Ian Lesser is a distinguished fellow and adviser to GMF’s president. He heads the organization’s Brussels office and leads GMF South, a program encompassing research and analysis of developments in Southern Europe, Türkiye, the Mediterranean, and North-South relations around the Atlantic. He served as GMF’s acting president from 2020 to 2021. His expertise includes US foreign and security policy, transatlantic relations, and European and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds the chair in transatlantic trade and economy at the College of Europe in Bruges. 

Prior to joining GMF, Lesser was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and vice president and director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy. He spent over a decade at the RAND Corporation as a senior analyst and research manager specializing in strategic studies. From 1994 to 1995, he was a member of the secretary’s policy planning staff at the US Department of State, responsible for Türkiye, Southern Europe, North Africa, and the multilateral track of the Middle East peace process.

A frequent commentator for international media, Lesser has written extensively on foreign and security policy issues. He holds a DPhil from the University of Oxford and studied at the University of Pennsylvania, the London School of Economics, and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Pacific Council on International Policy. He serves on the advisory boards of the NATO Defense College Foundation, the Antwerp-American Foundation, Atlantic Dialogues, and the Delphi Economic Forum, and has been a senior fellow of the Onassis Foundation and the Luso-American Development Foundation.

Media Mentions

"Even in countries historically reluctant to spend more on defence, there is now a growing sense of the importance of greatly increased defence spending," said Ian Lesser, from the German Marshall Fund of the United States think tank.
Mr Stoltenberg was similarly dubbed the “Trump whisperer” for his ability to manage the prickly American president when he threatened to pull the US out of Nato. If Trump returns, Nato’s head will need to demonstrate shrewd political instincts and supreme coaxing skills.
“Assuming it’s him, Rutte will bring stability and predictability. He’ll bring access, he’ll bring credibility on both sides of the Atlantic,” says Dr Lesser.
What is clear is that it's going to be collected and used in the European level, (...) If this goes ahead, others who may be exposed to historic grievances of all kinds may find that they are having their assets ceased as reparations
It's really a lot of backroom diplomacy across the Atlantic. Everything from paperclips to nuclear strategy is done by consensus, so this is part of that process.
Cyprus, by virtue of its geography, has a critical role to play. If the EU is serious about becoming a more significant geopolitical actor, the major test will be here in the eastern Mediterranean.
It's clearly showed there's a reservoir of deep ill-will and anti-Semitism in Russia, especially in those regions that are majority Muslim, though not just, and maybe right now Russia finds it convenient to allow a bit of that.
Geopolitical conflicts are distracting from the trade, climate and technology agenda that the leaders must deal with. Given what's going on in the world and also given the EU's ambitions to play a larger geopolitical role — that's especially important to Commission President von der Leyen, it's not surprising that geopolitics will be at the top.
If France is a leader in driving Europe to spend more and do more, that is fully in line with what successive administrations have wanted to see.
Poland is very much on the front line and will remain so whatever the course of the war in Ukraine. The country occupies a critical position in allied deterrence and defense and is the key logistical hub for assistance headed to Ukraine. The fact that the president’s speech takes place in the Cold War birthplace of the Warsaw Pact will not be lost on observers, not least Russians.
From the perspective of a society, security is not just about the defense of borders, but it’s also about the kind of security people seek in the face of disasters. The response cannot be unilateral: even quite capable countries like Turkey need the support of allies, even adversaries, to tackle them
The failure for Germany to be in the mainstream risked triggering a wider debate about NATO cohesion and strategy. But, while it is easy to say it didn’t look good and they eventually took the right decision.
It’s been transformative in so many ways — and in areas in which it’s difficult for the European Union to act quickly
Any war brings with it increasing risk of accident and escalation. The sheer number of forces in close proximity and the length of the conflict, with no sign of abating, accumulates risk in the entire region.
If Austin’s goal of weakening Russia is confirmed it would mean that Washington and NATO are contemplating a lasting period of confrontation and risk in connection with Russia.
Incorporating Finland into NATO would bring important capabilities and "strategic depth" to the "particularly exposed" Baltic region.
This is very uncomfortable conversation for Western allies. They assumed a more or less rational actor and they didn’t price in the kind of ruthlessness that we’re seeing from President Putin, and this of course upsets the traditional calculus in ways NATO has not fully thought out.
The big visits to Brussels over the last days really illustrate the very stressful gap that exists between what Ukraine would like to see allied NATO allies providing and what many in the West would like to see the West doing, without provoking an overwhelming response from Russia. I think, in a sense, we have yet to come to grips with the utter ruthlessness of Russian policy.
It is a very meaningful step. They are being trained for it all the time, but it is very unusual that the task force is actually being activated. It suggests that NATO is taking this very seriously.
Much of the support to Ukraine that has been delivered so far is really being delivered among a coalition of nation states — a coalition of the willing within NATO — but not necessarily as NATO's action, per se. As time goes on, there's an open question as to whether Russia will continue to tolerate the supply lines of arms transfers and fuel deliveries to Ukraine being organized from NATO territory.
There is a high degree of coordination and an extraordinary degree of success in producing a roster of quite stark sanctions. But that brings its own challenge, which is to sustain that momentum through what is likely to be a long, protracted period of confrontation with Russia.
The most fundamental deliverable is for the U.S. president to show up at the time of the greatest crisis in European security since the end of the Second World War. There’s an opportunity for American leadership, there’s an expectation for American leadership. That symbolism is actually highly important.
At this critical juncture, every significant weapons shipment [Zelenskyy] receives, every word of support he receives and every action NATO takes helps him and help Ukraine and he’s trying to keep that squarely in the political view.
The net result of all this will be a lot more NATO capability facing Russia in the years ahead. I’m not sure that’s what Putin anticipated.
With Russian troops fighting in Ukraine and deployed in nearby Belarus, the risk for NATO has increased enormously. The situation could make it harder for the alliance to defend its eastern edge.
The level of risk for NATO has simply and suddenly increased enormously. The possibility of conflict with Russian forces in Europe or elsewhere, like the Black Sea, the Sahel, Libya or Syria, could be dangerous and will be an issue for years to come.
Without US-European cohesion, Moscow will have — or at least will feel it has — a blank check. For Russia's strategy, driving a wedge between trans-Atlantic partners is likely at least as important as Ukraine itself.
NATO is at a turning point in its history. The crisis with Ukraine illustrates the importance of its role, but also the very difficult equation it faces,.
Translated from French
[Behind the scenes] there’s very little enthusiasm [within NATO for bringing in Ukraine. There is, however,] a consensus on the need to support [Ukraine] politically, economically, and, to the extent they can, in security terms.
I do still think that the president enjoys a tremendous amount of fundamental good will in Europe. Just because Biden is not Trump doesn’t make all of the policy issues easy to address.
[If the Greens particpate in government, one can expect] concerns about domestic developments in Turkey, media freedom and other areas can be expected to receive more attention.