Throughout their term in government — and especially since Donald Trump’s victory in America’s 2016 election — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have taken every opportunity to pay tribute to the “rules-based international order,” the consensus among countries that everyone’s interests are best served by following a set of rules and guiding principles that have evolved through the decades, expressed through things such as trade agreements and international alliances like the United Nations. If this consensus has a face it may be that of Jens Stoltenberg. The urbane former prime minister of Norway has been Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since 2014, and through tough times for the international consensus he’s been one of the loudest voices defending it. This week he was in Canada to meet with Trudeau, to tour the Canadian Forces’ Garrison Petawawa and to discuss Canada’s NATO deployments in Latvia and Iraq. He sat down for an interview with the National Post’s Andrew Coyne.
Q. Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary-general, famously defined the alliance’s mission as “keeping the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” When you hear some of the things Donald Trump says about NATO, about Article 5 (the collective defence provision) — are the Americans still in?
A. Yes. And they are more in now than they have been for a long time — meaning that they are actually increasing their NATO presence in Europe. After the end of the Cold War, Canada and the United States, for natural reasons, reduced their military presence in Europe. Because tensions went down, there was less need… Now tensions are increasing again, and both Canada and the United States are now increasing their military presence in Europe: Canada with a Canadian-led battle group in Latvia, and the United States with a battle group in Poland and also with a new armoured brigade. So what we see is that the United States is actually investing more in NATO, more military presence in Europe, more U.S. investments in infrastructure, in pre-positioned equipment, more exercises. So the message from the United States is that they are committed to NATO and we see that not only in words but also in deeds.
Q. But when you see Trump questioning the value of multilateral institutions, asserting “America First,” his chumminess with Putin, does it risk sending a signal that, if push came to shove — if Russia got up to no good in the Baltics or what have you — that America’s resolution to resist that would be less than certain?
A. For me the strongest possible signal to send is the presence of U.S. forces in Europe. The fact that we now, for the first time in the history of NATO, have U.S. troops in the eastern part of the alliance, in Poland and the Baltic countries. There is no way to send a clearer signal than that. And the Canadian troops because they are part of the picture. To have American troops in the Baltic countries sends a very clear signal that if a Baltic country is attacked it will trigger a response from the whole alliance… It’s not possible to imagine a stronger and clearer signal than that.
Q. One of the things we saw with Russia’s activities in Ukraine was the pioneering of non-military or quasi-military attempts to destabilize a country: the “little green men,” election interference, these types of things. How has NATO, as a traditional military alliance, been evolving its strategy for dealing with these unusual types of warfare?
A. This is one of the most important elements in the big adaptation of NATO which has taken place over the last years, to deal with what we call “hybrid” attacks, this mixture of covert and overt operations: meddling in political affairs, little green men, disinformation, cyber and all that. And we have to just recognize that it’s a more blurred line between peace and war, conflict and peace, now, than it has been before. In the old days, war was something a nation declared, and then you had uniformed soldiers on both sides that fought on the battlefield. Now we have cyberspace, now we have a lot of covert operations, we have seen the Skripal case (the 2018 poisoning of a former Russian military officer and his daughter in Salisbury, England), we have seen Ukraine, we have seen attempts to meddle in domestic democratic processes.
So NATO is responding in many different ways. Partly by improving our intelligence, since we face these attempts to disguise aggressive actions, then it’s important to see, to understand what is going on. We have established an intelligence division, and have stepped up the way we share and analyze intelligence. We have increased the readiness of our forces, since the warning time is going down, we need to be able to react quickly. So, we’ve tripled the size of the NATO response force, we have established a new, very high readiness Joint Task Force, and increased the presence in the eastern part of the alliance — that’s also in response to potential hybrid threats. Soon we will have the new drones, the AGS (Alliance Ground Surveillance), deployed in Sigonella, Italy, big surveillance drones, which will be extremely helpful to see what’s going on. And of course we have significantly strengthened our cyber defences, conducting big exercises, sharing best technologies, helping allies improve the way they defend against cyberattacks.
Q. When you look at the Russian buildup in the Arctic, new bases, expanding their northern fleet, what do you think are Russia’s intentions in the Arctic and how can NATO counter that?
A. The Russian buildup in the Arctic is part of a pattern, a pattern where Russia is modernizing its military forces, increasing its presence in many parts of the world, re-establishing or re-activating old Soviet-era military bases — and of course this pattern is the reason why NATO is adapting, the biggest reinforcement of our collective defence in a generation. Also, with new capabilities, with new maritime patrol aircraft, with more submarines, warships. So we are also increasing our ability to operate in the Arctic. Canada is part of that picture, investing in new and modern capabilities able to operate in the Arctic. And that was one of the issues I discussed with the prime minister and the defence minister during our visit here in Canada.
Having said that, I think it is important to find a balance. Because I still believe in the idea of “high north, low tensions,” and compared to other parts of the world we still have low tensions in the high north. And we have established a framework for working with Russia. on search and rescue, on environmental issues, on direct communications with our military, and I welcome that because I think it’s important to try to keep tensions low in the high north.
We have to just recognize that it’s a more blurred line between peace and war, conflict and peace, now, than it has been before
Q. Other NATO countries have been increasing their defence spending, partly perhaps in response to Trump, or maybe they were going to do that anyway. Obviously I’m sure you would welcome that, but is there a downside in terms of a new European assertiveness? When you see people talking about a separate European defence initiative, does that pose a threat to NATO’s viability?
A. It depends very much on how that is done. Done in the right way, EU efforts on defence are good. From the NATO side we have called for more European efforts on defence for years. But if it’s done in the wrong way then it can undermine transatlantic unity. So as long as European efforts on defence complement, not compete with NATO, we should welcome that. Because then they will strengthen the European pillar within NATO. What we have to avoid is European initiatives which compete with — duplicate — NATO, because that will weaken the transatlantic bond. It has been clearly stated by European leaders that their aim is not to weaken NATO, they understand that European unity cannot substitute for transatlantic unity. Especially after Brexit, there is no way the EU can provide the collective defence for Europe. That has to be NATO. 80 per cent of NATO’s defence expenditures will come from non-EU allies — of course the U.S. and Canada, but also the UK, for instance. The second-largest defence expenditure in the alliance is the United Kingdom. So Brexit just highlights the importance of NATO being the framework for our collective security.
Q. Traditionally NATO has been aimed at Russia, the Soviet Union, the defence of Europe. When you look at the increasing assertiveness of China, until now viewed as not particularly expansionist in its designs but now throwing its weight around in the Indo-Pacific region, in Africa, cyber-hacking. Does NATO have to put more of its attention now on China as a potential threat to the alliance?
A. NATO has traditionally been focused on the Soviet Union and Russia for natural and historical reasons. The world is changing and the global balance of power is shifting. And part of that picture is the rise of China as a military power and as an economic power. For NATO there are opportunities but also challenges related to the rise of China. We have now started a process to assess and analyze the security consequences for NATO of the rise of China. No one argues in favour of NATO moving into the South China Sea or moving into that part of Asia. But the fact is that China is coming closer to us. We see China’s presence in the Arctic, in Africa, in Europe, and not least in cyberspace, so there is no way we can not relate to the fact that China is a rising military and economic power and address the security consequences of that. We have started that process. I think that it illustrates the importance of unity, because size matters. And even the United States is not that big, compared to China, when it comes to the economy, or population or technology, China is in many of these areas bigger, or at least a peer. So therefore it is important that we are united. For as long as NATO allies stand together, we are by far the biggest actor, economically and militarily, in the world. Together we represent half of the world’s GDP, and half of the world’s military might. So if anything the rise of China underpins the importance of NATO. Because together we are strong.
The world is changing and the global balance of power is shifting. And part of that picture is the rise of China as a military power and as an economic power
Q. NATO expansion has been on and off the agenda for many years. Do you still see areas where NATO needs to draw in new members and, if so, which do you see as the best candidates?
A. NATO expansion, NATO enlargement is a great success story. Because what happened after the end of the Cold War, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was a historic victory for democracy, the rule of law, freedom, in those parts of Europe that suffered under Communist rule for decades. And there are still challenges and problems but the overall picture is that we have more democracy, more freedom, in Europe than they ever had before. And the enlargement of NATO has made that possible. So that is a great success story…
I am old enough to remember when Germany was divided, when we went into East Germany that was a totally different world. Different smells, different clothing, everything, no free press, no democracy and now the whole of Germany, the rest of Eastern Europe…. The Baltic countries were not independent they were part of the Soviet Union. So enlargement has been a great success and NATO’s door remains open. In 2017 Montenegro joined and within a few months North Macedonia will be a full member of the alliance.
Q. Should Ukraine be part of NATO?
A. When it comes to Ukraine, that’s an issue which will take a longer time. We support the efforts of Ukraine to move towards membership. We are helping them with implementing the reforms, Canada is part of that, Canada is extremely helpful, together with other NATO allies, we help them. But the message is that it is for Ukraine and the 29 NATO allies to decide on membership for Ukraine. Russia has no right to veto such a process. But of course Ukraine is now focused on the reforms to be able to meet the NATO standards and that is the main focus now.
Q. What’s the end game, if any, in Afghanistan, 18 years after NATO went in? How do you see that evolving?
A. We are closer to a peace agreement now than I think we have ever been before. It’s still uncertain whether it is possible to reach an agreement, but there are some real efforts, there are talks going on, and hopefully they will lead to an outcome with guarantees from the Taliban that Afghanistan will never again become a safe haven for international terrorists, with an intra-Afghan reconciliation process, where we also have to make sure that the rights of women, human rights, the social and economic progress which we have achieved in Afghanistan over the last decades are preserved, with a comprehensive ceasefire, and then also part of that picture will be the presence of international troops. NATO supported this peace process by maintaining our support for the Afghan government, and Afghan security forces, because the Taliban has to understand that they will not win on the battlefield. And now we actually see that the Afghan government forces are making progress, sending the message to the Taliban that they will not win on the battlefield so they have to sit down at the negotiating table, and negotiate a balanced and fair political settlement.
Let me add that Canada has really paid a high price. For many years, Canadian troops participated in the NATO mission in Afghanistan, Canada lost many soldiers, many wounded. So it shows the commitment of Canada to our alliance. We are grateful for what Canada did in Afghanistan over many years. We are also extremely grateful that Canada is now leading the training mission in Iraq, because I strongly believe that to train local forces is one of the best weapons we have in the fight against terrorism. NATO has to be able to conduct big combat operations, as we have done in Afghanistan or in fighting Daesh [ISIL], in the global coalition to defeat Daesh in Iraq and Syria, but in the long run it’s better to train local forces than to send our own troops on big combat operations. So I believe in NATO as a training alliance, and Canada is leading by example, by leading the training mission in Iraq. So that’s something I appreciate.
And I would also like to highlight that I appreciate the fact that Canada has now started to increase defence spending after years of cutting the budgets. And that you are leading the battle group in Latvia. All of this shows that Canada is really a highly valued ally. And the fact that defence spending is now going up after years of decline is extremely important for the whole alliance.