NATO can’t be there to solve every European problem - ex-NATO Chief

Europe needs a new security system to supplement NATO, says former NATO Secretary General, Lord Robertson. He also spoke with RT about NATO’s ambitions eastwards and common ground with Russia.

RT: When you were British Defense Secretary you pursued Tony Blair’s ideal to create European security forces which could react without resorting to the United States. Does Europe still need this kind of system in your opinion?

Lord George Robertson: Absolutely. In fact it needs it more than it needed it then. And I wanted that – we haven’t yet got to that point despite 10-12 years having gone by. But the fact is that the United States is not going to be a global policeman. They are now exhausted militarily, and I think politically, with helping other counties that won’t help themselves. So if there was another emergency in Europe’s backyard like the wars in Bosnia and in Kosovo at the end of the 1990s, then the Europeans will have to do it themselves. And that’s why we created this concept of a European security and defense policy – so it would supplement what NATO does, would create the capabilities but would allow the Europeans to act if it wasn’t appropriate for NATO and the Americans to act. And we’ve lost that sense of urgency and I wish we could get it back again because we don’t know what the future holds, we don’t know what accidents might happen, we don’t know what events might happen – but they could happen, and if they did we might not be ready.

RT: But when you were talking about creation of this European common security system what role did you assign to Russia then and what role would you assign to it today, especially now that Russia is coming out with, and pushing through, a similar idea?

GR: Well at the time we were talking about the ESTP, a European security policy, Russia was not happy with Europe at all. They had been unhappy about Bosnia even though they came into operation. They were very unhappy about Kosovo and were threatening to veto a UN resolution, even although they eventually put troops on the ground in there in order to keep the peace, so you know it was a rocky situation that I inherited when I left London and went to NATO in Brussels. Relations were frozen. It was only the arrival of the new president-elect of Russia that things started to change. I built a very good relationship with Vladimir Putin. We jointly created the NATO-Russia council; we started to talk in terms of common threats, common problems and what we could do on a common basis. You know, I memorized the expression “obsheye ponimaniye” – the common ground in Russian – because that’s what we were trying to find and to explore. Some of that momentum went in the later days of the Bush administration. But I think that climate has now changed, I think we’re getting back to the point where we recognize that much more confronts us in common than actually we disagree on.

RT: What would you say to people who tell you that European common defense system is a substitute to NATO simply?

GR: I say they’re wrong.

RT: Why?

GR: Because NATO exists for certain purposes, and a European force would exist for different purposes. But it would be the same troops, the same ships, the same airplanes – that’s the fact of life. We already have a NATO response force that is supposed to be able to go far, hit hard, stay long in an emergency that might happen in the future. We’ve got a European rapid reaction force, all of it in the idea stage, and all of it hindered, or held back, by the fact that the countries of Europe, despite the number of people in uniform, simply don’t allocate, you know, the forces. So if the European Union countries supplied the component parts of a European rapid reaction force, it would be available to a NATO response force as well, so you actually get double the bargain, and Europeans would then have something that might be useful if the United States, through NATO, said “It’s inappropriate”.

RT: So when Mr. Rasmussen says NATO should be transformed into a global security form do you believe NATO has that capacity?

GR: Well, at the moment NATO is a global think tank of those security policies. In NATO you’ve got the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council – 46 nations in there. What NATO is trying, it’s not trying to take over the world, it’s trying to enlist the biggest number of thinking people into the idea of common security. And that’s where Russia fits intimately. The threats that face NATO and the NATO countries are all threats that face Russia. Actually, there is no difference between them. Most of the differences between Russia and the NATO countries have to do with perception, with history, and sometimes with prejudice on both sides. And I think what Mr. Rasmussen has rightly said is that we need to start thinking together not only about what the challenges and the threats and the dangers are but what collectively we are going to do about it. And that involves all of the countries I mentioned, and especially Russia.

RT: At a recent meeting in Istanbul where all the defense ministers of NATO member countries met, they discussed a plan to expand a global anti-missile system in Eastern Europe and actually in the Middle East. Was President Obama’s decision to actually give up on the entire missile program a false hope to improve relations between Russia and the US?

GR: No, it wasn’t a false hope. President Obama reflected the fact that perhaps too little consideration had been given to the location of the interceptors and the radars and especially in relation to where the threats were eventually going to come to, and also the expense and the workability of the system. So he was quite right to freeze that at that point. I would hope – and remember I’m out of it, I’m a retired “armchair” Secretary General – which is quite appropriate in this chair here today – you know what I hope comes out of it is we go back to the NATO-Russia council and we talk about a common ballistic missile protection system. We were doing it when I was there. General Marshal Sergeev, the then Defense Minister of Russia presented the plan for what he called European non-strategic missile defense which was to recognize that Russia and Moscow are a lot closer to the failed rogue states than America is. And I think that’s why President Obama is right to say let’s have look at this again. We need protection, there needs to be a defense system somehow, but it may not be for what we were thinking about before. But if we do need it, we’ll actually be facing the same threat that Russia faces. And therefore why not think about it together.

RT: OK, but we’re not there yet. Look what happen now. Decision has been made recently to deploy the Patriot interceptor missiles in Poland closer to Russia’s western frontier; also the Romanian president approved the status of armed forces in his country, and Bulgaria; so now you tell me what’s the new entire missile defense model, how is it different from the older one, where is the flexibility in this one?

GR: Well, the Patriot missile system is a short-range defense system against missiles, and lots of, lots of countries have got it, and Russia’s got many systems that are exactly the same as the Patriot system. So I don’t see it in any way being a substitute for the kind of missile defense system that was being talked about before; and the deployments to Romania and Bulgaria at the moment are purely temporary. The founding act with Russia says there will be no permanent stationing, forward stationing of troops in the new member states, and that’s an obligation that was taken on in the NATO-Russia council founding document as well. But there are temporary sites being adopted in some of those countries because we have to service the troops in Afghanistan, because that’s the major theater of operations against the common threat that is represented by Afghanistan out of control, and Russia and the rest of the world. So there is no breach of faith here. What we need to do is to get back to answering the question – there is a military threat from rogue states with tactical missiles whether they be nuclear or conventional, it’s a threat that faces Russia and it faces the NATO countries. Can we do something together? We started that discussion when I was there, we need to resume it, and find an answer. Is there a military answer to a military threat? Can it be a common military answer? Seems to me a pretty good exercise for talking about.

RT: Let’s talk a little more about NATO? Do you think it still wants to expand eastwards at the expense of Georgia and Ukraine even after the events last August?

GR: Look, NATO doesn’t want to expand or to enlarge. Countries apply for membership of NATO. And if they conform to the standards that NATO lays down, then, you know, their application is considered. But they’ve got to come to these standards. You know, Russia hasn’t applied for membership. It has talked about it, but it has never really prepared for it, and I am not sure that it particularly wants to do it. But any country, you know, can apply for membership. And that drives it. It’s not driven by the center saying “we would like that country, we would like that country, we don’t want this country”, it’s driven by people who say, “We would like to be in a collective security organization and we are prepared to modernize their armed forces, to build sustainable democratic institutions, to have good neighborly relations, to have good internal inter-ethnic relations. All the criteria that are laid down, and if they satisfy that criteria, you know, who is going to say, “No, you cannot come in because we don’t like you, or you happen to be in somebody else’s sphere of influence.” So it’s not a matter of cherry-picking countries, it’s a matter of countries themselves democratically on their own deciding to say that they would like to take on the obligations and responsibilities and conform to be part of that organization.

RT: So, why did you decide to put an end to your tenure so abruptly six years ago?

GR: I served four years. That’s the term that is laid down. After Secretary General Joseph Luns served 13 years, the nations decided that the secretary general of NATO would serve for four years with the option of one more year if it was agreed. As I took up the job I said I was going to serve four years and then I was going to leave. At the end of four years I was exhausted. I was not as fresh and inventive as I was in the very beginning of that and it was right to hand it over to somebody else. My predecessor, Javier Solana, did four years, his predecessor only did two years and the guy before that, Manfred Woerner, died in office just as he was into his fifth year. Lord Carrington served for exactly four years. So, I didn’t leave abruptly, but I left at the right time. One of the great secrets of political life is to quit when you’re ahead.

RT: Lord Robertson, thanks a lot for your time.

GR: Pleasure speaking to you.