NATO is as relevant as it ever was: Former Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on the Chances and Challenges for NATO

by David Mendelsohn and Jacco van der Veen

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has been on the forefront of many international developments in the past decades. As a diplomat, a politician and now as a lecturer and advisor, he has a distinguished career and an abundance of professional experience. With NATO on a crossroad, and the world appearing to move from one crisis to another, JASON Magazine spoke with the former NATO Secretary General to discuss the past, present and the future challenges and chances for NATO and Europe.

You have been Secretary-General from 2004 to 2009. Are there takeaways, highs and lows that remind you of today?

When I came in in 2004, there were a lot of fences to be mended. The EU and NATO were split on the issue of Iraq. Allies France and Germany were opposing the United States. That was not going to be fixed in a few weeks. As Secretary General, my main task was to bring actors together and build consensus. The Americans had their eyes on Iraq and on Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the United States desperately needed allies. My main task was to make sure that the non-American allies were willing, ready, and able to participate in this UN-mandated operation. We were able to achieve this.

Another high note was the enlargement of NATO. When I started, there were nineteen allies, when I left there were twenty-eight. My mandate was to bring them in and make sure that this went smoothly. When the Baltic states came in, there was no air policing over their territories. In 2004, the relationship with Russia was relatively stable. However, the Russians were frequently violating Baltic airspace, and these states believed that Baltic airspace, following their membership, was NATO airspace. As Secretary General, I succeeded to bring the NATO members together to establish air policing in the Baltics, which presently remains.

However, I believe that in 2008, NATO went a bridge too far in its drive towards enlargement. President Bush wanted to bring Ukraine and Georgia closer to NATO through the so-called Membership Action Plan, a step opposed by France and Germany. This was discussed during the 2008 Bucharest summit. The final communique after this contested summit contained the compromise that Ukraine and Georgia would become NATO members, although the time frame remained undefined. This crossed Putin’s red line. The next morning, he told me this was unacceptable. I defended the compromise, as the Secretary General is bound to do, but in retrospect I do not think that this was the right decision. This became clear when Russia invaded Georgia later in 2008 and annexed Crimea in 2014.

How do you see the relation between NATO, Ukraine and Georgia develop?

There are still calls for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO today. These countries should have close relations with NATO and also with the European Union. The EU is also relevant, because it was the EU-association treaty that also led to the events in 2014 in Crimea, Donetsk, and Lugansk. Membership is not in the cards in my opinion. Ukraine and Georgia could, in the words of Politico journalist Paul Taylor, be considered as belonging to an area where neither Russia nor the EU or NATO should claim exclusive influence.

NATO was established as an alliance against the Soviet Union. Do you think more positive developments of NATO-Russia relations in the foreseeable future are possible?

That will depend on specific factors and international developments. NATO does not have a consensual Russia policy. There are allies in NATO, like France, Italy, Greece, and Hungary, who are favouring a “reset” in Russia relations. Germany always functions as a balancer. Merkel does not do the bidding of Vladimir Putin. This is further complicated by President Trump, who does not seem to have a consistent Russia policy. Leadership will not come from the Americans under the Trump presidency. Because of this lack of common strategy, I am not optimistic about the development of the relationship with Russia. I also do not think that this “reset” will happen during Putin. Speaking as a Dutchman, MH17 still looms as a dark cloud over the bilateral relationship. Russia continues to block further investigations. The recent poisoning of Aleksej Navalny makes things even worse. We will have to see what the Russia policy of the Biden presidency will look like. I hope we will see a boost for nuclear disarmament. Biden will without doubt be more critical as far as human rights are concerned.

Russia is not just a regional power, as President Obama once described it. It is a nuclear state and maintains a permanent seat on the Security Council. We must reckon with the position that Russia takes. Russia has had a large military exercise in which a Baltic invasion was one of the scenarios, and of course has annexed Crimea and is supporting insurgents in Eastern Ukraine. If you add the role Russia is playing in Syria and the mischief it is causing in Libya, a constructive dialogue seems more than a bridge too far. However, both the Russians and NATO need this dialogue. Unfortunately, I do not see positive change coming soon.

What about the long term? Are you more optimistic?

Looking at the rivalry between the superpowers China and the United States, Europe has to be careful not to end up in the “nutcracker”. That is why I am ambitious about European cooperation. I am becoming more of a European because of this potential squeeze. Europe and NATO are more important than ever. The position that Russia will take is very interesting. Currently, China treats Russia as its “younger nephew”. China needs Russia’s oil and gas and they have arranged a special price. Presently, you see cooperation between the two. Xi and Putin are realists, and they have everything to gain from cooperation. For example, in the security domain, take the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

However, Russia shares a civilisation with us, that China does not. Future constructive dialogue between Europe and Russia will be important considering this US-China rivalry. We should not consider Russia a politically lost case. From a cultural point of view, we have more in common with Russia than with the Chinese. But as I said, there is currently no window to make openings towards Russia. Instead, we should make clear to the Americans that we are the best allies they have. The unanswered key question fort he Trump administration has always been “Why are you fighting China, this trade war, and this tech war, on your own?” But also “likeminded nations” like Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zeeland and potentially India should join us in an Alliance of democracies to uphold the values dear to us. President Elect Biden has said that he will take the initiative to bring a larger democratic family together and that is exactly what we need.

Let us move from China’s little nephew Russia to Russia’s little brother, Belarus. How do you see the situation in Belarus developing? 

the protesters in Belarus do not wave the flags of NATO or the EU, as we saw at Maidan square in Kiev. I see the old red and white of Belarus. It is a distinct protest from the 2014 Ukraine uprising. We should use the relationship that Merkel and Macron have with Putin to see if it is possible to have a discussion that makes clear to Russia that this is not a matter of NATO- or EU-membership. This should make it easier for Putin, because the discussion on formal alignment with the West is not on the table, as it was in Georgia and Ukraine. Putin might come to the conclusion that he has not too much to lose from a peaceful transition in Belarus, given the fact that the people demonstrating in the streets of Minsk and elsewhere are not anti-Russian but pro-Belarus. If I were his advisor, I would say that Lukashenko has outlived his time. Based on Putin’s past experiences in Dresden in 1989 when he was a KGB officer, regime change is not something that he is eager to accept. His advisors should tell him that there is a way to get rid of Lukashenko, have new elections and make sure that there will be a new government in power that remains close with Russia but is more acceptable to the population. I hope Merkel and Macron will deliver this message to the Kremlin.

Our few tools here are political. We have the leverage of France and Germany as leaders of the European Union, following the political suicide that the United Kingdom committed by leaving. Besides this, there is not so much we can do about the situation in Belarus. We no longer recognise Lukashenko as President, we openly support the opposition in Belarus, ask for free elections and are implementing targeted sanctions against the Belarussian leadership and all the apparatchiks who are committing violence against peaceful demonstrators. We are limited in what we can do. In 2014, when Guy Verhofstad said to the crowds at Maidan that we were with them, we were actually not with them. We should not raise these expectations in Belarus. 

On China, Graham Allison wrote that China as the challenger and the United States, as the vested superpower, are destined for conflict. How do you see this conflict play out?

The conflict has already started. I am very concerned. Graham Allison’s analysis in his book “Destined for War” is convincing and gives little hope for optimism. I hope a complete decoupling may be avoided. Trump’s China policy is one of the few foreign policy areas that still has bipartisan support. As Europeans, we are rather naive on issues like Huawei. It is hard to comprehend how Dutch universities are partnering with Huawei. Private Chinese companies do not exist. The communist party decides everything, and everything is a party matter. Harvard professor Joseph Nye said: allowing Huawei to be part of our 5G networks is not a question of technology, but a question of national security. Questions of national security are crucial. As a consequence, we should not have Huawei in our 5G network. On the other hand, we as Europeans need to understand why we are having this debate. We have underinvested in European alternatives like Ericsson and Nokia. We are now more or less in the hands of Huawei. It will cost us if we deny their involvement. It might delay the rollout of 5G, but we need to take a tough stance. China is too important to ignore, just as the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. We need to realise in Europe that China is an assertive and sometimes even aggressive systemic rival.

What role can the EU and NATO play here?  

As far as NATO is concerned, this shows why an alliance of democracies is important. I would like to see NATO, together with the Australians and other relevant regional powers, patrolling the South China Sea to assure freedom of navigation. Why should this only be a US interest? There is no reason to accept the nine-dash line in the South China Sea. The Trans-Atlantic partnership will not come back as it was in the forty-five years that I was involved. The Americans, in that rivalry with China, have other priorities. NATO has also evolved from an alliance to counter the Soviet Union, a long time ago during the Cold War when I was a young second secretary in the Dutch delegation, into what I have qualified as an expeditionary NATO. Currently, we have a dual-hatted NATO, as far as its political tasking is concerned. It was single hatted in the Cold War. It became of course double hatted during my mandate. We have been involved in Afghanistan, Kosovo, the Mediterranean and in training the African Union. The expeditionary hat was almost more important than the core hat while the relationship with Russia was good. Whereas now the core hat again is more important. Look at the forward military presence in the Baltics, how Russia relations have deteriorated and how important NATO’s military posture is. Weak as it is by the permanent underfunding, this is a point I very much agree with the Americans. President elect Biden’s language will be more sophisticated, but his message will be the same. Most European states do not take the funding of their defence budgets seriously, including the Netherlands, which is in a very unenviable position.

We have already discussed that this China conflict is often economical and technological. Do you think that this is the future of warfare? Instead of armies clashing it will primarily involve cyberattacks and non-state, hybrid, actors, who will play a larger role in the future? 

Look at the Russian Wagner group, a typical hybrid-private contractor which is active in Libya and elsewhere. Wagner does not become involved in Africa on its own, but with the blessing of the Kremlin. Private Military Contractors is certainly not a new phenomenon, but here we can discern a clear political strategy behind it. This is certainly part of a new form of warfare. In the future, we will see less “classic warfare”. Although I need to correct myself immediately. One of the hotspots that I see, as far as classical forms of conflict are concerned, is an unintended clash in the South China Sea between a Chinese fishing or patrol vessel and a French- or American one. Most conflicts originate from misunderstandings and miscalculations. They can happen in the air. They can potentially happen over the airspace between two NATO allies: Greece and Turkey. 

The start of your question was spot on. Hybrid will to a degree mean cyber, hacking, trying to control the energy grid, trying to control shipping slots, dams, water management. Imagine what could happen. Allowing Chinese companies to invest in our critical IT infrastructure, such as the 5G environment, also means giving them potential control over traditional, and non-traditional, infrastructure and that is something we should not want. These investments in our technological infrastructure are excellent means for taking a nation hostage, without having to send a single soldier, aircraft, or tank across the border. So, priority number one for the rest of this century will be in the domain of cyber and technology. Putin is quoted to say ‘who controls AI will control the world’ or something along those lines. That is more specifically relevant in the case of China and in the case of that rivalry. China of course is highly sophisticated. We should be more careful in that regard with forced technology transfers and IP-theft. The Americans will be proactive in the same domain. 

Conflict in this century will be a type of conflict we have not seen before. We have seen the beginning of this in Crimea in 2014 with the little green men and creating a fifth column with disinformation campaigns. We have seen the trolls. We have seen election interference by the Russians almost everywhere, in the US, most probably in the Ukraine referendum we held in the Netherlands a few years ago. A troll factory in St. Petersburg was unveiled by Dutch intelligence services. Conflict will be hybrid, but the real hybrid part will be on bits and bytes. Here also lies a risk for the Trans-Atlantic partnership. Mike Pompeo, with whom I often disagree, is quoted as saying: “let’s not come to a situation where Americans and Europeans are played out against each other on the issue of bits and bytes” by the Chinese or by the Russians. Europe and the US should be hand in glove in this crucial domain.

How do you see the role of the United States within NATO?

NATO needs American leadership because NATO is based on US leadership and funding. Without political leadership NATO becomes a very complicated alliance to manage in times wherein this alliance must be prepared for all the 21st century challenges that we discussed. NATO has to prepare for China as a superpower. We cannot say “that is irrelevant, because that is not NATO territory”. The South China Sea is as much relevant to NATO as Afghanistan was. Closer to home, one can think of the Western Balkans, where Russia and China are very active. 

Joe Biden has won the elections, and we will see what his presidency will bring, but looking at it from a NATO perspective I am certain that he will be a president who keeps in his mind that we in Europe are the best allies the Americans have. That is after all also the basis of NATO. And then, when we want to make clear to the Americans that we are indeed their best allies, we must also show that in our actions. We should take defence spending much more seriously and reach the 2 percent of GDP norm that we agreed upon in NATO. The Netherlands does not at this moment and that is frustrating and not acceptable. This does not mean that we will see a reset in the Transatlantic relationship as if the world had not changed. A Biden presidency will have its primary focus on the Indo-Pacific region given China’s ambitions in and beyond that part of the world.

The situation in the Eastern Mediterranean is complicated, with Greece and Turkey seeming to get closer to conflict any day. While this particular conflict may be new, the sour relationship between the two NATO allies is not. Do you recall having trouble with these two member states as Secretary General?

The troublesome relationship between Greece and Turkey is not new. During my mandate, I have not seen major crises between the two, but the relationship was always rather complicated. There was the issue of the name of North-Macedonia, which has now been solved. And, on a more permanent basis, there were clashes over islands, economic zones, and territorial waters. During my tenure as Secretary General, there was trouble regarding the EU-NATO relationship with Turkey being difficult on the NATO side and Greece and Cyprus on the EU side. The result was that EU and NATO ambassadors could not meet. The EU and NATO cooperation was complicated by this rivalry, and as a result, I did not manage to get any form of serious political relationship established between the EU and NATO. The Turks and Greeks were both responsible.

In the past, the Americans would have taken the lead in the Eastern Mediterranean. They would have the gravitas to send the Secretary of State to the region to say: “guys be careful because any miscalculation can lead to trouble”. That is not the case at this moment, President Trump did not want to take this role, perhaps Joe Biden might be more proactive at the NATO table but will not play the European policeman in the Mediterranean. In this particular situation, France is clearly supporting one side in the conflict, which does not make things easier. Meanwhile, the British are on the way out of the European Union. That leaves the Germans again and we need to see if Angela Merkel and Heiko Maas can get the parties around the table. Secretary General Stoltenberg is also very active in trying to calm the waters.

The issue with Turkey is that there is a Turkish president who has, let me phrase it diplomatically, a lot of self-confidence. He is conducting Turkish foreign policy with Ottomanesque traces, as can be seen in Iraq, Syria, and Libya for example. On the other side, geography matters enormously in foreign policy. We cannot move Turkey out of the way. Turkey is geographically highly relevant with its entry to the Middle East, Central Asia and the Black Sea, and President Erdogan knows this. As such – and this is the diplomat in me speaking – we have to get around the table with all parties involved and find a solution. Again, look at history. It is the same as in the South China Sea. One misunderstanding or one miscalculation could be fatal. 

The Advisory Council International Affairs, of which I am the chairman, has written an advice report for the government and parliament on European security. We are advising to establish an informal European Security Council that can be convened in case of crisis. This council would include France, Germany and the United Kingdom as well as the President of the European Council and the Secretary-General of NATO. They can then invite allies, nations and member states depending on the situation. That security council is for the purpose of resolving crises and the scenario where there might be a need for military intervention and nations want to decide who should take the lead: NATO, the EU or a “coalition of the willing”.

There seem to be so many challenges for NATO, some of which we did not even touch upon, such as North-Africa, climate change and terrorism. 

I think we should realise that the southern border of Europe is not in the Mediterranean, but in the Sahel. Here, climate change meets terrorism meets migration. The presence of many terrorist organisations like ISIL, Boko Haram and Al Qaeda continues. Demographically, Africa will be adding 1 billion people between now and 2050. The birth rate in that part of the world is still very high. Combine this with climate change, which will render parts of Africa uninhabitable and you get the picture. One of the most visible results is of course migration to Europe, which is a logical consequence. Under those circumstances, you and I would also move. 

Is there an African link to NATO’s future? Absolutely, and we have been working on that since my time as Secretary General. During my mandate we established a NATO relationship with the African Union in Addis Ababa. Why? Because when the African Union is not sufficiently equipped to (re-)establish control, law, and order on that continent then others will have to come in and do it. I think it’s much better that Africans do it themselves, but I do not exclude the possibility that those challenges in the Sahel might lead to the need for some form of military intervention in the future in that part of Africa, because they cannot cope. 

Terrorism is a challenge that was with us, is with us and I am afraid will remain with us. It will take different forms, as terrorism will also be a great danger in cyberspace. Not only in Bataclan, Berlin or Brussels. There are also more challenges. If I would have given you the list a year ago. I would of course have added the risk of a pandemic. I did not foresee Covid-19 and its huge consequences in all domains, also security, but it is a relevant element to mention because it will have a massive geopolitical impact.

So, with all these issues in mind, how do you see the next 10 years develop from a NATO perspective?

In my opinion the biggest challenge for the NATO alliance is political cohesion. NATO is a political-military alliance. In that order and not the other way around. NATO would not survive as just a military alliance. Certainly, NATO is the most important military alliance the world knows and will continue to know, but without political cohesion it will not work. That is why the Trump administration made it so difficult for NATO. President Trump did not believe in the liberal international world order and did not believe strongly in NATO. This has undermined the political cohesion of the alliance. President-elect Biden will likely reinvigorate the American commitment to NATO. He has a difficult task ahead. The biggest challenge for NATO is how we can uphold and strengthen the vital political cohesion. 

NATO is dramatically underfunded. As long as this situation will continue, it will be extremely complicated for NATO to run an operation like the Alliance ran in Afghanistan. Under present circumstances it would not be possible for many NATO allies to contribute to such an operation. The Dutch would be incapable of mounting an operation like the Uruzgan mission. It would be an unsustainable operation. 

NATO is as relevant as it ever was, looking at a very unpredictable and unstable world. It is absolutely essential that it is based on democratic values. We need this political cohesion and military partnership because it is crucial that other nations, first and foremost Putin’s Russia, take NATO seriously. At the end of the day there is no (as we speak and in the foreseeable future) alternative to the American nuclear guarantee. I do not yet see a European nuclear weapon on or over the horizon. If you profit from the ultimate guarantee provided by the United States of America, then you must put your money where your mouth is. That guarantee does not come for free.

*** Given the Russian invasion in Ukraine, JASON re-published this interview with former Secretary General of NATO dating from late 2020. In accordance with the recent words of NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg, JASON strongly condemns Russia’s aggression and unlawful actions. Moreover, our Institute supports the efforts of the Alliance to stand behind Ukraine and denounce this threat to European stability and the international order. In case you want to read more about the different opinions and debates on matters of European security, make sure to check out the most recent edition of our magazine which delves deeper into multiple topics that impact the current European threat landscape.

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