NATO 20/2020: 20 bold ideas to reimagine the Alliance after the 2020 US election

Damon Wilson, Executive Vice President (Atlantic Council): I love seeing those ideas scroll across the screen, I hope you enjoyed them as well. Good morning to those joining us in the Americas, good afternoon to those joining us across the Atlantic. 

I’m Damon Wilson, Executive Vice President here at the Atlantic Council, and on behalf of our Scowcroft Centre for Strategy and Security. Welcome. Welcome to NATO 20/2020; 20 bold ideas to reimagine the Alliance, after the 2020 US election. I want to thank all of you for joining us for what should be a terrific and innovative discussion about NATO’s future. We’ll hear from top officials including NATO’s Deputy Secretary General, and also pitches from next generation Leaders of our Alliance, today’s conversation comes in the wake of a major study that was commissioned by the Secretary General on NATO’s future, and also by our own effort here at the Council where we’ve published a volume of essays titled NATO 20/2020, which offer these 20 bold ideas to reimagine the Alliance. 

President Elect Biden’s victory does represent a key turning point for the Alliance. It’s a chance to turn away from divisive rhetoric and at times inconsistent strategy for cooperation between the United States and its allies, and towards a more capable and unified response to the transatlantic community’s greatest threats over the next decade. And at the heart of that response must be an adaptable resource to resilient NATO, as we’re here to discuss today. So here at the Atlantic Council our founding mission is to help support peace and security for the transatlantic community by shaping the global future with our allies and partners, and it’s our Scowcroft transatlantic initiative that applies this ethos every day in addressing the most pressing issues facing the Alliance. So with such a broad array of challenges such as China’s rise to the pandemic, to emerging and disruptive technologies, NATO is in need of forward looking vision that not only builds on its track record of adaptability, but strives for an Alliance that is better fit for purpose in this emerging geopolitical era. 

And so to complement NATO’s own effort through the NATO2030 initiative which we’ll hear more about in a moment from the Deputy Secretary General, the Council has launched this volume of essays, which I encourage you to read if you have not. Each describing a single bold, often very original at times, a bit audacious if not controversial idea, that NATO should pursue. And so with offers from the US Congress, to city Government officials, to former military leaders and next generation voices, this collective volume is an appeal for an Alliance which is more  visionary, more capable, more self-evidently valuable, to the security of more of our people. 

I think the volume is a testament to the idea that critical to NATO’s success is its ability to sustain public support across the Alliance’s publics, and to do that we know that NATO will need policies, messages and messangers, that reflect the priorities of the Alliance’s diverse citizenry. 

So as you’ll be hearing shortly we’re excited to highlight the innovative ideas of the volume’s next generation authors in this programme today, followed by reactions from our distinguished panel. But before we do that, perhaps there is no one better placed to comment on the future vision of the Alliance and the role of bold thinking, and it’s future, that the Deputy Secretary General, our close friend, Ambassador Mircea Geoană. Ambassador Geoană was appointed Deputy Secretary General, last year and he’s led a distinguished career of service to his home country as well as to the transatlantic community. As Romania’s Foreign Minister he helped bring Romania along with six others into the Alliance. He served four years as Romania’s Ambassador in the United States where he established close friends in Washington, including here at the Atlantic Council. 

And in his capacity as Deputy Secretary General, he has specific responsibilities for innovating the Alliance and transforming them for the 21st century. So we’re going to kick off with a virtual fireside chat unfortunately we aren’t doing this in person with a fireside, but we’re going to be delighted to hear from you, listen to your thoughts on NATO’s 2030 initiative. Before I dive into that I just want to remind everybody who’s joining the audience today to follow the conversation on social media at Atlantic Council or AC Scowcroft on Twitter and use the hashtag #strongerwithallies to engage and send us your comments, your reactions, your thoughts. Now with that let’s jump right in. Ambassador Geoană, I think it was exactly a year ago that after some divisive statements from President Macron, President Erdogan, President Trump. Secretary Stoltenberg stepped in and commissioned this bold, this idea of a NATO reflection group to issue a report to help bridge the political gaps within the Alliance. So the reports out it’s been presented to you and the Secretary General, what do you think?

Deputy Secretary General: First of all, so good to be together with my friends and now friends in the Atlantic Council, Damon the whole team, congratulations for this. I read it from the foreword by Chris Skaluba to the Washington treaty reimagination by you Damon and Will O’Brien and everything in between. I’m not here to make a, you know, the publishers pitch or some ad, for this is a remarkable piece of work, I’d like to thank everyone involved in this very bold and very useful exercise that will be also informing us here in NATO, in Brussels, in our headquarters.

I think the DNA of this Alliance is basically composed by two major things.

One is the original idea that our values are the ones who are keeping us together. And I think in moments of historical upheaval and acceleration of so many complex trends. Always is good to go back to the origin of the Founding Act if you want, to our founding fathers: the Treaty. How would that treaty look today, if we were to be in the position to write it again, that’s basically what Damon and then Jim, in a way, provoking us at the beginning. 

The other thing that is always important for any enduring and successful organization, and in our case an Alliance, is this DNA of permanent adaptation and strategic anticipation and foresight, because you cannot win and fight the wars and competitions of the past, with the instruments of the past, we have to do to imagine the future, and be able to adapt and adjust. And I think there is probably not even since the end of the Cold War, we’ll probably see the inception of the Alliance; we witness us as the political West, such a moment of dramatic transformation. For the first time in half a millennia. The West is challenged in terms of our, not only economic and technological superiority but also in terms of the idea of how we organise human society. 

We see weaknesses in our democratic systems. We see how sometimes fragile we are when it comes to disinformation and conspiracy theories that abound also in our democratic societies. We also see an acceleration of the competition for technological superiority. And we know for a military Alliance and military Alliance like NATO, keeping the edge on technology is the essence of your success and of your deterrence and defence. 

So I cannot imagine a better moment, a more complex moment, a more dramatically important moment for us as the family, global family, of democratic nations to think together, preserve our values and our way of life and also imagine the future. This way, I think the role of NATO comes in, because there is no other organisation in the world. Of course there is the UN, and we are very happy with the 75th anniversary of UN that’s a indispensable global organisation in global rules. But when it comes to a combination between same values,  50% of global GDP, more than 50% of global defence spending, that’s NATO. There is no other organisation like NATO in this universe of our planet, that has so much ingredients of both values: economic might and military power and superiority. 

So I think the idea to see how can we really move NATO towards this very complicated period, and keep our transatlantic bond strong and adapted to the new realities, but also how can we use NATO, and also the other like minded democratic nations around the world, basically, together, become an idea. And I think some of the issues that in your essays here are a hint. Not always easily to be implemented, but nonetheless provocative enough, and I really applaud this. 

Damon Wilson: Thank you Ambassador, I think you’re right. 

Deputy Secretary General: I still read a lot. But it’s a rare feast for me to read something was such, such pleasure, and such intellectual curiosity that like this proposition here so this is not just a compliment. It’s just a fact.

Damon Wilson: No, thank you for that.

Deputy Secretary General: Coming back to the question that Damon has said, at least in the ones in the national security establishment and foreign policy pundits and international media, how is NATO going about this? And the idea to really come with a NATO 2030 vision by Secretary General Stoltenberg I think it makes sense. And if you remember, the more if you want, anecdotic side, of the origin of this effort; there was also something which is all big ideas and all big visions are simple, are simple in terms of not as simplicity, but in terms of easy to express and to communicate. And basically, Jens Stoltenberg basically said three things in order for this Alliance for the next decade and beyond that, to continue to retain our ingredients for success. We have to think of basically three major issues, and three big questions. 

How can you remain strong militarily, and continue to have that edge, because that edge is the best investment in deterrence, defence, peace and security. Because nobody can play around with an organisation like NATO, and nobody can play around the security of 1 billion people that are living in nations under the NATO flag, no one. So keeping NATO militarily strong is one important dimension of his vision of NATO 2030.

The other one, which is a bit more complicated, and like always politics is more complex than, you know, many other things, is how to make NATO stronger politically. How can we convince all nations to come with a relevant question, sometimes difficult, sometimes controversial, sometimes leading to tension, including between and amongst allies, that’s not the first time we have this with democratic nations. Not every nation sees, you know, risk and opportunity the same way with another ally from a different geography where different kinds of context, domestic political context or regional context. So how can we really transform and have NATO as the place where security related political issues are brought to the attention of this Alliance and use this Alliance, as also as a platform of making a more homogeneous, and more harmonious more, let’s say, action oriented political organisation, because this is one of the most important challenges, and this is something that we have all of us to work together. 

And the third one, which is also part of some of the propositions in this great report is how can NATO, engage in a more global role, without necessarily expanding its traditional membership, or the things we do, we continue to be a regional organization, a transatlantic organisation. But how can we also be that element of stability, predictability and respect of a rule based world order more globally. 

And this leads me also to technology, leads me to our fantastic partners in Asia Pacific and all over the world, NATO enjoys today and Sec Gen Stoltenberg asked me to pay special attention, political attention, to our partnership, the 40 plus partners we have all over the world; from Colombia all the way to New Zealand and Australia, and many others in between. So, these are the three dimensions that NATO 2030 is presenting. 

Now, Sec Gen in his wisdom, and also we applaud the input we had from Wess Mitchell and Thomas de Maizièr the two co-chairs of the group, friends of ours, and many others, a wonderful group of intellectuals, of Leaders and professionals. And I think the 138 recommendations are indications of how an external group is looking to the challenges in front of NATO and opportunity in front of NATO. Of course, Foreign Ministers of NATO just last week, had a first look, now the report is public, and is the intention of the Secretary General, on the way to the next NATO Summit that we hope to organize – of course with an incoming, new American President and the new administration, all of us, sometime at the beginning of next year, whenever, we’ll find the right moment together – is not to go with all these propositions in front of our Leaders, this is not the point. But basically his intention is to distill some of this, his ideas, of the group’s ideas, of the other ecosystems ideas, youth, younger guys, private sector, civil society, think tanks, and also have his own input to our Leaders. 

So I don’t anticipate the Secretary General Stoltenberg to present more than five, six-ish big things for the Leaders to consider upon his recommendation. And then, if our Leaders will begin giving us the greenlight the blessing to start even upgrading or changing or replacing whatever decision they will make and we will make for the strategic concepts to be revisited, this is again something that probably will happen. And this means that between beginning of 2021, when our Leaders will be meeting with President, not elect but President Biden at that point in time and his team will be able to decide on the strategic directions of the Alliance, and then revisit the Strategic Concept, and probably by 2022, to be able to come with a form, which would be, you know, putting in place the vision and the strategy for NATO for the next decade.

Damon Wilson: So Ambassador, I’m going to jump in right here if I might, you’ve answered a couple of my questions already in that opening so thank you for that it was really comprehensive. But in the few minutes we have here, just want to try to ask a couple of top line questions about how you’re thinking of it in the wake of the reflection group in the way as you plan towards a Summit next year. 

Let me start with China. This was an issue obviously, Russia is not going away in the NATO strategy, this was an issue of some debate in the reflection group, it has been some debate of different perceptions around the allies. And so how do you see NATO is responding to the increasing challenge of China?

Deputy Secretary General: Listen, China has been brought officially to the attention of the Alliance in a structured way in London. When our Leaders met in December 2019 in London. Last time when they met at that level. And at that moment we were instructed as an Alliance to start looking at the rise of China, both as a challenge, because the rise of such an important country economically, technological, militarily, also creates challenges and that’s absolutely clear that we have to look into those challenges, but also to look at opportunities that the rise of a big country with a big economy also presenting to us.

So finding basically the right balance between making sure that we comprehend, and we take necessary, you know, understanding of the implications of the rise of China from a security standpoint, which is something that we continue to do. Our Foreign Ministers just last week, sanctioned an important piece of our China strategy that that was presented to them during this last year of work since London. And I’m convinced that the work on China will continue to the Summit and beyond. It’s absolutely clear that China is today the country with the second defence budget in the world, that the, they are modernising aggressively their military capabilities that they are playing a role that sometimes is not very constructive into the South China Sea and in that part of the world. This is something that we have to keep an eye on because that’s one of the most important transformations in geopolitics, geo economics and geo technology in the world, we just cannot pretend that this is not happening. 

This doesn’t mean that the Russia problem is going away. Doesn’t mean the terrorism that continues to be so pervasive and moving towards Africa and other places is not something we shouldn’t be concerned about. It doesn’t mean that the issue resilience – that will be on the agenda of our Leaders at the Summit. It’s already decided by the Defence Ministers of NATO are among very important things. But China is one of the most dramatic transformations we’ve seen in recent human history. And it’s only normal for us to adjust and adapt and make sure that we understand all the implications of the rise of China.

Damon Wilson: Let me ask a related question to China because you recently joined our stage for a conversation on transatlantic cooperation on AI, artificial intelligence, you’re leading an innovation drive at the Alliance itself. How do you think of, how does the Alliance think about, digital and data, and tech as part of its future. How does that factor in to a new NATO strategy? 
 
Deputy Secretary General: Listen so this is the most important driver of transformation in our societies. Not geopolitics but also geo economics and economy and the way we work, live and exist. And new technologies, we call them emerging and disruptive technologies in our parlance at NATO – it’ss already a very, I would say a dominant part of our conversation. As we speak, both on the civilian side of the Alliance, on innovation, on new technologies we are working on a roadmap, an implementation roadmap, that also would land, somehow, on the table of our Leaders when they will be meeting next year.  

Our military colleagues are also working on, of course, an adaptation of what it means for our defence security and warfighting capabilities; the arrival of these technologies. And, of course, some of the issues we discussed also with the National Commission on AI. That also the Atlantic Council is encouraging us to interact and we learned a lot in that conversation. AI and big data that’s a major transformation for everything we do, but also for everything we do in terms of defence and security. Quantum computing is here and is going to change dramatically, many many ways, both in civilian life but also in  military and defence and security dimension. Human enhancement, biotechnology, space, which is the latest of the operational domains that NATO has embraced also in London. So, this is a dominant feature. And what I believe, speaking of the political West, is that if we are true to the hypothesis that we are an Alliance and a global Alliance of like minded democratic nations, free nations, we have to make sure that when we start, not only to regulate, but to legislate, to introduce new technologies into our lives, to make sure that they have embedded, also, the value part. 

What really makes us, the kind of open societies that we are. 

And this is a formidable task. And this is something that I believe, sort of a transatlantic digital community if you want. Also EU can play and should play and are playing a very important role, and we welcome the fact that the EU is making already some propositions to the incoming American administration to try to see how can we put together our collective instruments of economic, technological, financial, but also values, ethical, and international norms into this. For us in NATO it is very important not only to look into the traditional arms control, and to their traditional way in which we try to regulate in a way, military competition and armaments around the world – but this new generation of technology that is also, in security terms, becoming dominant, is not regulated at all. 

We have no international system to work into this. So that’s what we need that, bringing all of us together in shaping the rules of the game. Hopefully, the global rules of the game will have a tremendous advantage on our side, is one of the most important jobs we have at hand. And this is where I think NATO, together with other like minded organisations can really play a very important role.

Damon Wilson: Let me just ask a last question here about there’s some discussion in the report at NATO headquarters about looking at climate issues like the pandemic, public health and security issues, and some believe this is right, it’s important. Some believe this is taking NATO off its game. How do you sort of see – is this an area where the allies can consult together on how to deal with common challenges, or does NATO have a more direct role in issues, broader security issues like climate, public health.

Deputy Secretary General: When recognising that NATO is not a frontline if you want organisation in dealing with these things there are many other national, international fora that are doing this, we are also very much aware that the very definition of security is becoming much broader. And speaking of Africa and terrorism, and the risk of illegal migration and all these kind of things, climate change is impacting on our security. 

Climate change is changing, also in your report, there is one of the essays on the high north, and how this is also spurring geopolitical competition for the high North between also, China and Russia and now another places. So for NATO, even if we are not, you know in the first line of response to this kind of thing, internalising the consequences of climate change for us from a security standpoint is paramount. 

So yes, climate change is a big thing for us in NATO. Of course, immediate climate change, changing our footprint, our missions, operations, our military operations impact on the climate, that’s important and we do that, but I think that from a security standpoint, not including climate change would be, you know, a huge mistake that we cannot afford to make so yes, climate change and other related global security challenges are, in our immediate attention and we will deal with those very, very actively.

Damon Wilson: I’m going to have to conclude this part Ambassador,  with one question; yes or no answer. A lot of folks here wonder, will the increased defence investment among allies continue, once President Trump leaves office, yes or no? Do you see defence investment going to continue to increase among European allies.

Deputy Secretary General :Yes,

Damon Wilson: Perfect. That’s a very helpful answer for many on both sides of the Atlantic. And Mr. Ambassador thank you so much, thank you for giving us your time to kick off this session we’re super excited to hear as you said from some of the next generation voices.