world that believes in democratic values and the rule of law and sustainable parliamentary institutions—and the disordered world, which is a danger to the way of life that we have enjoyed.”
At a meeting in Istanbul on November 21, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he was looking forward to working with a Trump administration.
Trump’s election has been celebrated in Russia as a win for Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Trump after his election. The president-elect has stated that he wants to mend ties with Russia.
Robertson said it was all well and good for Trump to attempt a reset in the relationship with Russia. After all, he pointed out, both George W. Bush and Obama had made similar attempts.
As Trump considers venturing down this path, Robertson had some words of advice: “The red line with any potential adversary has got to be Article 5.”
“We may see an increasingly warm relationship between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, and that’s not a bad thing as long as we recognize that Russia has done things that we deeply disagree with,” he added.
George Robertson spoke in a phone interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.
Q: On the campaign trail, Donald Trump called NATO obsolete. What does his victory mean for the Alliance?
Robertson: If Donald Trump meant what he said on the campaign trail, then that would be extremely bad news for the Alliance and good news for our opponents. But since then he has assured President Obama that he strongly supports the Alliance and it would appear that to other people he has met the signal has come out that he will continue America’s allegiance to the Alliance and to the solidarity that represents to all members. We have got to distinguish between the campaign trail and the statements that were made then and where the president-elect now is making clear his position. They seem to be different.
Q: Why is it important for the United States to remain committed to NATO—and what would be the consequences if this commitment were to waver?
Robertson: There are two reasons why the United States should be absolutely supportive of NATO. One is a selfish reason. NATO membership is about American defense and security as well as that of the other members of the Alliance. That’s why America became part of NATO. On the 12th of September, 2001, the self-defense clause of the Alliance was invoked in order to support America when the United States was attacked on 9/11. So, there is a good selfish reason why America needs to be close to and involved in NATO.
The second reason is that NATO is the most successful defense alliance that the world has ever known. It is twenty-eight nations united by common values, pledging to each other that an attack on one of them is an attack on all. That is very, very important in this day and age where there is a huge conflict between the ordered world—that is, the world that believes in democratic values and the rule of law and sustainable parliamentary institutions—and the disordered world, which is a danger to the way of life that we have enjoyed.
Q: Do you consider Trump’s victory to be a win for Russia and a loss for nations like Ukraine and the Baltic States?
Robertson: Whether it was a boost for Russia and a negative for the Baltic States and Ukraine and Georgia really depends on whether President-elect Trump actually believes what he was saying on the campaign trail. A lot of that was the exaggeration that occasionally comes into an election campaign.
Russia would be ill-advised to take great comfort from Mr. Trump’s election. Yes, [Trump] would like to reset the relationship, but then so did President Obama and so did President George W. Bush. We may see an increasingly warm relationship between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, and that’s not a bad thing as long as we recognize that Russia has done things that we deeply disagree with.
I don’t see this as bad news for the NATO nations that may feel, at the moment, slightly vulnerable. President-elect Trump has said that he will stand by the obligations involved in NATO and protecting the free world. Maybe they should wait and see, but I would suggest that the recent statements by Mr. Trump suggest that they don’t have anything to worry about.
Q: Trump wants to mend ties with Russia. What for you should be the red lines of such a reset?
Robertson: The red line with any potential adversary has got to be Article 5. The countries of NATO have the protection of Article 5, that is any attack on one of them is deemed to be an attack on all of them. Therefore, I believe that the Russians will respect that and agree to that. They have always had a great deal of respect for NATO and NATO’s internal and external strength.
I think we can do deals with Russia—we have done them in the past—as long as international law and acceptable behavior is observed. That, of course, is what NATO is about and NATO defense is about.
Q: Europe today faces the uncertainty of Brexit, a revanchist Russia on its east, a migrant crisis on its south. Now after a failed coup, Turkey has gone after Turkish military officers serving in NATO command positions. What does this combination of challenges mean for NATO’s future?
Robertson: The series of challenges that we are facing at the present moment is almost unprecedented and that means that the value of NATO is increasing all the time. It means that NATO nations have got to have the capabilities to be able to deal with these challenges, including political and economic measures.
NATO is not simply a military alliance. People forget that the North Atlantic Treaty was also to do with economic, social, and political matters. The political side of NATO is often undervalued and understated. It has got to be emphasized.
If we are going to deal with the migration crisis, Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of these issues, it means that NATO has got to have proper, up-to-date capabilities. It has got to have the right posture politically and diplomatically; it has got to make sure that its members are safeguarding the values and institutions that NATO stands for; and they have got to have the right equipment and capabilities to deal with a whole range of challenges and problems. That includes both the ones that we know about and the surprises that will come further down the road.
Q: Even before Trump, US officials, including US President Barack Obama and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates have urged NATO’s European members to increase defense spending. Why is it important for the twenty-three member states of the Alliance that do not meet the 2 percent of GDP goal to quickly meet this target?
Robertson: It is important that the 2 percent target is reached because NATO could become a paper tiger if it simply doesn’t have the capabilities to be able to defend the member nations who sign up to it. It is clearly intolerable and unsustainable for all of these countries to depend on the capabilities of Britain, France, and the United States at this time.
It is not just a nominal position in terms of the 2 percent, it is what the 2 percent buys. It buys the capabilities which make up the arsenal of weaponry which we have at the present moment. It is partly psychologically important, but militarily it is also hugely important that we gain capabilities. NATO could be seen as a paper tiger if it is seen as an organization dependent on only a handful of states. Everyone has got a stake here. Everybody’s defense is involved and everybody’s way of life needs to be protected, and that can only be by a common endeavor and a common expenditure.
Q: Is the rise of populist leaders, in Hungary and Poland, for example—and Russia’s ties to some populist parties in Europe—posing a threat to NATO’s cohesion?
Robertson: NATO’s cohesion has always got to be a matter of discussion and debate. That’s what it’s about. We are talking about common defense. We are talking about the subordination of national sovereignties in the common good. NATO is only meaningful if it has a range of capabilities inside the Alliance. That needs to be at the top of the agenda at every meeting of the North Atlantic Council and every meeting of ministers and heads of government.
NATO has got to be strong militarily, diplomatically, economically, and it has also got to make sure that its own house is in order. We can’t have a situation where individual countries are slackening off on the values side of government and politics allowing external powers to interfere in their domestic politics. The internal strength of NATO is also related to the external strength of NATO, and both need to be a priority.
Q: How should NATO address this slackening off on values?
Robertson: NATO’s great strength is its interoperability. Countries coming into the Alliance need to make sure that their armed forces are interoperable. That has been one of the invisible strengths of NATO that many people in the outside world don’t see. I think that also should apply to politics as well. The values of NATO and the NATO nations are hugely important for the internal strength of the Alliance. That means making sure that outside states are not interfering in NATO nations. It also means that countries themselves should take measures to make sure that they live up to the range of values which allowed them to join the Alliance in the first place. All of this is extremely important because NATO nation states will be judged by their performance on upholding democratic values. and If one country is weak then every country will be weakened as well.
Q: There is also a gap in threat perceptions among European states—specifically those in the east and those in the south. How serious is this challenge and how should it be addressed?
Robertson: There always will be challenges to an alliance of free nations. These are sovereign nation states who have given up sovereignty in terms of Article 5 and their collective defense, but they remain individual nation states. That means we have to constantly maintain attention to the cohesion of the Alliance and watch the behavior of countries inside the Alliance. We must ensure that the values on which the Alliance is built are entrenched and reinforced inside NATO countries.
Q: A German lawmaker has suggested that Europe develop its own nuclear deterrent strategy to offset its dependence on US defense. What are your thoughts on this suggestion?
Robertson: I don’t think that kind of talk gets any traction at all. Germany is spending only just over one percent of its GDP on defense. That is clearly inadequate. So, for anyone in Germany to suggest that they would take on the operation of nuclear weapons would be something that would go against the grain of recent German history. It would also be massively expensive. The fact is that nuclear deterrence is provided in the Alliance by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. That makes sure that the nuclear umbrella exists for all of the nation states in the Alliance.
There will always be individual lawmakers in parliaments inside the NATO alliance with individual points of view, but I don’t think that point of view is representative of Germany or of the other non-nuclear weapon states inside NATO. They all depend on the nuclear umbrella of the United States, Britain, and France.
Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.