Foreign Affairs

‘A more uncertain world’: NATO chief on the global order

Jens Stoltenberg is no stranger to the perils of right-wing extremism. The NATO boss spoke to Sam Sachdeva about taking on terrorism, China's rise, and American criticism of the alliance.

In an unstable global environment, international structures are coming under increasing pressure - and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, or NATO, is no different.

NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg is the man tasked with leading the alliance through the rocks, and he is clear that it must change to survive and thrive.

In an exclusive interview with Newsroom and the Associated Press during his visit to New Zealand, Stoltenberg spoke about his experience of right-wing terror, handling China’s rise, and dealing with Donald Trump.

Trump has been a prominent critic of NATO since winning the US presidency, accusing the other members of failing to pay their fair share on defence and appearing to undercut the alliance’s fundamental principle that an attack against one member is an attack against all.

But Stoltenberg rules out any planning for a US withdrawal, saying he is “absolutely convinced” the country will remain within NATO. He cites a recent build-up in US military troops and infrastructure across Europe, as well as the support expressed by American politicians of all stripes.

“The clear message from Republicans and Democrats is that the United States must stay committed to NATO, because a strong NATO is good for Europe but it’s also good for the United States.”

Donald Trump's criticisms of NATO may have stung, but it appears his message around defence spending is being heard. Photo: Getty Images.

The only time NATO has ever invoked its collective defence clause came after the September 11 terror attacks, he says, while two world wars and the fight against terror have taught the alliance members that they were safer and stronger together.

Trump’s message on the need for a fairer distribution of the defence burden across NATO - a concern shared by his predecessor, Barack Obama - is also being heard.

“After years of cutting of defence spending, all allies are starting to increase spending...so not only is the US increasing their military presence in Europe, but also European allies are stepping up.” 

The rise of China, an issue which Stoltenberg cites as a reason for the US to stay within NATO, has also caused the alliance to reconsider its own approach to the Asian superpower.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on NATO to adapt to the new threats posed by China, and Stoltenberg rejects the suggestion from some that it should have acted more quickly to recalibrate its strategy.

“We are now implementing the biggest reinforcement to our collective defence, the biggest adaptation of NATO in a generation because of our new security environment ... of course, this is not directed against one specific nation, but the reality is we live in a more uncertain world and a shifting global balance of power is part of that picture.”

“There’s no issue that Nato should move into the South China Sea, but China’s coming closer to us."

China’s rise brings both economic opportunities and military challenges, he says, such as its militarisation of reclaimed land in the South China Sea.

“There’s no issue that NATO should move into the South China Sea, but China’s coming closer to us, partly because they are investing heavily in critical infrastructures in Europe, we see more Chinese presence in the Arctic, in Africa…

“Nato is a regional alliance, but since security threats are more and more integrated and global, of course it matters what China does.”

Security concerns about the involvement of Huawei in 5G networks, an issue New Zealand is still grappling with, has prompted a review of NATO’s “resilience guidelines” for telecommunications infrastructure. While that is still a work in progress, Stoltenberg says the revision will create “some sort of minimum common approach” for NATO allies.

“5G will be so important for everything - for communications, for industry, for health, for the internet of things, for how our modern societies will work - so of course the resilience and security of 5G networks are important for civil society but also for military operations.”

Jens Stoltenberg and Jacinda Ardern have both led countries through the aftermath of a terror attack - and the former Norwegian prime minister says the world should know by now that terrorism takes many forms. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Stoltenberg’s previous life - as prime minister of Norway from 2000 to 2001, and again from 2005 to 2013 - also adds some relevance to his time in New Zealand.

He led Norway through the aftermath of Anders Breivik’s 2011 terror attack which killed 77 people. Breivik, a right-wing extremist, was cited as an influence by the alleged perpetrator of the Christchurch terror attack.

At a joint press conference with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Stoltenberg praised her for the “outstanding leadership and courage [which] has inspired and impressed people around the world”.

Despite winning similar praise for his response to Breivik’s massacre, calling for “more democracy, more openness, but not naivety”, Stoltenberg’s government lost power two years later - something he attributes to the vagaries of coalition politics.

“For us, this was never a party political issue - this was an issue which united the whole nation.”

Another factor may have been a damning report from a Norwegian commission which found that police could have prevented all or part of Breivik’s deadly rampage.

Stoltenberg has met members of New Zealand’s Royal Commission tasked with conducting a similar inquiry into the Christchurch attack to share his experience, but is not keen to reflect on what he would have done differently in Norway.

“It’s [terrorism] about violence, it’s about hatred, it’s about criminal acts, so we should fight them as such - I think that’s the lesson we’ve learned.”

“I am a forward-looking person, I'm not the kind of person who is looking backwards ... it’s not very fruitful for me to discuss now what I could have done differently almost [eight years ago].”

There is one lesson he is happy to share though: that terrorism “comes in many different forms and wears different guises”.

“Not so many years ago, we all thought that terrorism was something that was organised outside our own countries, in Afghanistan or in Iraq and Syria, Al-Qaeda and Isis...

“I think what we have learned now is terrorism also comes from the inside, it’s homegrown and terrorists misuse different political ideologies and different religions.”

While Breivik and the alleged Christchurch attacker share the same extremist ideology, what unites them with other terrorists is more simple.

“It’s about violence, it’s about hatred, it’s about criminal acts, so we should fight them as such - I think that’s the lesson we’ve learned.”

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