Frederick Kempe, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, spoke in an interview with Agnieszka Niezgoda.

A.N. Inaugurating the first Geremek Lecture back in 2009—a series inspired by an outstanding Polish politician—you quoted Mark Twain that “history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.”

In terms of world conflicts and international politics, what would you consider to be special about our time and what would you consider to be a returning, historic pattern?

F.K. I deeply believe that we are at one of those plastic, enormously important moments of history where decisions made by leaders will have outside, generational consequences. Take year 1815—the Congress of Vienna. Year 1919—we didn’t engage in World War I and we ended up with the Holocaust and World War II with twenty million dead. Year 1945—we did engage at the end of World War II; it didn’t work out well for Eastern Europe but we still saw the creation of transatlantic structures like NATO, the IMF, World Bank, and the United Nations. This moment of time is really about the United States and its friends. So, what’s the same is whether or not we engage constructively with our allies and shape the future. If we don’t, less benevolent actors will fill the void with chaos. Here is what is different: the global situation is incredibly complex. The United Sates makes up 18 to 20 percent of GDP in the world. In 1945, we had 50 percent. Non-state actors are becoming more powerful—whether it’s ISIS or Wall Street. Governments alone cannot control things. It’s a much more complex period of time.

A.N. It’s all much more scattered? 

F.K. It’s more scattered. In some ways there isn’t the same sort of danger of mass annihilation as there was at the end of World War II, with two nuclear powers. You have more danger of conflict. The individual has gained much more destructive power. Now, with biological weapons, potentially with dirty nuclear weapons, and cyberattacks, an individual can do much more harm than ever before in human history.

A.N. Where does it stem from? Just from technological progress?

F.K. It’s technology and shrinking of the world—globalization. Something that happens on one corner of the Earth influences the other corner of the Earth—that was never quite that way before.

A.N. In this scattered world, where once-extras are becoming self-appointed leading actors[MH1] , what is the role for international, transatlantic structures like NATO? What should the Warsaw Summit focus on and what milestones should it meet?

F.K. The hardest thing for NATO to do is to continually adjust to new situations. After the Cold War, it went all out of area, out of business. Now it has come back into area, [MH2] because of threats from Russia. NATO has to do both now: it has to be out of the area, deal with issues in the Middle East, and it has to be in the area, because the whole notion of Europe facing threats and aggression from Russia. None of this was really predicted or expected a decade ago. The question is how do you modernize an organization sufficiently that is consensus-driven. What’s crucial to me—and what won’t be talked about nearly enough in Warsaw—is how do you make NATO take on more global characteristics? Some of our most robust partners in defense and security are not in Europe. Yet, they are partners of NATO. How do you make those partnerships tighter? And over time, how should we think to create an even more global alliance?

A.N. And what are those partnerships?

F.K. Japan. Australia. India, potentially. Although India isn’t a partner of NATO, it is the largest democracy on Earth with considerable defense capabilities. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are others. We have a number of very capable partners where NATO has to figure out a more effective way to work together—not just on campaigns such as Afghanistan or Libya but in a more ongoing manner. Also, NATO has to figure out how to bring these partners into the decision making structures in a more coherent fashion.

A.N. How would you envision future relations between NATO and Saudi Arabia? Do you anticipate any major shifts on the horizon?

F.K. There are interesting talks going on at the moment between NATO leadership and the leadership of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). There are also exercises with Saudis, the Turks, the US, Pakistanis, and several others. You can almost look at the Middle East as a pre-1945 Europe without a war, where you didn’t have institutions such as the EU and NATO. There are some institutions in the Middle East but they need to become more mature and they need to include all the countries from the region. We have seen that if we don’t get together with our Middle East allies and try to shape out the future together with them, then we are just going to have the same historical problems coming back to us. At the moment, Saudi Arabia is the leader among the Sunni countries in the region. I could see this relationship evolving with NATO helping the region—GCC and the other institutional actors—form its own defense and security alliance in partnership with NATO but not as a part of NATO. Also, NATO is working very much on training its military partners. The most effective way to avoid further conflict in the region is to train and equip these countries so they can then provide their own security.

A.N. Should NATO take an active role in Syria?

F.K. If you want to stem the flow of migrants, you have to create safe areas in Syria. Ultimately, you have to bring the civil war to an end. I don’t see any way that that is going to happen without NATO countries cooperating with local actors in more coherent fashion. What troubles me about NATO is that you can’t even convene NATO actors to discuss those issues as deeply and as often as you should. There should be more discussion to start with.

A.N. Has NATO grown so large that it has become dysfunctional in terms of communication?

F.K. I don’t think so. My own view is never let the crisis go to waste. And we now have a crisis not of the Middle East but from the Middle East. Ongoing migrant waves and the outbreaks of extremism, including terrorist attacks in Europe, have raised real questions of how NATO ought to respond. If you have terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris, and those terrorist attacks—to a certain extent—are inspired, planned, and executed from foreign soil, is that not a potential Article 5 violation, which NATO declared when World Trade Center was hit? NATO needs to determine how it feels about the possibility of further ISIS attacks on European soil and what role it might want to play.

A.N. Are there solutions for the European defense system to prevent further terrorist attacks?

F.K. You need more Europe—not less Europe. Why would anyone think that you can create free travel Schengen zone without Europe tightening its external borders? The only way you can liberalize the internal borders is if you significantly tighten the external borders. This should be a European task. The other thing: over time, you should have not atomized intelligence agencies. There has to be more effort toward strengthening intelligence cooperation in Europe as well. The cooperation has to be much tighter. In many cases, you see stronger bilateral relations between the US and several European countries than you see among European countries.

A.N. In 2009, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated that NATO became “the victim of its own success”. What stage of NATO’s lifespan is in today?

F.K. The Crimea invasion in 2014 was a wake-up call for NATO. Combine that with what has happened in Georgia, and now what has happened in eastern Ukraine. Madeleine Albright stated that at a time when—to a certain extent—one thought that the existential threats to Europe were gone. Now we are seeing that this is not true. These threats come today from the East, from the South, and internally.

A.N. And how is NATO responding to this wake-up call?

F.K. Not brilliantly. The reassurance initiatives—the positioning of the troops and the rotation of the troops in the region—are very positive. The question is: will it be sufficient? One has to make very clear to Russia that Article 5 is as serious today as it was during the days when American troops were based in West Berlin. To a certain extent, the Baltics are the new West Berlin. We need to have enough presence there for Russians to understand that this presence is a signal of our intent that we will defend NATO’s borders.

A.N. So what would be sufficient then? Should NATO and the US increase its military presence in Poland?

F.K. There is a consensus that there has to be an increase. The question remains though, in what way and how permanent. It is hard to predict what signal is a sufficient deterrent for further action, military minds would have to come up with numbers. But, there is no doubt we have moved and there is no doubt we have sent a signal to Moscow. Time will tell whether this is sufficient or not. We have to be ready to move relatively fast if we find that it’s not sufficient.

A.N. What would be the benefits and costs behind rotational vs. stationary military presence? 

F.K. I am in favor of stationary presence.

A.N. Why? Isn’t the rotational more flexible?

F.K. This is my personal view. We are in a situation when we need to make it clear where we stand. It is not going to happen though. I think we can leave absolutely no doubt in the Russian mind that NATO is willing to defend NATO territory. We could achieve the same impact with rotational presence when rotational presence really is permanent, with based equipment and other factors. The key is not rotational vs. stationary. The key is how it is interpreted in Russia: as a sign of strength that they would not test or a sign of ambiguity that they may want to test?

My personal preference would be for stationary presence: in the spirit of the strength of the greatest alliance that mankind has ever seen.

A.N. Has NATO mishandled the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine?

F.K. History will judge that. And it’s not done yet. I think it would have been difficult to get NATO’s consensus around a more robust defense of Ukraine. I do think though that certain NATO countries could have done more bi-laterally to assist Ukraine.

A.N. Which specific countries?

F.K. Well, certainly Poland and other NATO members, but also the United States. In an Atlantic Council report from last year, we stated that there was need for providing direct military assistance for Ukraine so that it is better able to defend itself. The key is sending a clear message that the world community at large is going to defend the sanctity of international borders.

A.N. How can we balance Russia’s privileged interest over neighboring countries with its concern over expanding NATO’s influence?

F.K. We’ve moved into a postmodern society where we have decided that spheres of influence and imperial aims are dusty relics from the past. The US and most of its European partners wear this frame of mind. Sadly, that’s not the frame of mind that Vladimir Putin and Russia share with us. So, you have to address how he is thinking about things, not how you are thinking about things.

A.N. How is he thinking then?

F.K. He is thinking in quasi-imperial, 20th century terms about spheres of influence. And even though he is unlikely to be able to rebuild the Soviet Empire, he does want to reacquire as much leverage as he can over his neighbors. We see the world more through the prism of consensual alliances, communities, and win-win situations. My own hope would be that over time Russia would become deeply integrated into Western institutions, perhaps even NATO—yet we are a long way from that. I would say that Russia’s interests needs to be aiming for Western integration: if you look where the Russian elite send their kids to schools, if you look where the ideas are coming from, if you look at what sort of literature they are interested in. In the medium- and long-term, I am actually quite optimistic that we will be able to move to a better relationship with Russia because it’s in Russia’s interest, it’s in our interest, and history is going into that direction. But today, we are in a very dangerous short time period. So how do we get from the short term issues—where we are in the old world territorial struggle that nobody in the West wants—into a more global framework where Russia becomes integrated in a common trading and political system? I think it has to be our aim to avoid the worst right now and over time try to tap into what ultimately is going to be Russia’s own interest.

A.N. In Astolphe de Custine’s analysis, Russia in 1839, he wrote that due to the country’s peculiar mindset, Russia is never going to follow the democratic West. Why do you remain an optimistic believer that the global world will integrate Russia?

F.K. We can also go to Katherine the Great, Peter the Great, the tensions between Saint Petersburg and Moscow—is it Eastern, is it Western?—which, I think, it’s always going to be there. But, we live in the age where states don’t have great power and influence anymore—they have less. Frankly, the issue is not about who controls Ukraine. The issue is what kind of world does Ukraine want to live in? And one would assume that over time, Russia would want to live in that kind of world too. So we have to defend the possibility. We have to defend an individual country’s sovereign choice to live in the way that whey would like to live. And it really is up to the world community—not up to NATO, not even Europe—to defend the international liberal order: the sanctity of borders and sovereign choice. If we let go of that then we will lose the battle. In the Cold War, the struggle was against communism and the Soviet Union. Now the struggle is to save, to reinvigorate, and to expand the international liberal order.

A.N. In this international liberal order, what would be the best and the worst case scenario between the three powers: The United States, Russia, and China?

F.K. The dangers with Russia are more those of the actions of the declining power with a nuclear weapon that they may find useful to savor their battle in one way or another. But in terms of its global role, of how it is going to shape the world, that’s not really what you are talking about with Russia. China is a different story of how you integrate and absorb a rising power. A rising power that might have a somewhat different view than the Western powers. In these moments of historic transition from the incumbent power of the United States to accommodate a rising power of China, we have to ensure that it doesn’t result in conflict. Then, you have to build the future world together with China, not against China. Ultimately, I am relatively optimistic, because the Chinese know what’s not within their interest: to get into a conflictual situation with the United States. The Russia issue is a more immediately dangerous issue. The China issue is a more important issue.

A.N. China’s economy has hit rock bottom—the lowest point in the last twenty-five years. President Xi is reinforcing his national propaganda.

F.K. The danger with China is that as the country’s economy slows, you have a leadership that gets worried about their own internal authority and they may turn to nationalism to resolve that. So far, they’ve been able to support their own legitimacy through economic growth. But, if you suddenly have economic growth dropping to five percent or less, then the question is how you can continue to rally this massive country. My concern is that they may turn to demonstrations of nationalism in such a way that it might lead to a conflictual situation with the United States. That’s what we have to avoid.

A.N. What shift in international politics do you envision under a possible Donald Trump presidency versus a possible Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency in the United States?

F.K. We are bi-partisan organization and we don’t take positions on political candidates. The advice I would give to all candidates and to all campaigns is that it is now a time when one needs a different sort of US engagement in the world. If we do not engage and help shape the future in a very intentional way, then less benevolent actors will fill the void with chaos. There are isolationist temptations at the moment, and there is a failure to understand why our engagement in the world isn’t just good for our allies, it’s actually in our own interest. There is a very important decision to be made for the next president of the US: do we still want to be the world leader? If we do, there are costs to that. If we don’t, it’s going to be harmful not only for other countries but to our own global interest.

A.N. Do you remember your first day in Poland?

F.K. I remember the first month in Poland, September of 1980, just after the first Solidarity strikes. Poland changed my life. I grew up in the United States where you never had to question freedom and democracy and you certainly never had to fight for it very much. As a young correspondent for Newsweek I arrived to Poland where I suddenly saw people willing to risk everything for their national freedom and for democratic change. I witnessed the birth of the Solidarity movement, I watched it develop, I was there through martial law, I followed Poland through all the democratic changes. It made me to really want to devote my career and my work to that same aim. I was inspired by Poland. Germany would not have been reunited, the Berlin Wall would never have fallen and much else would not has been achieved, had it not been for the Poles. And what I hope now is that Poles will continue to internalize their historic role and build upon that.

A.N. What influence has Professor Geremek had on you?

F.K. For a young journalist like myself it was a gift to meet somebody like Geremek and have him take time with me: explain to me the history of the region, his own path, the roots of Solidarity. He understood that it was crucial to educate an important US journalist so then that journalist could pass it along. I will never forget the twinkle in his eye and the attic apartment in Old Town that I made many pilgrimages to meet Geremek.  

A.N. Today, when you travel back to Poland, what do you see?

F.K. Poland is a miracle. The fact that Poland is an intact democratic part of Europe and the free world, is a miracle. The fact that Poland exists any longer is a historic miracle. I am always a little bit excited when my plane sets down in Poland. Once in a while, democracies are meant to be rambunctious, they are meant to be divisive. What I hope though is that people will come back to that incredible moment when Poland not just saved itself but shaped European history for the better. We have the great American myth, 1776, the great democracy. I do hope that Poland will keep its own myth as well and will continue to inspire the European history.

A.N. Today, years after you became inspired by your Polish mentor, you meet so many of the world’s leaders. Do you see a common trait? What quality does it take to be a leader?

F.K. It can’t be about you. It has to be about a cause. It has to be about a thing. I don’t think there was ever anything egotistic about Geremek. I don’t think there was anything egotistic about Ronald Reagan or Helmut Kohl: they got caught up in a cause. There are certain times when you have to say or do things that might not be popular, but you believe it’s really true deep in your heart. People will follow you if you stand for something larger than yourself.

The views expressed in the interview are personal and do not stand as an official statement by the Atlantic Council.