Recent U.S. Ambassador to NATO Contemplates Its Future in IAR Interview

Jesse Biroscak
Staff Writer
December 5, 2009

United States Permanent Representative to the Council of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from 2008-09, to discuss Afghanistan and NATO’s role in a globalized world.

Ambassador Volker is currently the Managing Director for the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a graduate of the Elliott School of International Affairs. Ambassador Volker is also a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council of the United States.

IAR: The President just announced his new strategy for Afghanistan. How will the United States go about gaining and sustaining support from NATO allies for the war in Afghanistan?

Ambassador Volker: It is an auspicious day to ask that question because Secretary of State Clinton is in Brussels at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers today. The Secretary-General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, announced that countries from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan – there are 41 countries other than the United States – have pledged an additional 7,000 troops to bolster the 30,000 U.S. troops.

I must say that I was impressed with the way the announcement was rolled out over the past two weeks. The press and the outside world knew the direction of the decision several days before it was officially announced. The President made many phone calls to foreign leaders; I am sure that Secretaries Gates and Clinton were contacting their counterparts as well. By the time the President came out and made his speech, countries had already had time to figure out their reactions. We therefore got immediate positive feedback and additional troop contributions from a lot of our international partners in a period of time that gives a sense of direction. Had that been delayed by weeks or months it would be a tremendous loss of momentum.

IAR: Besides Afghanistan, what are some other primary security concerns for NATO?

Ambassador Volker: NATO has, at the heart of it, a commitment to collective defense. Article V of the NATO Treaty dictates that states respond together in the event of an armed attack on the territory of a NATO member. What does that mean today as compared to 1949? Are cyber attacks or energy shut-offs worthy of collective defense? Whereas during the Cold War NATO was focused on the Soviet Union, today NATO deals with and plans for a range of potential threats or challenges.

There is not a lot of agreement on how to address that though. NATO is in the process of writing a strategic concept meant to answer the question, “What is NATO’s purpose today?” due to be completed by the NATO summit meeting of November 2010.

To my mind, NATO is concerned with both the traditional: the Russian resurgence and imposition of its sphere of influence, shown last year with Georgia. It is concerned with the actual: the war in Afghanistan and NATO’s first priority. And it is concerned with the untested: energy issues or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We must take a comprehensive look at potential issues.

IAR: Do you see NATO focusing itself on a specific one of those categories?

Ambassador Volker: No, I do not. Different NATO countries have different priorities: the central Europeans want to be protected against Russia; the western Europeans want to entangle Russia through partnership; the United States and United Kingdom care most about Afghanistan; the Italians and the Spanish care most about Mediterranean security. Each has different motivating factors. NATO must be a means of building solidarity among its member states – which are fundamentally democratic countries and share common values. All interests must be addressed because they each represent a collective security concern.

IAR: Do your European counterparts also recognize those shared common values?

Ambassador Volker: They do, and I think very strongly so. Everybody cares about certain values: freedom, democracy, human rights, rule of law, market economy, stability, and security. On that basis, however, there are differences of opinion regarding whether something is or is not a threat, whether it is being addressed appropriately, or whether military force should or should not be used. The allies have many differences regarding how each assesses the world and the necessary actions to take. However, the fundamental values we share create a solid foundation upon which to form the kind of world in which we want to live.

IAR: Assuming that the United States and Europe have determined their collective strategic goals, how does that transatlantic relationship fit into our globalized world, where the Atlantic, while very important, is no longer the global focus?

Ambassador Volker: It is very important to recognize that the United States and Europe and our transatlantic relationship are not the only game in town. Many other countries and issues do not touch European geography but are, of course, very important. That said, we must also remember that the transatlantic relationship itself is still extremely important. It is the biggest economic relationship in the world, the greatest source of development assistance, the largest politically coherent view on current affairs, and a great moral authority because of its base of common values.

As we see the other countries of the world increasingly develop over time, it is in the interest of the transatlantic community to encourage and empower those other centers of power to join us as stakeholders in a values-based and reliable international community. Rather than viewing the world as a globalized and competitive power structure, we are all better served by having an interactional community that shares many of the same values of predictability, trade, the market economy, the protection of human rights, issues of sovereignty, and global security.

IAR: Is it the job of the United States and Europe, of NATO, to promote those values? If so, how can we do that without seemingly overstepping our moral boundaries?

Ambassador Volker: First off, remember that values are universal values - take the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the United Nations in 1948, for example. When NATO or others exert efforts to support human rights, freedoms, and protection, we are not imposing our values on someone else. It is a means of helping people realize the values that they themselves have, but are challenged to express because of armed or tyrannical groups around them.

Additionally, many states, governments, and groups are not all democratic. There are religious issues and cultural differences to contend with. NATO has tried to work in partnership with countries outside of its territory. Rather than looking at the world as a theatre of operations, it sees a world with challenges and where it has a role in dealing with those challenges. To provide a simple illustration: there are 28 members of NATO but 42 countries in ISAF. Countries such as Australia, South Korea, or Sweden, who are not members of NATO, come from different parts of the world, but share a common interest and want to work together. Neighbors and partners in the region, such as the Uzbeks and Tajiks, are very important as well.

IAR: Other than working in partnership with non-NATO countries, what tangible steps can NATO and specifically the United States take to foster a more amiable relationship with typically non-Western countries?

Ambassador Volker: It is often overlooked that most of NATO’s military operations have aimed to protect Muslim populations from others trying to kill them. In Bosnia, the Serbs attacked the Bosniac community in Sarajevo. In Kosovo, we intervened to protect the Kosovar-Albanian population against Serbian attacks. NATO undertook the relief operation in Pakistan following the earthquake. Now, in Afghanistan, NATO is trying to protect the Afghan population against a brutal former Taliban regime, vicious terrorists, and al-Qaida while building sustainable Afghan structures.

It is also important to make clear that NATO is not against a people, religion, philosophy, or country. It is for the protection of democratic rights, stability, and global security. It looks to work together with partners whoever they may be, whether they are states, non-governmental organizations, or other institutions, like the European Union or the United Nations.

Now I do not think that we do the best job in advertising. Additionally, the people who are on the opposite side of our aims – terrorists that blow people up or regimes that want to impose themselves on other people – they do not like what NATO does and so they criticize it. We do encounter people who project negative things about NATO and we have to do a better job of presenting the truth.

IAR: Is NATO interested in Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, East Asia? Would that be overstepping its mandate?

Ambassador Volker: NATO does not specifically identify other parts of the world and indicate that it is interested or not. NATO countries are usually threatened or attacked and then the Organization addressed those issues or regions. Humanitarian or regional crises will spur involvement or interest, as well. During the 1990s, there was a big debate on whether NATO should go out of area to aid Bosnia, which was not inside the territory of NATO states. When the United States was attacked from Afghanistan, however, NATO immediately sprung into action. When the African Union indicated that it wanted to send a peacekeeping force to Darfur, but did not have all the equipment and logistics to get there, NATO provided airlift to help get African union troops to Darfur. NATO did not set a strategic goal of being involved in Africa, but rather saw a problem in Africa, had the capacity to do something about it, and used that capacity to help.

IAR: In that same vein, if Al-Shabaab in Somalia begins to involve Al-Qaeda more heavily, will NATO begin a preventative operation to remove that threat?

Ambassador Volker: It is an open question. It would have been rather inconceivable 3-5 years ago that NATO would be running a naval operation off the coast of Somalia. Due to the problem of piracy, however, people asked whether NATO could do something. That same scenario could arise with Al-Shabaab. The United States specifically had an unsuccessful military intervention in Somalia at one point, though, and is not keen on repeating mistakes.

We are also very interested to look for African solutions to African problems. It would be encouraging if the African Union or others find ways to become engaged. In the end, if the clamor for action rises to a certain degree and people start looking for someone to do something; NATO is one of the organizations that can act. That is how it has gotten dragged into things in the past. I would not rule it out, but it is certainly not something that NATO is actively searching for today. One never knows how things develop – when people see a need and identify resources, often times NATO gets called on.

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