Ex-NATO deputy sec-gen: Alliance joins anti-ISIS fight for prestige, not combat

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has declared it is joining the coalition against ISIS – in a formal move to show the alliance’s commitment to the fight against extremism. This comes as US President Donald Trump once again demanded NATO members increase their defense spending to contribute their fair share to the bloc. European leaders, reluctant to meet their commitments to NATO, are making plans for a pan-EU army that could potentially replace the transatlantic alliance. Will NATO be able to reinvent itself in the face of new challenges? How will the bloc adapt to the changing realities? We ask former Deputy Secretary General of NATO – Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO, welcome to the show, it's really great to have you with us. At the latest NATO summit, Donald Trump scolded the alliance members for not pulling their weight financially, effectively for not contributing 2% of GDP to defence. But since it’s the US that wields the most influence in the alliance, isn’t it fair Washington pays the lion’s share of its expenses?

Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo: You know, this story of 2% is an old thing, you know, and it's not stated by law anywhere. It is a target which, in political terms, has been set a few years ago, and it is true that most of the European partners of NATO are not paying up to 2%, but let's say, there's no magic there because there are also other things that the European allies do, like participating in NATO operations which are not accounted into these famous 2%, you see. So, it's a complicated issue. Certainly, what is true is that probably the European countries would be spending more in the future, but how much and in which - it is still to be seen.

SS: NATO is now joining the anti-ISIS coalition - but what’s the point of doing that? Most of NATO countries with serious military capability are already fighting ISIS. Is the U.S.-led coalition in need of support of, I don't know, let's say, Iceland's military, for example?

AM: I can tell you something. As you said, rightly, almost all NATO allies are participating in anti-ISIS operation, but not NATO as such. So the decision which has been taken a few days ago in Brussels, is mainly a political decision, a symbolic one, if you like. I mean, it doesn't involve - I want to be clear on that - it does not involve combat operations under a NATO flag. It is out of the question. So it will be a political, if you like, signal, and perhaps some NATO assets would be used, like reconnaissance planes, and perhaps training and education and these kinds of things. No combat on the ground.

SS: So if NATO isn't going to commit specific troops to the anti-ISIS fight, how will it go about its participation within the coalition?

AM: Oh, as I said before, in fact, NATO has been already linked in practice to the coalition. Many meetings of the coalition have taken place in NATO headquarters and offices, but it has never been official, if you like. Now it is official. As I said, you have to take it more as a political symbol rather than a change in the situation on the ground. I think it will change little on the ground.

SS: Exactly! So, Secretary Stoltenberg said that NATO joining the anti-ISIS fight sends a strong political message - a message to whom?

AM: Well, a strong political message... It is a strong political message, in fact. As I said, there are many things that NATO can do which are not combat operations, you know, like police force generation, like reconnaissance, like education or like training, cooperation in various ways, you know?

SS: Yes, but the question was - this is a message to whom? What did the Secretary General mean? This sends a strong political message to whom?

AM: The political message is that NATO recognizes as such the threat of terrorism, shared, as I understand, also, but Russia, but anyway, coming from that part of the world, and wants to be fully visible in the fight against those extremist groups. This is the political message. What is happening is that there's certainly a mounting threat from extremists groups, let's say, in the Arab region, to be precise, and NATO is trying to raise its visibility against that. But of course, the issue is that, NATO wants to raise its visibility and its support, but not to the point of entering of combat operations there, you see? It's a subtle line there.

SS: President Trump was expected to reassure NATO allies of his commitment to Article 5 - a clause that treats an attack on one NATO member as an attack on all - but he didn’t do that in his speech. The media is saying that that means the U.S. isn’t ready to defend its allies - what do you think, does Trump’s behaviour indicate just that?

AM: I don't know, I don't know. I cannot read into the mind of the President of the U.S. What I can tell you, is that I prefer to look at what he does rather than what he says. I don't know why he didn't mention that, I have no idea. We'll see in the future, exactly, we are still in the first few months of his presidency, so I imagine he's also on a learning curve, trying to figure out what his policy should be for the rest of his term, I suppose. So I would not really give too much attention to this sentence or another sentence.

SS: There’s talk now in the EU of a common European army - where does that leave NATO, will it become redundant?

AM: You ask me difficult questions that cannot be answered in 30 seconds. European army is a wrong way of speaking about European defence policy - because there's no European Army and I don't think that there will be any European Army unless Europe is united politically, which I don't see as really happening in the next few years at least, to say things diplomatically. So, in fact, what is happening on the European side is to try to better utilize existing services, optimise things, and to reduce the - how can I say? - the duplications that exist among European armies. If you take the EU, you see 28 or 27 European armies and they duplicate in many things. So, this is an effort which is going to take place, but - and here I have very clear ideas of that - this is not going to be a European Army in any way.

SS: German Chancellor Angela Merkel is saying that Europe can no longer rely on others - and that - that's a quote - "Europeans have to take their fate into their own hands". Do you agree? Do you think the EU has been too dependent on the US for example?

AM: I don't know, it's very difficult... how can I say - to judge a policy of a big country only on a declaration made during an electoral campaign. So I don't have an idea of what mrs. Merkel has in mind. To my experience, I think that NATO will stay on, because NATO is useful as a practical tool and there's no reason, to my mind, to cancel it. So, that is not in contradiction with the fact that you can strengthen EU in other ways, like, in trade, in environment, in structural funds or macroeconomic policy - those things. There are many things existing beyond the fence, so we have not to think immediately when Angela Merkel says this thing, that's she is speaking of the European Army, I don't think so.

SS: Donald Trump also advised NATO focus on terrorism and immigration. Do you think the alliance should be doing the job of the European border guard?

AM: Frankly speaking, I'm not of this opinion. There's a subtle line between a military operation and the rescue operation. I don't think that NATO really has much of a role. It can have some role, but certainly not a major role in terms of migration.

SS: NATO played a big part in Gaddafi’s overthrow in Libya - you’re saying its aftermath has spread instability and jihadism in Africa. Does NATO have a responsibility to do something about, seeing how its actions caused the chaos in the first place?

AM: I think that NATO, after the campaign, should've been involved in institution-building and trying to reinforce Libyan security apparatus and perhaps even the army - in the good sense, I mean, not against anybody, but to help to create a stable state. I think that was a mistake on the side of NATO not to do that from the beginning. This, I think, we'll have to admit. In my view, NATO after the operation should've continued in creating institutions in Libya, especially on the security side.

SS: NATO’s decisions are made by consensus, not order - is it easy to reach consensus when interests of Albania, Slovenia, Ireland and Canada are so different?

AM: Well, of course, it is a good question. Certainly, with the enlargement of NATO it has been more difficult to reach consensus than before. Before, during the Cold War, it was very clear - who was on one side, who was on the other, and what kind of decision had to be taken. In this case, it is not as easy as it was before. So, you're right, the decision making is complicated. Still, it works. To same extent, at least.

SS: Turkey occupies a key spot in NATO - it has alliance's  second-biggest conventional army, but should NATO be concerned with the latest developments in Turkey - with President Erdogan giving himself sweeping new powers, purging the military, putting down an insurgency and propping up Syrian rebels? Or is Turkey’s strategic importance too high, and NATO will close its eyes on the accusations of transgressions of democracy?

AM: This is very difficult question. Turkey has been a member since a long time, and the relationship has not always been easy, because Turkey, also from a geographical point of view is not really on the same side than the other NATO countries, and so it may have different interests. Nevertheless, I would say, so far, in the history of NATO, compromise has always been reached. So, in the end, I cannot speak about the future, and situation in the Middle East is certainly very confused, but I would not decry the, let’s say, depth of Turkey vis-a-vis NATO or the other way around.

SS: Some argue Turkey’s unpredictable behaviour  - its military action in Iraq and Syria, its spat with Russia, or blocking of Austria’s cooperation with NATO - turns it into more of a liability than a benefit to the alliance. What do you think?

AM: What I think, frankly speaking, is that the situation in the Middle East is extremely confused, very confused. I don't see clear-cut strategies anywhere. I only see technical things, things good for today or for tomorrow - you have teams of countries for brief period and then they divorce immediately. I think that we are in a very bad, historical moment in the Middle East, and it is very difficult to predict how things will become. Of course, we read every day in the newspapers a lot of analysts giving judgement on this and that, but if you look at the end of the story, I see that the Middle East of today is very different from the Middle East of 2011, before the so-called "Arab Spring", and it is very difficult to predict in which direction it will go. So, this is really my answer to that.

SS: When will NATO’s enlargement drive finally slow down? Seeing how many vigorous objections Russia made to it, does NATO revel in moving eastwards just to spite Moscow?

AM: You're speaking about the enlargement of NATO?

SS: Yes.

AM: The enlargement of NATO is something to be discussed. I think that NATO has more or less reached its maximum extent. It is, of course, possible, but for the time being I don't see new accessions to NATO, frankly speaking. As you know, for the country to become a part of the organisation, you need, first of all, a request by the country, and I don't see anybody, for the moment, asking to join NATO. On the other hand, NATO perhaps has not the appetite to extend beyond the present borders.

SS: Well, actually,  latest addition to NATO is Montenegro - it happened recently - a small nation in the Balkans with less than 2 thousand military personnel. What’s the point in welcoming a state with no military strength into a military alliance? What role is it going to play, in your opinion?

AM: It is a good point, if you like, because it is a question that should've been asked in the past. I remember that when... I mean, things have changed in Europe because of dissolution of Yugoslavia and you remember all those wars, the question about the future of NATO was asked, and the question that you're asking me was asked, in the sense that "Should we also have, inside the organisation, countries that have little military capacity?" and then this discussion went on for years, and in the end, the decision that has been taken is that if there's the political will of any specific independent government  to reach the organization it will be in any way useful for the country or the alliance. Also, for the country, because it would imply, for the country in question, perhaps you have Montenegro in mind, maybe, it would be good to have some reforms because of the fact of belonging to large international organisation. I don't think this is going to change a nature of NATO, I mean, if you're speaking about Montenegro...

SS: Okay, but here's another example - NATO promised governments like in Ukraine  eventual membership - but when a confrontation with Russia came, NATO did nothing to help. Why stir up false hopes and give out promises of defence that you can’t keep?

AM: Well, it's not such a simple story, in fact. As far as I know, there have been no requests from Ukraine to join NATO so this  question is not on the table in NATO as far as I know. It's not on the table. To my mind - I express my personal opinion here - it's not going to be on the table for the next few year. I think the situation in NATO as it is, is, to me, rational. I don't see Ukraine becoming a member, certainly not in the next few years. Perhaps, in middle term - why not? But not now. I don't think there should be a concern about that. It's my personal opinion. I think there's a lot of confusion about that, and, of course, there are different opinions about that, but to my mind, this is the situation. There's cooperation between NATO and Ukraine - why not? Partnership for peace, support and training - but this is not a NATO membership, this is something else. So I think you should not be thinking about that.

SS: NATO is deploying troops to Poland and the Baltic states, in the biggest buildup of forces in Eastern Europe since the Cold War.  The moves are leading to retaliation from Russia  - deploying missiles in Kaliningrad. While NATO insists it doesn’t want an arms race, is it actually provoking just that, wouldn't you agree?

AM: I don't know, again, there are a lot of emotions in that part of the world we are talking. It's very difficult to make... or not so difficult, perhaps,  to make a difference between the political declarations and reality. If you are talking military presence of NATO countries in Poland and Baltics - in fact, it was decided last year in Warsaw, if you remember, and the reason is very simple - some governments of the alliance said that they wanted to have some military presence of other countries of NATO, because otherwise they would be a sort of "category B" member-states. That was the reason that was advanced by Poland and others. Now, there's I think, underway, some small deployment in that part of Europe, but I think this is rather symbolic and it has more of a political meaning than a military one. And in any way, don't forget it is a rotation - so it is sort of, how can I say, demonstration of solidarity, but I won't go beyond that.

SS: NATO calls its approach to Russia a combination of defence and dialogue. However, Russia doesn’t see NATO’s deployments on its borders as “defence”, does that mean there’s not going to be any meaningful dialogue either?

AM: This is an important point, this question that you're asking is a very important one - what I think is there's no Cold War anymore. The Cold War has only been one and it is finished. So I don't think we are in a situation with Cold War, NATO with Russia. This is over. Where there are differences between NATO countries and Russia is over some specific points. One is the annexation of Ukraine and the other one is separatism in Donbass. They are specific points, over unilateral change of borders. On the other hand, there's a lot of cooperation in other areas, as you know - in Afghanistan, for instance, in science affairs, in many other areas, which are not Crimea and Donbass. So, again, I would not mix everything together.

SS: Poland’s foreign minister  has urged NATO to continue talks with Russia to ensure that the alliance’s military activities in the country aren’t considered a provocation in Moscow. And he’s got a point - with so much military amassed at the borders on both sides, what happens if there’s an accidental encounter?

AM: You are talking about something that from time to time I read in the newspapers. But really, to think of a war, today, in Europe, is absurd. It is incredible, it is out of, how can I say, any imagination. I think also that militarily it should be...

SS: No-no, what I am saying is that accidents happen. They happen all the time, and that could provoke a full fledged war.

AM: But you know, if accidents happen, so far - I mean, there has been a control over accidents, the things become dangerous when you have an accident and it escapes your capacity of dominating the accident, it has not happened so far and I think that we are all very careful to look at that and to be sure that that doesn't happen. Why should an accident of a major size happen all of a sudden? Let's hope not. If you like, there was an accident with a plane which shot three years ago over Donbass - that was a major accident, but after that I haven't see things of that kind happening anymore, luckily.

SS: What can I say, Mr. Minuto-Rizzo, I really enjoyed talking to you and it's such a pity that you're not the current Secretary-General of NATO. Things would've been much better off if that was the case. Thanks a lot for this interview, we were talking to Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO, discussing the alliance's latest pledge to fight terrorism and how the NATO-Russia relationship is likely to shape up in the future. That's it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.