Secretary Antony J. Blinken
And NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
Moderated Conversation with Rosa Balfour
March 23, 2021
MS BALFOUR: Good morning. Good morning from Brussels, NATO’s Headquarters. My name is Rosa Balfour. I’m the director of Carnegie Europe and I’m absolutely delighted to be moderating this conversation between Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on strengthening the transatlantic bond. The occasion is provided by the first visit of the Secretary of State to Europe and by the ministerial meeting that later we’ll be holding today and tomorrow. And it is a great opportunity, after a period of uncertainty with respect to the transatlantic relationship, to start talking about the future. The Secretary General has been steering NATO towards a new strategic concept, which will be discussed at the summit later this year, to make NATO fit for the future. And the new U.S. administration has been underlining the centrality of working with allies and of repairing the transatlantic relationship.
So now the time has come to put words into deeds, and this is the first opportunity to do so. So, please, Secretary General, I’d like to ask you to give us some opening remarks on your plans for NATO 2030.
SECRETARY GENERAL STOLTENBERG: Thank you so much, Rosa, and Secretary Blinken, dear Tony, it’s really great to be here together with you for many reasons, but your knowledge, your experience, your background, and your personal commitment to NATO makes you really a Secretary which is very much welcomed here at NATO and we are looking forward to sitting down with you later on today and tomorrow and discuss a wide range of issues which are on the NATO agenda.
I think we really now have a unique opportunity to strengthen our transatlantic bond to open a new chapter in the relationship between North America and Europe. We have a new administration in the United States. President Biden has clearly conveyed the message about the need to rebuild alliances, strengthening the bond between North America and Europe. We have the upcoming summit later on this year, and then we have the NATO 2030 Initiative, which is an initiative which is about making NATO future-proof to make sure that we continue to adapt.
Over the last years we have implemented the biggest adaptation of NATO in a – in a generation, since the end of the Cold War, but we need to continue to adapt, and that’s exactly what NATO 2030 is all about. Because we are faced with challenges like the continued assertive behavior of Russia, who are responsible for aggressive actions in our neighborhood but also against our own allies in cyberspace and undermining our democratic processes; we have the constant threat of terrorism; we have cyber threats; we have, of course, the security implications of the rise of China; we have the security implications of proliferation of nuclear weapons; and, of course, the security implications of climate change. And no ally and no continent can deal with all of these challenges alone. We need Europe and North America together.
And NATO 2030 is about how to do exactly that. I strongly believe that we need to strengthen our unity, to use NATO as the unique platform NATO is, bringing North America together every day, and to consult on all issues which are important for our security.
We also know that our unity derives from our commitment to protect and defend each other. So therefore, to strengthen our deterrence and defense also by using more common-funded resources for our deterrence and defense is another way to strengthen our unity and demonstrate that we do more together.
Then, NATO 2030 is also about broadening the security agenda, resilience, making sure that we have reliable infrastructure, energy grids, telecommunications, 5G networks, technology, and make sure that we maintain the technological edge, but also addressing the impact of climate change. All of these issues are important for our security and NATO should be at the forefront in addressing them.
And then, NATO 2030 is also about how to build new partnerships and to strengthen partnerships both with our partners in our neighborhood – I think that NATO has an untapped potential for – to do more to help train our neighbors. Prevention is better than intervention. If we can – how to stabilize our neighborhood, we will be more secure. But partnerships is also about working with partners, for instance, in the Asia-Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea, and I think to strengthen partnerships with likeminded democracies is a way also to protect the rules-based international order. And of course, this is also about the consequences of the rise of China and many of the issues in NATO 2030 is – are relevant for addressing the consequences of the rise of China: resilience, technology, but also building partnerships with likeminded countries.
So there are many issues in NATO 2030. We will discuss it later on today in NATO. I also hope that when leaders meet later on this year, they will also agree that the time has come to update the strategic concept of NATO and that we can start the process of updating and making a new strategic concept and then to be able to agree that, not this year but in 2022.
So NATO 2030 is actually a tool, a platform, to show that our commitment to transatlantic unity, our commitment to Europe and North America working together in NATO is not only something we show in words or demonstrate in words, but also in deeds. So, thank you.
MS BALFOUR: Mr. Secretary, can I ask you to give us the perspective from the U.S. precisely on repairing the transatlantic relationship but also on partnership and concepts of partnership and diplomacy?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, Rosa, thank you for bringing us together today and for moderating this conversation. And Secretary General, Jens, it’s just wonderful to be with you. I think you covered comprehensively the extraordinarily important agenda that we have both this week and in the weeks and months ahead for our alliance.
Let me just say a couple of things at the outset. First, it’s often easy to take good things for granted, and I think the last thing that we can afford to do now is to take this alliance for granted. We sometimes forget that it is a truly remarkable institution, a remarkable initiative bringing together now 30 countries covering almost a billion people on a voluntary basis, and we come together around shared values of democracy, freedom, openness, and a rules-based international order to make sure that countries can move forward together peacefully. And I think what’s also remarkable about it is that NATO’s really not defined by what we’re against, but by what we’re for. That’s what’s bringing us all together. But of course, these things that we’re for we will also stand up resolutely to protect and to defend when they are – when they’re being challenged.
And Jens, as you said, we have a very broad agenda to make sure that this alliance is as effective over the next 75 years or so as it’s been in its first 75 years, and that means adapting it to the world as it is, not to the world as it was even as recently as 2010 when we had the last strategic concept. So I think the agenda you set forward for 2030 and for getting a new strategic concept is exactly the right thing.
The main reason I’m here and that President Biden asked us to be here this week is to reaffirm strongly the United States’ commitment to NATO, to this alliance, and to our partnerships. We’re determined to revitalize our alliances, to revitalize our partnerships, starting with NATO. And it really goes to something that Jens said a minute ago, and it seems basic but it is no less important and no less powerful for being basic, and that’s this: When we look at virtually all of the challenges that we face as a country and that are actually going to potentially affect the lives of our citizens, not a single one of them can be effectively dealt with by any one country acting alone, even the United States with all of the resources that we have. We have a profound interest, whether it is tackling some of the new challenges like climate, in the cyber realm, the rise of autocratic states and the challenges they pose – we have a profound interest in doing it together, doing it collectively, relying on collective security. And that’s what NATO is all about.
So I think our mission now is to make sure that we’re bringing NATO fully into this moment to meet the challenges of today, and that is exactly what the 2030 agenda is about, and we look very much forward to working on that with the Secretary General and with all of our partners here.
MS BALFOUR: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. We have many questions that have come through the Twitter feed, but before we turn to those, which are focusing mostly on the external challenges, I’d like to encourage you to be somewhat self-reflective. Because the transatlantic relationship has been under strain, and there is concern about the future. And my question really is about how NATO can fireproof the transatlantic relationship from potential future disruption due to political change within the alliance and less to the external challenges?
SECRETARY GENERAL STOLTENBERG: There’s no way to hide that over the last few years we had some difficult discussions within our alliance, and we have seen some differences. But if anything, I think those differences and difficult discussions have just demonstrated the importance of having strong institutions. Because the point of having strong multilateral institutions, as NATO, is that they can weather the shifting political winds. We are 30 allies from both sides of the continent, with geography, history, and different political parties in power, but the success of NATO is that despite these differences, we have always been able to unite around our task: to protect and defend each other. So as long as NATO is able to adapt to change, we will continue to be able also to weather and deal with political differences.
Because it is in the security interest of European allies but also of – for the United States and Canada to be together. Of course, it is important for Europe to have a strong NATO, but it’s also important for United States. If you are concerned about the rise of China, then, of course – soon to have the biggest economy in the world – together, NATO allies, we are 50 percent of the world’s GDP, we are 50 percent of the world’s military might, and together we can really mobilize a lot of innovation and technology dealing with the consequences or the challenges posed by the rise of China.
So for United States to have NATO means that they have something no other big power has, and that’s – and that is 29 friends and allies. It’s a unique thing. And we have seen that – we see it today but we’ve also seen it over decades – for instance, in Afghanistan where Canada, European allies have stood side by side with United States for now – for – throughout many, many years.
So we need to demonstrate that we continue to provide our core responsibility, collective defense, security for all our allies, and then I’m very optimistic that we’ll also be able to deal with differences also in the future.
MS BALFOUR: Similarly, Mr. Secretary, the new U.S. administration is emphasizing international human rights and is being openly critical of adversaries and other states who are not abiding by those international human rights. But these states are pointing the finger also at the weaknesses that our own democracies have exposed, and this is not just in the U.S., also in Europe over the past few years. And the question is: So some say foreign policy starts at home and others say, no, we need to do this simultaneously. I’d like to take your view on this.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, there’s no doubt that we’ve been experiencing in recent years what some have called a democratic recession, and we see countries falling back on some of the basic hallmarks of democracy. Freedom House, an organization that tracks this over many decades, has found that of the 40 or so countries that have been ranked fully free consistently in the 1980s, the 1990s, the 2000s, fully half have fallen back. And so that is a factor and a feature of life, and at the very same time that that’s happening we’re seeing the rise in strength of autocracies that are posing a direct challenge to democracies and saying: We can deliver better for our people. And so the main challenge that we have, I think, is to demonstrate exactly the opposite – that, in fact, democracies are more adept at delivering what people need and what they want.
It’s also no secret that the United States has had its own challenges in recent years and recent months on that score. But to me at least, I see this and I see what we’ve experienced as a glass half full, not a glass half empty. Because when you think of this challenge in the United States – and it’s a challenge that’s come up before in our history – each and every time we have emerged stronger, more resilient, more united. And the reason I think that is, is because when we – when we have a challenge, including an internal challenges, including internal division, we confront it openly, transparently, for the entire world to see. We don’t try to sweep it under the rug. We don’t try to ignore it. We don’t try to pretend it doesn’t exist. And as I’ve said before, that process of confronting our own shortcomings can be very painful, it can be ugly, but, ultimately, at least to date, we’ve emerged the better and the stronger for it.
And so what I hope right now is, is that President Biden talks about the importance not just of the example of our power but by – of the power of our example. And I hope that we can demonstrate and that we are demonstrating by the power of our example that after our own challenges, we are actually building back better across the board and that that can serve as an example for others.
At the same time, we have a profound stake in the strength and health of democracies around the world. First of all, because in all of these challenges that we have to confront and all of these issues that are affecting the lives of our people, our partners of first resort are other democracies. And so we have a real interest in their strength and success. And of course, democracies tend to be more open, more respectful of human rights, less prone to conflict – all the kinds of things that make for a world in which we can actually make progress and not descend into conflict and division.
So the last thing I’d mention is that I think democracy promotion has gotten arguably a bad name in recent decades because it’s been understood as something that we’ve sometimes engaged in through force. That’s not what we’re about. We are about both the power of our example but also working with others when we see them moving in the wrong direction to try to reverse – get them to reverse laws, practices, other actions that are undermining the foundations of democracy. And again, if we’re strong and effective at home in doing that, that will go to our strength and effectiveness abroad.
MS BALFOUR: Thank you very much. Let’s move to the questions from our audience. I have one question from Robert Lupitu, who is the editor-in-chief of Calea Europeana, from Romania. “How will NATO and the U.S. continue to address the challenges posed by Russia and a rising China?” So I’ll perhaps start with you, Secretary General, if you can be brief because we’re running out of time.
SECRETARY GENERAL STOLTENBERG: Okay, because in one way I already answered the question.
MS BALFOUR: Yeah.
SECRETARY GENERAL STOLTENBERG: Because I said the – I said a lot about the importance of adapting and also not only strengthening our military capabilities but also resilience, cyber, all the other issues. So the main thing is that as long as we stand together, we can deal with both a rising China and an assertive and aggressive Russia. That’s exactly the reason why we have NATO.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I fully agree and I think we have to be able to, as we would say, walk and chew gum at the same time. When it comes to Russia, for example, we are very, very clear-eyed. We’ll work with Russia when it advances our interests, and one of those is strategic stability, and we’ve always demonstrated that with the extension of the New START agreement. On the other hand, we will stand resolutely against Russian aggression and other actions that try to undermine our alliance, and I think that approach is exactly where NATO is as well. And similarly, we have to and we will, I believe, make sure that NATO is also focused on some of the challenges that China poses to the rules-based international order. That is part of the 2030 vision as well.
MS BALFOUR: I don’t want to miss a question on Turkey, which is, of course, a member of NATO but also has an increasingly special relationship with Russia especially but also is developing one with China. So what kind of challenge does Turkey pose to NATO?
SECRETARY GENERAL STOLTENBERG: There are – there are differences and there are concerns and there are issues, for instance, like the decision to buy the Russian air-defense system S-400. There are differences and disagreements regarding the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. And I have also expressed my concerns in Ankara with the Turkish leadership on several issues, including the consequences of the decision to acquire S-400. At the same time, I strongly believe that NATO has to be a platform where allies also sit down together around the same table when there are differences and then we address them, then we discuss them, and then we try to look to ways to deal with them. And that’s exactly also what we tried to do. We have been able to establish a deconfliction mechanism between Greece and Turkey here at NATO to reduce the risk for incidents or accidents in the Eastern Med. We agreed some defense plans, which are important for this alliance, and we also see that we have the NATO presence in the Aegean where, actually, Turkey agrees EU meets and work together on the NATO platform, the NATO naval presence in the Aegean.
So I think that what we really have to do is to, yes, accept that there are serious concerns, differences, but then use NATO as the tool to try to find ways to address them, to solve them, and at least to reduce the tensions.
MS BALFOUR: Mr. Secretary, what’s your —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Exactly the same perspective. It’s no secret that we have differences with Turkey, including over the S-400s and including certain that actions that it’s taken including in the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s also no secret that Turkey is a longstanding and valued ally and one that, I believe, we have a strong interest in keeping anchored to NATO, and I believe that’s also in Turkey’s interest as well. And to Jens’s point, I think NATO has demonstrated recently its effectiveness in dealing with some of the areas of disagreement, and in particular in the Eastern Med, serving as a vehicle for deconfliction, for de-escalation, for finding a way forward, and that’s a very positive example. But we have to keep – we have to keep working it. We’re determined to do that.
MS BALFOUR: I have to bring this conversation to an end. So we have many questions, some on the High North, some on Indo-Pacific strategy, but I think the inevitable question to ask is actually about Afghanistan, and it’s a question by Liwal Afghan, who’s based in Afghanistan, about trusting the Taliban after the U.S. troop withdrawal and the risks that they might cooperate with other terrorist groups. What is your take on this?
SECRETARY GENERAL STOLTENBERG: First of all, NATO allies strongly welcome and support the U.S. efforts – and also led by Tony – to try to reinvigorate the peace talks, because a political solution and negotiated solution is the only sustainable, viable path to a lasting peace in Afghanistan and the only way in a lasting way to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for international terrorists. So we support those efforts and we welcome the energy that the new U.S. administration has put into the peace talks.
Second, we need to make sure that we are closely coordinated and that we’re consulting as we move forward, because more than half of the troops in Afghanistan are actually non-U.S., and soldiers from Canada, from European allies, from partner nations have been there for many, many years; a bit in and out, but different allies have participated. So we need to do this together, and I’m very much assured by the very clear message from Tony on the need to stay coordinated as allies.
MS BALFOUR: Yes.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And that’s exactly why I’m here, among other reasons, this week. It’s to make sure that as we are working through our Afghanistan policy, we’re doing it in full consultation and coordination with our allies and partners. And so I’ll have an opportunity to share some of the President’s thinking, but I’m also taking this as an opportunity on President Biden’s instructions to listen carefully to our allies and partners. And as Jens said, we have more than half the forces in Afghanistan are non-U.S. We’ve said, we’ve made a commitment: in together, adapt together, and when the time is right, out together. That remains the guiding principle.
The other guiding principle is that the reason we were in Afghanistan in the first place is because of the terrorist threat that was emanating from there. We will never forget that the one and only time that Article Five has been invoked by this alliance was in defense of the United States after we were attacked on 9/11. And we are determined, as Jens said, that Afghanistan not again become a haven for terrorism. So we will make sure that whatever we do, we’re able to carry out that mission.
But this is an opportunity in the next couple of days, and in fact, this morning, to continue to talk through these issues together as allies and partners and to chart a course forward together.
MS BALFOUR: Well, thank you very much for taking the time to answer some questions from our audience. I must apologize because we haven’t been able to address all the questions that have been posted to us through the Twitter feed, but thank you nonetheless for doing this. And I’d like to wish you good luck in your work in the days ahead, which will be intense, and I look forward to continuing to observe – from my position in a think tank – the progress made in the transatlantic relationship. Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks.
SECRETARY GENERAL STOLTENBERG: Thank you so much.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.
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