NATO enlargement is far from over, the former US Permanent Representative to NATO believes.
In this interview, Ambassador Kurt Volker, Executive Director of the McCain Institute, talks to Diplomaatia about his opinion on issues including the transatlantic partnership, Russia and Brexit.
How would you assess the results of NATO Warsaw Summit?
I think the results are mixed. On the positive side, the steps to shore up defence and deterrence in the Baltic States and Poland are very good. It reinforces persistent presence, multinationality and operational capability—which will cause any potential aggressor to look for softer targets elsewhere. I was also pleased to see Montenegro invited to join NATO, because this proves that the process of building a Europe whole, free and at peace still continues. That is important to people from Georgia to Ukraine, Moldova to Macedonia.
The downsides are that NATO did nothing meaningful to help Ukraine in defeating Russian aggression and re-establishing control of its own territory, and it did nothing to help Libya establish security and stability, which has been shattered since the NATO bombing campaign there. I am also concerned that we are not investing enough in Afghanistan and that all the gains we have made there could be reversed.
The Financial Times reported that, despite the unity shown in the summit documents, differences remained over how to cope with Russia. Notably, France was said to be more in favour of rapprochement with Russia. How do you view these reports? Can NATO maintain unity?
I think the reports are accurate—and that just highlights the need for greater leadership within the Alliance, especially from the United States. It is no secret that some nations favour good relations with Moscow, no matter the cost—and that puts Moscow in a position to drive up those costs to unacceptable levels.
The trick here is to define a positive strategy—what is NATO seeking to achieve?—rather than merely a strategy that reacts to Russia. This would take substantial US leadership, which has been lacking of late. With an affirmative strategy, it would be easier to rally nations together.
Do you believe in the NATO-Russia Council, which started working again recently? If so, why?
I am always in favour of dialogue, so I see no harm in the NATO-Russia Council having discussions. But let us also be honest: Russia has no interest in cooperation with NATO and working together on issues. Russia seeks to use the NATO-Russia Council to influence, block and divide NATO. The Alliance should undertake significant advance coordination of policy towards Russia, in order to use the NATO-Russia Council meetings productively, to try to change Russia’s aggressive behaviour.
What about Sweden and Finland? Do you think they are going to be NATO members soon, or—with the above differences in mind—not? Do certain NATO members not want Sweden and Finland to join, because this would be certain to annoy Russia?
Sweden is taking serious steps towards changing public opinion, which could clear the way for a request for NATO membership. The conservative opposition is now uniformly in favour, and the Social Democratic Party is gradually trying to build support within its base. Swedish membership could indeed be on the horizon in a few years.
Finland, however, has shied away from interest in NATO membership for the time being. But a move by Sweden could change the Finnish calculus.
As for current NATO members, I believe that all of them would welcome Sweden and Finland quickly, because they are developed democracies and EU members, and bring serious defence capabilities to the table. Achieving consensus on their membership would be far easier than for, say, Ukraine or Georgia.
This begs another question: after Montenegro, can NATO expand further?
Absolutely. It can and it should—because NATO enlargement is not a goal in itself, but a reflection of changing realities in Europe. If Georgia, Ukraine, Macedonia or another country truly establishes a strong democracy, a healthy economy and good relations with its neighbours, and contributes to broader security in Europe as a whole, this would be positive for Europe and NATO, and make these countries attractive candidates for membership. At the moment, however, the combination of lack of preparedness in these countries and the “avoid provoking Russia” sentiment among several Allies has put further NATO enlargement temporarily on hold.
What do you think about Brexit? How could it change EU security cooperation? What about transatlantic links?
The UK will be fine after Brexit, as will the United States. The real entity harmed here is the EU itself. An EU without the UK risks being more inward-looking, less defence-oriented, less free-market oriented, and—frankly—even more lopsided in terms of the role of Germany.
EU security cooperation has been anaemic, independent of Brexit—and that is unlikely to change. NATO has always been the real security provider, and the United States should reinvigorate its commitment to NATO.
All that said, however, there is no reason why an EU without the UK should be any less of a strategic partner for the United States than the EU with the UK has been.
What about Ukraine and Georgia?
Ukraine and Georgia are independent countries, with populations that deserve to live in freedom, democracy, prosperity and security as much as any other people in Europe. They do not have this at the moment, and several NATO countries have placed a higher priority on working with Russia than on helping the people of these countries achieve their place in the European landscape.
To be clear, these countries have their own work to do, much as the Baltic States did in the 1990s. But NATO should ramp up engagement and help them progress towards membership, rather than simply sit back and say “not now”.
In Estonia, there has recently been much talk about so-called “war hysteria”, as if the country is preparing for war with Russia. However, it is clear that the additional NATO troops there serve as a deterrent and that to attack Russia is simply a mad idea. That kind of mood also exists in Finland, where some politicians are accusing others and the media of war-mongering, even though Finland is not a NATO member. Would you comment on that?
I think the whole “war-mongering” conversation turns reality on its head. Russia has invaded neighbours, occupied territory, annexed territory, threatened further attacks, conducted cyber- and propaganda attacks, engaged in highly provocative military actions, and even threatened the use of nuclear weapons. Against this backdrop, for NATO to take a few small, prudent military steps is entirely appropriate and hardly a “provocation” at all. And indeed, the size of these forces compared to Russia’s means that they can be a deterrent—by multinationalising any conflict quickly—but they can hardly be seen as a provocation towards Russia.
How do you assess the situation in Turkey? Could these developments affect Turkey’s relations with the EU and US?
Events in Turkey are very worrying. While we were right to condemn the attempted military coup and stand in favour of Turkish democratic institutions, the crackdown after the coup has also threatened Turkey’s democratic institutions. Some of the excesses in Turkey can be explained by the US and some in the EU failing to take Turkish views into account in formulating wider policies in the region, such as the fight against ISIS, working with Iraq, EU membership and refugee policy.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.