Sgt. Kirstin Merrimarahajara/USMC

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NATO in the Trump Era: A Conversation with Jamie Shea

I had the privilege of sitting down with NATO’s Jamie Shea who offered his insight as to NATO’s importance for sustainable global security and stability and how NATO’s role positively impacts the United States.

Mr. Shea has had a distinguished career with NATO since 1980. He is currently the Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges. In that role he assists in advising the Secretary General on the evolution of emerging security challenges, their potential impact on NATO’s security, and the development of relevant policies and action plans. He also facilitates the Emerging Security Challenges Division and coordinates NATO’s Science for Peace and Security Program.

Former U.S. Director of National Intelligence James L. Clapper recently described the current international security environment as “the most complex and diverse array of global threats” he has faced in his 53 year career. From NATO’s perspective what are the greatest global threats? Are these the same threats that America is facing?

Certainly, we face one of the most uncertain outlooks for many decades. Challenges seem to be coming at us from all directions, and all the domains that NATO has traditionally operated in – such as sea, land, air, space and cyberspace – are now contested.

For much of my NATO career, we have had the luxury of being able to focus all our efforts on one big issue in one place and at a time. For example, just a few years ago, then then-Director of the CIA General David Petraeus said that if we could solve the Arab-Israeli dispute, the Middle East would be much more stable.

Today when we look at what is happening in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Libya, it would be very difficult to make this claim. So today, NATO has to be able, in the words of Lyndon B. Johnson “to walk and to chew gum at the same time.” We have to address simultaneously the return of a rather traditional threat from Russian military power in eastern Europe and go back to collective defense like we did during the Cold War, while concentrating at the same time on how we pacify and stabilize this vast area of turbulence to the south, which extends all the way from Maghreb in Northern Africa to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.

The problem here is that there is a whole series of failed or failing states and most are fragile, with only a few islands of democracy and decent governance. At the same time, the instability is not only coming from large groups like ISIL or Al Qaeda, but from literally thousands of proxies and sub-state actors. In this environment, sorting out who is a friend and who is a foe is not easy and the contours can change very quickly as well.

So the greatest threat to NATO is all of this uncertainty and instability which looks as if it could get worse before becoming better. We have to deal with traditional military threats which are coming back with more countries around the world acquiring sophisticated technology and ballistic missiles, such as Iran, and the fact that those states as well as terrorist organizations or proxy groups can also inflict disruption on us by resorting to other instruments, such as disabling cyber-attacks. Even ISIL, while not being a state, has developed chemical weapons, driverless suicide cars and drones capable of dropping bombs. So the old difference between the strong and the weak is fading. Simply put, the bad actors have more capabilities to do us harm than in the past, because if they cannot defeat our military forces (at the moment) they can still de-stabilize us and do us harm by attacking our societies, undermining our election campaigns, sabotaging our infrastructure or stopping our societies moving through paralyzing cyber-attacks.

Certainly when I think of the main worries, such as terrorism, cyber and ballistic missile and nuclear proliferation, I don’t see that there is any difference in the threat level between Europe and the United States.

You were with NATO on 9/11. While the attack occurred on American soil, how and why did NATO become involved?

9/11 was just a big a shock to Europeans as it was to Americans. The day after, the French newspaper Le Monde even ran a headline saying “we are all Americans now.” Citizens of over 60 countries were killed in the World Trade Center and we in Europe really felt that this was not just an attack on the United States, but on western civilization and our liberal democratic values. There was a real sense that it could so easily have happened here, for instance to the London Stock Exchange or to the Louvre museum in Paris with an equal number of nationalities being involved. So it was immediately clear that this was not just a one-off attack but the hallmark of a new form of terrorism against NATO countries by a group – Al Qaeda – that would be far more extreme and difficult to overcome that what we had seen before. What hit America on 9/11 would hit Europe soon afterwards and indeed it has with mass killings in Paris, Brussels, Nice and most recently Berlin.

Donald Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stolenberg. (Shealah Craighead)

As a result, NATO wanted very much on 9/11 to demonstrate its solidarity with the United States and its sense that the attack was against all of us. The best way to do this was by invoking Article 5 of the Washington Treaty which says that an armed attack on one could be considered as an attack on all and that we would respond together.

We have to think more creatively and use Article 5 to respond to other types of aggression. At our Wales Summit in 2014, we went a step in this direction by declaring that cyber-attacks could be considered also as an Article 5 instance of Collective Defence, if they inflict enough damage on one of our Allies. So in this sense, 9/11 was an important transformational step for NATO. It also led to NATO Allies joining the United States in Afghanistan to bring an end to the Taliban regime and help stabilize the country thereafter. The fact that all the Allies sent troops to this mission and kept them there for the best part of a decade, shows this sense of solidarity with the United States. To my mind it also shows that NATO is not a one-way Alliance, in which the United States does everything for Europe and nothing in return.

Is this the reason for NATO’s presence in the Middle East and North Africa or MENA? Would it be fair to say that NATO’s activities support the global war on terrorism? Was this a new role for NATO? Did NATO change after 9.11?

Certainly, and as I said in reply to the previous question, NATO solidarity is an important reason why the Allies are engaged in the Middle East and North Africa and 9/11 was an important turning point when we realized that threats from the south could be as dangerous and urgent as dealing with a resurgent Russia in eastern Europe. Yet the Allies also realize that it is not just NATO solidarity or a spirit of generosity towards each other.

So if your image of the global war on terrorism is one of drone strikes and Special Forces operations against remote Al Qaeda units in Yemen or Somalia, then this is not the NATO role. However if, as I do, you can see the global war on terrorism as requiring a broad spectrum of activities, not just to kill individual terrorists, but to quash terrorism itself in the long run, then NATO is indeed a key player.

There are over 100,000 NATO forces in Afghanistan for ten years as part of the international security assistance force. Today, NATO has over 10,000 personnel in Afghanistan training the Afghan Army so that it can handle security by itself.

NATO has also recently established a training program in Bagdad to help Iraqi forces deal with explosive devices. We have training programs also in Jordan and Tunisia and we have offered to assist Libya with training and restructuring its militias and armed forces. A stable Libya will obviously be a key facet in the long run of any successful effort to curtail terrorism given that is where ISIL is seeking to relocate after Raqqa and Mosul. So it may not be possible to defeat terrorism only with NATO but I would argue that it would be equally impossible wholly without NATO.

Americans, perhaps as many as 79%, fear terrorist attacks. Would you agree that one of the key ways to eradicate terrorism is to provide sustainable peace by fostering democracy, security sector reform, education, a justice system, and even water justice? Let me rephrase that – by creating greater equality does the global community decrease the number of people who can be recruited by ISIL? What role does NATO play in this process?

I understand that the long-term solution to terrorism is to create more jobs and better living standards throughout the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in other parts of the world, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, where terrorism has also taken root. The British Prime-Minister Tony Blair used to say that we must be tough on crime, but also tough on the causes of crime. I would say the same of terrorism.

The starting point here is to bring an end to the wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, as these conflicts are obviously radicalizing many people and driving unemployed young men and women into the arms of extremist groups. But we also have to be realistic. Reconstructing North Africa and the Middle East will take generations and cost billions of dollars. We must do a much better job of bringing things like democracy programs, development aid, education, justice, climate change and military security into much better synergy than we have managed in Iraq or Afghanistan in the past.

At the same time, we obviously need to ensure that Muslims living in North America or Europe feel welcome and integrated and not stigmatized as alien on account of their religious beliefs or customs. There is no going back to mono-ethnic or mono-religious societies and indeed diversity is a source of strength and innovation. Where would the United States be today without its generations of immigrants? Europe too needs immigration to sustain its prosperity in the wake of demographic decline of many of its populations. So we need hard-headed policies to build successful multi-ethnic societies in which the nihilistic message of ISIL or Al Qaeda would be as ridiculous to young Muslims or even some Christians who have converted to radical Islam as the statement that the earth is flat and that you can fall off the edge.

I also want to add one further note of caution. Terrorism is not just caused by poverty or despair. History is full of terrorists and anarchists who came from the aristocracy and enjoyed all the privileges of society. The terrorists of 9/11 were middle class and educated. History teaches us that there are always going to be misfits and extremists who are not willing or able to accept the liberal, tolerant values with which our societies operate but who are nostalgic for a form of totalitarianism. So we will always need a good security organization to identify and deal with these individuals.

One of the functions undertaken by NATO, along with the United Nations, is nation building to promote democratization. Can you tell me a little bit about what is involved in nation building?

Nation building is obviously a never-ending process. When do we ever stop trying to perfect our democracies or build better functioning nations? Yet in the sense of NATO missions in the Balkans or Afghanistan, nation building is about putting the basics in place in a way that is self-sustaining and does not require NATO to constantly re-intervene because as soon as it departs, political agreements or institutions collapse. So we call this a self-sustaining piece.

What are the elements? In the first place, a security environment, which allows people to make investments and set up businesses in the knowledge that these are not going to be destroyed from one day to the next. Otherwise the economy does not re-start. Another is making sure that the basic institutions of governments are in place, like the executive, the judiciary, a functioning parliament. Another element is disarming local militias so that they cannot disrupt the peace process and training the national forces to manage security by themselves. Other things like law to protect religious minorities or media freedoms are also important, as corruption always thrives where there is no free press to hold it in check.

None of this means trying to build Switzerland in Afghanistan, which would be an impossible task but to have something which the military often refer to “Afghanistan good enough.” That means a country which is able to avoid doing violence to itself or its neighbors and to get along on the basis of a social compact, even if the locals may do things in “the Afghan way” or “the Iraqi way,” according to their local customs and culture, rather than according to a “one size fits all” western model.

NATO has been involved in this process in Afghanistan since August 2003. How did NATO become involved in Afghanistan?

NATO began its ISAF mission in Afghanistan in 2003, to demonstrate solidarity with the United States after the 9/11 attacks and in recognition that the Taliban-Al Qaeda regime in Afghanistan at the time was as much a threat to Europeans as to the United States. NATO also decided to assist a UN mission based on German and Dutch troops that was already in theatre but which could benefit from the organization, command and control that an organization like NATO could provide. For the first ten years, NATO’s ISAF mission was focused on providing security throughout the country based on four regional headquarters. NATO also began to train and equip the Afghan Army in order to be able to take over from ISAF and it developed a Cooperation and Partnership program with Afghanistan to help with long-term, such as the Afghan security concept and reorganization of its Ministry of Defense.

This cooperation program also included some civilian activities, such as the Silk-Afghanistan program, led by NATO’s Science for Peace and Security program, which provided internet connectivity to Afghanistan’s many universities. This was a great help in connecting Afghanistan’s younger generation to the outside world.

NATO also ran a series of provincial reconstruction teams that provided military support to development agencies working on projects such as agriculture or schools. After 2014, ISAF came to an end and NATO launched a new mission called Resolute Support, where NATO and many of its partner countries work on training the Afghan national army.

On January 21st the day after being confirmed Secretary of Defense General James Mattis contacted NATO allies to assure them of continued U.S. involvement. The Executive Order signed January 28th excludes General Mattis, along with the other Joint Chiefs of Staff from the newly formed Principals Committee. At this time NATO membership is subject to auto renewal with any member state able to issue a notice of denunciation which is a one year notice of intent to exit NATO. It is my understanding that it is possible that under Article 13 that Mr. Trump could issue an executive order that would serve as the requisite notice of denunciation without any action by Congress. Has concern been expressed by NATO member nations?

Yes, it is possible to withdraw from NATO after one year’s notice, but no state has ever done so and indeed many European countries are seeking to join NATO, which is certainly a vote of confidence in NATO’s continuing utility. NATO is by far the most successful Alliance in history and has given Europe and North America a period of peace and prosperity that they have never known before. It is also an Alliance in which everyone benefits, as Allies are responsive to each other’s security concerns. NATO also operates by consensus which means that everyone has a vote and prospective veto over decisions. So their national interests cannot be ignored.

For all these reasons, NATO represents the gold standard in international security and I am tempted to say, as Voltaire did about God, that if it didn’t exist we would have to invent it. So although Allies may have issues with each other from time to time regarding defense budgets and burden-sharing, the advantages of staying in the Alliance vis-à-vis the disadvantage of finding oneself alone in an increasingly disorderly and dangerous world, are such that I do not see any Ally leaving the Alliance. Look at France, which was outside NATO’s military command structure for over 40 years but decided to return in 2009.

One of Mr. Trump’s criticisms is that the United States is one of five states that is in compliance with the obligation to commit a minimum of two per cent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to spending on defense. Just so my readers understand, that 2% is not paid to NATO, it represents what each member nation must invest in its own defense spending? Hasn’t the United States over the last decade consistently invested more than 2% in building up its military capabilities?

It is certainly true that the United States has by far the highest level of defense spending among the Allies and spends a higher percentage of its GDP on defense than the greatest majority of the other Allies. But there are historical reasons for this. The United Sates is a super power with global responsibilities.

This said, President Trump has a point when he says that the Allies have to meet the 2% target. This is not new, as the Obama administration was making this point just as forcefully. And it was indeed under the previous administration that the 2% objective was publicly agreed as an Allied commitment. It is true that at the moment, only four European Allies meet the 2% target but 18 have now come up with plans to move progressively towards this target and have announced many new defense investments and projects. I expect the other Allies to announce plans to meet the 2% target before NATO holds it first Summit with President Trump in May.

But don’t forget, NATO’s job is not only to persuade its members to spend more but also to spend wisely and on things that can really benefit NATO. Spending more to waste more is not the answer. So it is important that Europeans in particular get more value for money through cooperating. For instance Europeans currently have four times as many weapons systems as the United States in their inventories and this represents massive duplication.

However, haven’t there been criticisms leveled at the United States for not paying the United Nations $3 billion owed for dues and for peacekeeping operations?

I would hope – and expect – that the United States will pay its dues to the United Nations. The cost of all UN peacekeeping operations is about 8 billion dollars a year for 16 different missions. When you compare this figure to what NATO was spending in one year just on Afghanistan, then this is a very modest sum; and the cost of a UN Peacekeeper is only about 20% of the cost of a NATO soldier. We need the UN to do missions which for political or other reasons would be difficult for the western countries to engage in and I think we have to recognize that the UN has improved its peacekeeping and learned many difficult lessons from the past. Today, three out of five UN Blue Helmet missions help countries to stabilize so that they do not relapse back into conflict.

Russia’s relationship with the West has been less than positive since the illegal annexation of Crimea. So far, we do not have any idea where Mr. Trump is headed save he has reserved comment on whether the United States would roll back economic sanctions. How important are economic sanctions in showing unity amongst NATO member nations?

Economic sanctions are important because over time they do change the behavior of recalcitrant states. Look at Iran or Libya, which agreed to freeze or give up weapons programs, mainly because international sanctions were applied to them. Russia is also feeling the effect of the sanctions imposed on it following its illegal annexation of Crimea. But sanctions require unity and perseverance, which is why they were successful vis-à-vis Libya and Iran. The alternative to sanctions is either appeasement and giving in, which only stores up more trouble later on, or using military force with all of its unforeseeable consequences. So sanctions are not perfect but are probably the best instrument that we have. But we must be patient and given them time to work.

Why should Americans care about what happened in Crimea and what’s happening in Ukraine and Eastern Europe?

Churchill famously said that the aggressor is never satisfied. Every time he is appeased, he sees this as weakness and simply comes back with more and more exorbitant demands. So if Russia is allowed to violate international law in Ukraine with impunity, it will believe it can act in the same way elsewhere in the world. And in ways that directly threaten US interests.

Think of Russia’s current role in Syria and the wider Middle East, its build-up of nuclear missiles, its cyber-attacks against the United States elections, or its intimidating actions against US ships. At the same time, the values that the US represents are those of international law and responsible behavior in international relations and respect for other states and peoples. It is on this basis rather than naked power that America’s prosperity and interests lie. The US is still very much the global leader for the liberal international system and in a world in which these values are increasingly being challenged by states like Russia, China, Iran, North Korea or others, it is a source of inspiration to millions of people across the globe that the United States is still willing and able to uphold these values. Power is after all the ability to inspire and lead others as much as an issue of tanks, missiles and defense budgets.

What threats does Russia pose to the West: espionage, cyber warfare, conventional warfare, proxies, nuclear armament and misinformation?

Regrettably, all of the above. Where Russia is different vis-à-vis the old Soviet Union, is that it now has a much stronger foothold within our western democracies, in terms of media ownership, influence on populist parties, cyber instruments, energy relationships and other business deals. All of this gives Russia a much larger keyboard on which to play and it tends to use all of these instruments and to see in each particular case which one can produce the most confusion and destabilization.

For instance in Ukraine, Russia tried fake humanitarian operations and when these did not work, sent in the “little green men” disguised as local soldiers. This said, the key thing is to expose Russia’s behavior quickly and effectively by clamping down on fake news and attributing cyber operations. We also need to build a strong military defense because the key thing is preventing Russia from trying to convert a hybrid warfare-type of attack into an actual military attack. We can recover quickly from the first type but unfortunately not so quickly from the second type.

Would you not agree Dr. Shea that NATO’s mere existence is a deterrent to Russian aggressions involving any NATO member nation?

Yes I would. Unity is the best deterrent message, so as to leave a potential aggressor in no doubt about NATO’s resolve and not to create the ambiguities or misunderstandings that could lead to fatal miscalculations. But we must also remember Frederick the Great of Prussia who famously said that diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments. So unity backed up with a credible defense is even better.