On July 14, GMF held the second installment of its Transatlantic Talks series in Washington, DC, hosting U.S. assistant secretary of defense, Derek Chollet, to discuss transatlantic security and defense issues in light of NATO’s approaching Wales summit in September. GMF President Dr. Karen Donfried welcomed participants and provided a framework for the convening series, which pairs senior governmental officials from one side of the Atlantic with senior journalists from the other to discuss the most relevant issues in the transatlantic partnership. The conversation was moderated by Martin Klingst, Washington Bureau Chief of Die Zeit.
Watch the Transatlantic Talk:
Klingst began on a light-hearted note acknowledging Germany’s victory in Brazil at the FIFA World Cup a day prior, but quickly transitioned the conversation to geopolitics and international security. Klingst highlighted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s presence at the game despite his country’s earlier exit from the tournament, emphasizing the unique relationship between Germany and Russia. Chollet assured that he was not concerned about Putin’s attendance in Rio, as the Russian president has been in the region for several days for diplomatic talks. Chollet explained that German engagement with Russia is crucial to resolving the current crisis in Ukraine. Continuing on the theme, Chollet acknowledged that the situation in Ukraine is “dire,” but that there are also signs of improvement. The Ukrainian military has gained a foothold in its rebellious eastern regions, and pro-Russia separatists have been expelled from some cities. He then explained that the U.S. continued to demand Russian de-escalation and had recently increased its shipments of medical supplies, body armor, and other equipment to the Ukrainian military.
Klingst then turned the conversation toward the upcoming NATO summit in Wales, which is seen by many observers as one of the most critical summits for the alliance in years. Klingst highlighted the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s increasing aggression, issues of transatlantic trust, shrinking defense budgets in European countries, and the future of NATO and its role in the world as the war in Afghanistan comes to a close. To respond to questions on NATO-Russian relations, Chollet asserted that NATO “do[es] not consider Russia an adversary, but many in Russia, including the President, see NATO as an adversary.” He stated that NATO had been working to build a closer relationship with Russia over the years, but this effort has been “put on hold” in response to Russia’s activities in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Regarding the U.S.-Germany relationship, Chollet insisted that the partnership is “absolutely indispensable” to the United States, and that after spending a great deal of time in Berlin, he “can understand the sensitivity” regarding espionage. Moving beyond the specifics of U.S. bilateral relationships prior to the summit, Chollet commented on defense spending in Europe, referencing the recently announced European Reassurance Initiative, which would invest $1 billion in European defense if approved by Congress. The U.S. hopes that this spending by the U.S. in Europe would encourage European countries to invest more of their own money in defense. Overall, Chollet made clear that if NATO is to remain relevant in geopolitics, it must once again modernize to face new threats, such as cybersecurity attacks and “irregular” conflicts, such as the Ukraine crisis. He argued that the upcoming summit would be a critical turning point and the beginning of a new phase for NATO.
Following the back-and-forth between Chollet and Klingst the conversation opened to the audience. Chollet was questioned about a range of current geopolitical events and issues, from the Middle East to the Ukraine crisis, and their subsequent impact on Euroatlantic security. Chollet highlighted that NATO does not have one single policy regarding the Middle East, but predicted that more informal talks concerning the region would certainly take place in Wales. NATO has taken previous action in sectarian conflicts, such as in Bosnia in 1995, and Chollet said that if the U.S. were to take any action in Iraq and Syria, “it is hard to conjure up a single policy that would not involve Europe.” When participants argued that Germany is taking less of a pro-U.S. stance and instead more of a moderate policy somewhere between D.C. and Moscow, Chollet disagreed and said that a relationship between Germany and Russia is to be expected, given the history between the two countries and the close economic ties that continue to exist today. This unique dynamic between Russia and Germany does not worry the U.S., Chollet reaffirmed, as the U.S. still sees Germany as a close partner in the effort to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis and reduce Russian aggression in the world.
Despite defense budget cuts in many NATO countries and the increasing number of conflicts around the world, Chollet concluded that the United States is never asked by its partners to spend less or do less. Though it is expensive and labor-intensive to have commitments worldwide, it also allows the U.S. to exert its influence and maintain stability throughout the world.
This second installment of GMF’s Transatlantic Talks series was attended by approximately 90 representatives from the private sector, government, academia, embassies, think tanks, and media. The third installment in the Transatlantic Talks series is expected to take place later in the fall.