NATO Engages 2019

“Discussion: Stronger Together: Allies in an Era of Great Power Confrontation”



Jacek Czaputowicz,

Minister of Foreign Affairs,

Republic of Poland


Kiron K. Skinner,

Director of the Office of Policy Planning and Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State


Constanze Stelzenmüller,

Robert Bosch Senior Fellow,

Brookings Institution



Frederick Kempe,

President and CEO,

Atlantic Council


Location:  Washington, D.C.


Time:  4:45 p.m. EDT

Date:  Wednesday, April 3, 2019


ANNOUNCER:  Please welcome the president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, Mr. Fred Kempe.  (Applause.)

FREDERICK KEMPE:  So this has been an incredible day.  So, first and foremost, we’re winding down.  This is the penultimate sort of session, and then with Secretary Albright closing.  But first of all, for all the staff that worked here, for the consortium members, for Atlantic Council, GMF, Munich Security Conference, and all the teams, please give a big round of applause.  This has really been incredible.  (Applause.)

So this is the session, “Stronger Together:  Allies in an Era of Great Power Confrontation.”  So we have left no small conversation.  This is a big conversation.  We all agree that we’ve gotten into an era – a new era of great power competition.  Secretary Mattis talked about that in testimony.  Others have talked about it.  The secretary general of NATO today in front of Congress said that what’s kept NATO relevant, made it the most enduring, most successful alliance, is when the world changes, NATO changes with it.  Is NATO behind the curve in this global change – new era of global competition?  If it is behind the curve, what should it do.  And we’ve got some great panelists I’m going to bring out here in a second to talk about that.

Among all the things in this day, a star-studded program featuring top officials, experts, thinkers on NATO, the secretary general – first of all, this is a rock venue, so – but I think the rock and roll star today, the Mick Jagger of NATO, was the secretary general on Capitol Hill.  I mean, he – you can really put hashtag #NATORocks next to what happens up there.  But we also love that we’ve been the anthem here.  This is a great venue to send a message of a new NATO. 

The secretary general of NATO had so many standing ovations, I thought it was an aerobics class.  (Laughter.)  Oh, come on.  It was funnier than that.  (Laughter.)  And thanks – and thanks to our audience for making this truly interactive and engaging.  Our alliances and partnerships are not institutions alone.  They’re also people.  And they get their sustainability by the buy-in and the interest of all of you around this room.  So we’ll – we must keep having, and we will keep having, these sorts of conversations.

So let me bring out our three speakers to speak on this issue set.  So, first of all, I’m honored by joined by Minister Jacek Czaputowicz.  Mr. Foreign Minister, very good to have you here.  (Applause.)

I’m very happy to invite out Kiron Skinner, senior adviser to Secretary of State and director of policy planning, U.S. Department of State.  (Applause.)

And then finally, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Robert Bosch senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.  (Applause.)

So thank you for being here today.

So one of the things, as I said, that marks the ability to adapt is that somehow, through leadership, NATO, when it needed to get through the Cold War, when it had to make – it was born after the Berlin airlift.  Twelve members in the beginning.  It’s gone through the crises the secretary-general talked about.  After the Cold War, people started to think, well, is it going to adjust.  Is it going to stay alive. 

You’ve heard a saying, well, a lot we’re against enlargement.  Some were for enlargement.  I was at The Wall Street Journal then.  The Wall Street Journal editorial page really led a fight from media in favor of enlargement.  I would argue that if NATO had not enlarged at that time, it would have lost its relevance.

Then we talked about NATO out of area or out of business.  It went out of area.  It didn’t go out of business.

Now I think the question is, what era are we going in now, and what is it NATO needs to do to adapt yet again? 

My own view – and Damon Wilson gave some testimony, the EVP of the Atlantic Council, yesterday at the House – is that there has to be stronger global links.  If we’re in an era of new global competition, there are 40 global partners, secretary-general talked about – it would make sense to deepen those global links in some way or form.  Some people would like it more formal.  Some would like it less formal.  But is that what we have to do?  One thing we know is we’re back to an era of this great power competition. 

Revisionist Russia has continued its conventional and hybrid provocations to NATO’s east and challenges the stability of European security. 

But now in the last couple of weeks we see a pretty provocative show around Venezuela.  What is that all about? 

China increasingly asserts its military might and its economic and technological might.  The United States has defined China for the first time as a strategic competitor.  The European Union defined China as a systemic rival.  The French defense minister was at the Atlantic Council a few days ago, two times used the word “threat” on behalf of China.  But, you know, what does NATO do about that?

So the alliance is at what I would say is a defining moment.  So I’m going to go to these three speakers for an initial response to their thoughts on this issue, and with a specific question to each of them.  And if you can keep – we’re going to have to wrap up in, gosh, 23 minutes or so.  So I’m going to shut up now, ask really quick questions, and then let’s be as brief as we can and try to get to the audience if we can as well.

So, Mr. Minister, how in the Polish situation, where you have all sorts of talks about greater U.S. presence and more lasting U.S. presence in Poland, how are you looking at this new era of greater power, competition, and to how much do you focus on that in Poland?

MINISTER JACEK CZAPUTOWICZ:  That’s right.  That’s right.  You are right.  It is also emerging again, traditional threat for Poland.  It is important that we faced during Cold War threat from Soviet Union.  Today Russia, it’s a main threat to Central and East European countries.  So for us, traditional role of NATO function, which is common defense, is crucial. 

But at the same time, we also observe new kind of threats, hybrid, cyber, terrorism.  So we have to demonstrate our solidarity with our allies, to also be present in the Middle East, in the South of Europe.  There is a migration.  There is terrorists, what I mentioned. 

But generally, I agree with the assessment that there is a new global competition, but at the same time it is repetition of the geopolitical context.  So for alliance to be united, you need external threat.  And now we have this threat, which is first Russia, again, also the recent evolution of the vision of the relations with China, as it was mentioned by you and also by Heiko Maas.  It’s a rival, but also it could be long-term threat.

So in this context, what is important, I think, to maintain unity among the West – democratic, free countries – to be united in order to properly face these new challenges, old and new challenges.

For Poland, as a result of our geopolitical location, American presence is crucial for our security.  Threat perception is particular in our – this part of the world, Central Europe, different than in France or Southern Europe.

So for us, transatlantic links, bond, transatlantic bond, is very important.  I’m very glad that it was also mentioned and underlined by Secretary-General Stoltenberg in today’s speech that this transatlantic unity is crucial.

There is also a danger of kind of a losing contacts between European allies and the United States and Canada.  But we are definitely for maintaining these links and to maintain unity of the alliance, which is the only way we be successful in facing these challenges.

KEMPE: So very briefly, Mr. Minister, if you’re looking at the China question and the Russia question – maybe the Russia question – on a scale from one to 10, between not unified and really unified, where do you think NATO is on Russia? And where do you think NATO is or the NATO countries, maybe not NATO as an institution, on China?

MIN. CZAPUTOWICZ:  So as far as Russia is concerned, we are quite united.  It is also there is an evidence.  We introduced sanctions.  We do not accept aggressive policy of Russia vis-à-vis for Georgia 10 years ago; Ukraine, Syria.  You mentioned Venezuela.  It is very negative for all of Russia in the world.  And there is an understanding that we have to be united.

Of course, there are countries – I just made – referred to the presentation of Heiko Maas just a half an hour ago or 15 minutes ago.  Some countries think about maintaining dialogue with Russia as crucial for our security.  I agree with that.  But at the same time, we cannot accept breaking of international law and invasion of our country.  So this is a traditional threat, threat to sovereignty of our immediate neighbor, which is Ukraine.

As far as China is concerned, there are more divergent opinions.  But I observed last month a better understanding of the challenge China creates.  There are different, so to say, kind of level of cooperation with China.  There is an economic side.  But there is a growing awareness of the potential dangerous relations and being too much dependent on Chinese, so to say, technology in some aspects.

So there is also growing understanding of the seriousness of that situation.  So our answer is from Poland, from Central Europe, maintain transatlantic links, for Poland definitely.  Relations with the United States are first.  Then we can talk about Russia.  For some European countries – Nord Stream 2 is an example – maintain business, doing business at the expense of geopolitical, so to say, situation.  It is not very much welcome.  So there are some difference, but we try to be united.  And we’ve been successful in that.

KEMPE: Well, we’ll bring North (sic; Nord) Stream to you in a minute, Constanze.

So, Kiron, first of all, congratulations on bringing out the NATO policy planners this week.  I thought that was just – you brought them over to the Atlantic Council.  It was an amazing meeting.  And symbolically, I think it was terribly important.  So thank you so much for doing that.  That was a big deal.

The – I wonder if you – you’ve done a lot of thinking about the Trump doctrine, quote-unquote.  You know, is there a Trump foreign-policy doctrine?  And if there is, where does NATO fit in that?  As you know, he – in Europe, his points of view and approaches to NATO are sometimes quite controversial.  But on the other hand, you see the secretary general.  You see what’s happened with boots on the ground.  You see what’s happened with spending.  And so there’s a little bit of a mixed message.  But it’d be very interesting to hear how you think NATO fits into a Trump foreign-policy doctrine.

KIRON K. SKINNER:  I think NATO is the big case for the Trump doctrine, and much of it I think has been developed around the idea of how NATO goes into the future.

Are we allowed to stand?

KEMPE: You can stand, you can walk, you can do cartwheels if you –

SKINNER: Thank you. I think I want to be able to look at the colleagues here.

KEMPE: Yeah. Yeah.

SKINNER: First of all, I want to say above all it is so important that the Atlantic Council, the German Marshall Fund, and the Munich Security Conference have come together for this event. Track II, as I was saying, with all of the planners of NATO, some from the EU, is become a lot more important in this – in the 21st century than perhaps we know, because working with our Track II partners to face the challenges that you talked about is central to those of us in government.  We actually cannot do it alone.  And I think the Trump doctrine recognizes that we need those who are on the outside of government and who can say things that diplomats like me can’t say.  I’m a professor by trade, so it’s a little hard for me to rein myself in, but we need Track II to do the work that will happen to preserve NATO.

The Trump doctrine I think speaks to some of the challenges that NATO has faced in recent years.  One, the president has as a pillar of his thinking the idea that national sovereignty is the core unit of analysis in the international system.  Now, I know for some in the EU who have pooled sovereignty and who see it a bit differently that there is a concern that the U.S. doesn’t recognize or support international groupings that aren’t like our own, but that’s not the case.  What we’re really trying to say is that the nation-state is where we think in this administration you can find prosperity, the best economic policies and opportunities for people.  It doesn’t mean that multilateral institutions don’t matter.  But in a hierarchy, the nation-state is really important for the future of the international system.  That’s one pillar.

So it means that NATO is important, but also there will be times that we have some disagreements.  Nothing in the Trump doctrine suggests that we are leaving the multilateral frameworks.  But we are saying how do we right-size them, how do we make sure that they represent the national interest of the various nation-states.

A second pillar is burden-sharing, and we’ve talked a lot about that.  There’s been a lot of discussion in the last couple of days and there will be, I think, for the rest of the week, this NATO week in Washington, about burden-sharing.  It doesn’t mean that everyone gives the exact dollar amount, but what they can do in increased numbers for collective defense.  That matters because I think it sends to potential challengers like Russia that we are working together.  Defense spending matters because it means that you’re putting more into R&D, that you’re developing exotic technologies in this era.

So all of these principles are connected back to, I think, core aspects of NATO that will strengthen, not weaken, NATO.  There are many more that I could talk about, but I think this gives you a sense of what I think the Trump doctrine does to relate to the NATO alliance.

And I think it’s significant that NATO has survived everything you said, Fred – the idea of out of area or out of business, it survived the 1980s with the INF deployments.  We’ve had crises in NATO at various times, but it’s the crisis that you face in a mature family.  And that’s actually what NATO is, it’s the world’s oldest and most successful security alliance.

KEMPE: So a brief follow up for you, Kiron. Vice President Pence was here, and I think the two quotes –

SKINNER: I missed those remarks, so – (laughs) –

KEMPE: Well, the two things – two areas where I think he, quote/unquote, “made news” or at least people took notice here were Germany, where he was very tough about German spending and defense spending, but extremely tough on North (sic; Nord) Stream 2. And a person who believes in national sovereignty, don’t you just say, well, that’s their sovereign choice if they want to make themselves dependent on Russia for energy, that’s their business?  So if he believes in sovereignty, why not that?

And then the second part of that is – by the way, I agree more with Pence than I – on that issue.  But the second issue is Turkey – S-400s no go, you’re not going to get F-35s.  In the morning the Turkish foreign minister said it’s a closed deal, we’re taking the S-400s.  And we think we can work out a deal to get the F-35s as well, through a technical process.  So you have with two allies some pretty big differences.  Both of them making sovereign choices that the president and the vice president are saying we don’t think you should be making.

SKINNER: Yeah. So let me respond quickly to that one.  I think on the issue of Nord Stream II, it’s a good example of trying to test and develop the Trump doctrine.  I like to say that the Office of Policy Planning at the State Department, which is the in-house think tank, our job is to take the president’s hunches and instincts and turn them into hypotheses.  In the case of Nord Stream II, we do understand the German arguments that they’re making.  And we’re making different ones. 

We’re asking nations to put their interests first, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t try to persuade our allies to think differently about their interests or align their interests to the common challenges and the ways that we see them.  So I think it’s – of course, the Trump doctrine is open for debate about things.  It doesn’t mean that every issue is immediately settled.  And I think this is one where we need to have a deeper conversation with our German colleagues and allies around national interest, and the challenges that we face especially in Russia, which is really a near-abroad for Germany.

KEMPE: And –

MIN. CZAPUTOWICZ:  And, sorry –

KEMPE: Yes, please.

MIN. CZAPUTOWICZ:  If I may add to that, because it is not a sovereign choice of Germany.  It is broader context – European Union.  You have to think also about sovereignty of Ukraine.  What will be the effect of Nord Stream II on sovereignty of Ukraine, other countries?  So there was a decision of the Council of the European Union which is against Nord Stream II.  So American position, European position, Polish position is on the one hand against, and German position is against European position.  It is very interesting to see it in that way.

Energy security, you can not guarantee it for your own country.  You have to think in the broader context of your allies, of your neighbors.  Therefore, we have to diversify our sources of gas.  For example, in Poland it make – it will influence our security – energy security, meaning general security.  So it is a very good test of the – of the policy.  Either you think about relations with Russia as a first choice, or you think about your closer allies.

And I agree with the assessment that project provides financial resources for Russia.  Russia uses this to modernize its army and threatens security of the Western world.  So, yeah, it is something in this argument used by the American planners.

KEMPE: And, well, which brings us – since we couldn’t ask these questions of Heiko Maas – you are going to embody the foreign minister and Germany, as well as being Constanze. So what about the argument the minister has just made?  You know, why should the U.S. help pay for the defense of Germany, while Germany is putting money into the – that is becoming more dependent on Russia for energy, and putting money in the pocket to modernize the Russian military, against which we’re threatened?  So I guess the one question is that. 

And then the other question is:  Are you satisfied with where Germany is moving, in a direction to 1.5 (percent) through 2025 on defense spending?  And is this – is this – first of all, I don’t know if it’s sustainable, whether it’s really going to hit that.  But give us your assessment on those two issues, and the response to whatever else you’ve heard thus far.

CONSTANZE STELZENMÜLLER:  All right.  Well, luckily I don’t represent the German government, I work at the Brookings Institution, so I’m both more at liberty to speak my mind and to try and explain what I think is happening here.

I’m on record with a fairly sharp criticism of Nord Stream II, that I wrote a couple of weeks ago, and a fairly sharp criticism of a failure to live up to our defense spending commitment, which was in The Financial Times this morning.  So I am going to try and to not do the obvious thing, which is just to repeat myself, but to say what I think is happening here.  In other words, I think we should spend more on defense and I think Nord Stream II is a really geopolitically stupid project, OK?

However, I also have to say that in Western democracies governments don’t tell multinational conglomerate to stop operations.  And it’s not just a German operation.  There’s companies from five countries, including France.  And it’s the Germans who always get the grief for this.  If we were to tell them to stop this project, invoking national security, that would be a case of eminent domain and the German government would be opening itself to lawsuits in the billions.  That’s exactly what happened after we went out of nuclear energy following the Fukushima disaster. 

In other words, by taking this maximalist line, which is you must stop the project now and rip the pipelines out of the ground, which I, personally, wish would happen.  Yeah, I would be very happy if it was just struck by lightning and the whole thing would go up in flames.  I would be delighted.  But to ask the German government to do that was to open it up to a huge – you know, 20-year lawsuits in the billions.

The non-maximalist position, which nobody seems to be talking about, is to tell the Germans to take their foot off the brake in terms of the application of EU competition law and paving the way for the unbundling and picking off the tentacles of Gazprom from this.

Two more points, if I may, on Nord Stream II.  One, there are Eastern European countries which buy 100 percent of their energy from Russia and are not notably in any way captive of Russia – the Baltics, for example.  Yeah.  These things do not correlate and they also do not correlate in the German case, which is why I will say to you it is insulting to call us captive of Russia because we’re holding together the Russian sanctions consensus in Europe at a very real cost to German business.  That far I will go to defend the German position on this.  Yeah. 

I also would remind you that we begged the Americans for years to sell us LNG and that didn’t happen.  So, anyway, enough with this crap. 

Now, what was the other question?  Defense spending.  That’s an easy one.  Our own financial planners are saying we’re not going to make it up to more than 1.25 percent until 2023.  That’s not what we promised.  This makes us look like idiots.  Guilty as charged.  But it is, I think, unfair to say that we’re not doing anything.  We have hugely increased the German defense spending in the past years.  We are racing to meet those commitment(s).

It is actually not so easy to do this kind of thing and what we’re – what we’re looking at here is a situation where we have an American ally that is saying, you know, you ought to be able to do more without us.  In other words, you need to, unlike the Libya operation where we come to your help, you need to be able to supply the backbone here.  That’s a different kind of force configuration than we’ve been asked to do in the past.  That complicates the question of defense spending and force planning for the future.

That’s the best I can do.  Sorry.  (Applause.)

KEMPE: That was – that was excellent. So we have – we are compelled to end this session at 5:25 so I’m going to give Kiron a question to answer in two and a half minutes or less.  Are we facing a situation where what Syria was to Obama and Russia, Venezuela is becoming to Trump and Russia?  So with Russia ratcheting up in Venezuela, with Maduro still hanging on, with us backing the interim presidency, are we in danger of losing Maduro, losing – sorry, losing Venezuela and thus having this be one of the moments that really defines the Trump administration?

SKINNER: Fred, I used to think you were nice, because that’s a really hard question and I think it’s actually too early to make that assessment. But do know we’re thinking about the Russian presence very seriously and it’s ramping up, and the growing complicated nature of Venezuela.  This is not an easy off ramp for Maduro, as some would have hoped.

But the glimmer of hope in all of this is the way in which about 50 nations quickly came together to recognize an interim regime that was based on democratic principles within the country.  I think that’s a story that has to really be amplified, that this is not just an American effort, and when you look at our humanitarian assistance, the whole of government way in which we’ve approached it with international partners including international organizations, I think it speaks to the fact that we are committed to understanding how to bring a representative government to Venezuela, supporting the people.  But the issue of Russian presence in our hemisphere is more than troubling.

KEMPE: Yeah. Thank you.  That’s a terrific answer to close this session with.  We have run out of time, and I’m sorry that I sneaked in that question with you, Kiron.  But, to me, this is an underestimated for the rest of the world –

SKINNER: Absolutely.

KEMPE: – and for the alliance, and when we start thinking about the new era of global competition, very often the first battlefield is unexpected and this may be the first – the first real test of this – of this situation.

So I want to thank – even as I thank these speakers – and hold your applause for them for a second – please also join me in – well, let’s thank the speakers first, let them get off, and then I’ll introduce Secretary Albright.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)