From one Scandinavian to another, Norwegian Jens Stoltenberg took over the helm at NATO from Dane Anders Fogh Rasmussen on October 1st. A former prime minister of Norway and a one-time peace activist who protested outside the US Embassy in Oslo against the Vietnam War, Stoltenberg now heads the most powerful military alliance in the world.
Euronews correspondent James Franey met with Mr Stoltenberg in NATO’s headquarters in Brussels.
James Franey, euronews: What’s your big strategic vision for the next five years for this organisation?
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General: It’s to keep NATO strong and at the same time to keep our neighbourhood stable together with our partners and to be able to do that we need to keep the bond between Europe and North America rock solid. We had a big summit in NATO at the beginning of September and there we made many decisions, which are just related to how we can keep NATO strong. We decided for instance how to implement a Readiness Action Plan which is a plan about making our forces more ready and to increase our military capabilities.
James Franey, euronews: One of the big issues, of course, as always with this organisation is defence spending, particularly amongst European members of this club. What would tell European citizens who are so worried in this time of austerity…they are having cuts made to welfare, education and that have to spend yet more on defence.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General: I would start by saying that I understand this is a difficult decision and a difficult choice, but at the same time, I think we have to follow up when we agreed just a few weeks ago…all the head of states and government decided that now the time has come to at least stop cutting defence spending and gradually start to increase it during the next decade. What we have seen is NATO has cut its spending on defence over the last years, whilst other countries around us, Russia, has increased a lot. Therefore the time has to reverse that trend.
James Franey, euronews: Let’s talk about the relationship with Russia. When you were the Norwegian prime minister, you’re said to have had a very good relationship with Vladimir Putin. He said in a interview last spring that you even had a personal relationship. How would describe your relationship with the Russian president?
Jens Stoltenberg: Norway and Russia, we have for many, many years worked together on many different issues. So I have developed a working relationship with Russian leaders.
James Franey, euronews: When was the last time you spoke with Mr. Putin?
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General: I can’t remember exactly but we had a phone call when I was prime minister. And I met him on several occasions when I was prime minister. I resigned as prime minister over a year ago, so at least it’s more than a year ago. But the whole idea is that the relationship that Norway had with Russia has been founded on our military strength and our membership in the NATO alliance. So there is no contradiction between being in favour of military strength – a firm predictable policy and at the same time being in favour of a more constructive relationship with Russia.
James Franey, euronews: So what needs to happen next for that relationship to be restored? The conditions?
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO SG: Russia has to change their actions. They have to act in compliance with international law. They have to act in compliance with their international obligations. That’s something we need to be able to establish cooperative relationship in the future.
James Franey, euronews: Let’s move on to talk about the threat posed by ISIL. They’re very close to the Turkish border. What more could NATO do to tackle this threat? Because it seems the alliance is taking a back seat at the moment.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO SG: The main responsibility, the core responsibility for NATO is to protect all allies. We have deployed Patriot missiles in Turkey to be able to protect Turkey…to help them protect themselves from any spillover from the violence, the fighting we have seen in Syria and now we are also seeing in Iraq. And we, of course, stand by that. In addition, we agreed at our summit in Wales that we stand ready to assist and help Iraq with improving, enhancing their security forces, to make them more able to defend themselves. In addition to that, we also cooperate when it comes to foreign fighters coming home, an exchange of information, so that we are able to avoid that they are posing a threat when it comes to the risk of terrorist attacks in our own countries.
James Franey, euronews: I’m interested that you mentioned the issue of foreign fighters. You, of course, captured hearts and minds around the world with your dignified response to the Breivik massacre. Just three years ago, you said in Oslo, that the correct response is “more openness, more democracy.” So how is that different from tackling these foreign fighters? Is it that the same strategy we should use?
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO SG: It is fundamental that we defend our ideals because it is the open society, democratic society they are attacking. What we shall do every time that we are threatened by terrorists is to defend the core values of our societies, the open democratic societies. But, of course, in addition, we need police cooperation, we need intelligence cooperation. We need to defend ourselves. And this is something NATO is working on. But of course when it comes to counter-terrorist activities, it is not only a military issue, it is also very much police and intelligence so there are many different services in our countries who are working together to be able to fight terrorists and also the risks which are linked to the homecoming of foreign fighters.
James Franey, euronews: My point is really that the West’s anti-terror response up to now has been anything but democratic. It’s been expanding the surveillance of individuals. In some countries, you even have detention without trial. Is that the strategy we should really follow as Western allies?
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO SG: We have to follow and to respect fundamental human rights and international law. But at that same time, I think everyone understands that we need police, we need intelligence, we need the security services to be able to protect ourselves against terrorists. I can see no contradiction between using those means to protect our open society and at the same time being in favour of an open society because that’s actually the way we are able to protect our democratic, open societies.
James Franey, euronews: Why do you think Europeans are going to fight for ISIL? Why is it so attractive to these people?
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO SG: I think it’s very, very hard to understand that some are willing to go and fight for an organisation which is so barbaric, which are responsible for so many atrocities and it just underlines how seriously we have to take the threat from ISIL. Therefore I also welcome the military operations which the United States and other NATO allies and regional partners are now undertaking to fight ISIL.
James Franey, euronews: With potentially many dead civilians, could that act as a recruitment tool for ISIL?
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO SG: We have to fight it (ISIL). And that’s what the United States, other allies, and regional partners are now are doing. And I welcome that.