The 2023 Summit in Lithuania will unveil the future agenda of the Atlantic Alliance: Interview with H.E. Julianne Smith, U.S. Ambassador to NATO

Julianne Smith_US Ambassador NATO
Julianne Smith, the US Ambassador to NATO (Credits: United States Department of State, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 30 Issue 12
Author: Silvia Boltuc

On July 11th-12th, 2023, Lithuania will host a NATO Summit in Vilnius, the largest event in the country’s history. The Atlantic Alliance will address the major themes of current geopolitics: the conflict in Ukraine, the Chinese threat, and global challenges such as terrorism.

At the meeting, NATO is preparing to welcome new members and partners and to strengthen cooperation with key allies in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Asia Pacific. To explore these issues, SpecialEurasia met in Rome H.E. Julianne Smith, the US Ambassador to NATO.

Lithuania will host a NATO Summit in Vilnius on 11th-12th July, 2023. What main issues will Allied Heads of State and Government discuss in the gathering in Lithuania because of the transformations in the global dynamics, specifically after the Ukrainian conflict?

“The Summit in Lithuania is going to be very exciting for a couple of reasons: first and foremost, we are going to take some major decisions on how the NATO Alliance plans for future contingences. Last year, we made some announcements on new posture developments as it relates to Central and Eastern Europe. We moved posture to Eastern Europe, and we also created additional multinational battalions. This year, we will roll out the plans that will ensure that we can protect every inch of NATO territory. This will not only be about the plans themselves but also regarding a new command-and-control structure (C2 structure).

Moreover, we will discuss resourcing. In 2014, the Alliance committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence, each NATO Ally needed to do that, and that pledge went from 2014 to 2024. This summer we will announce what follows, what we refer to as the ‘defence investment pledge’.

Second, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy may be welcomed in person to the Summit, so that we can restate that is not a question of ‘whether’ but ‘when’ Ukraine will join the Alliance. And, hopefully, we will have some things to say about how we will fortify and strengthen our relationship with Kyiv and continue to show unity in supporting the country on the ground inside Ukraine.

Third, we very much hope that Sweden is going to be able to become a member by the Vilnius Summit. We do not know that with certainty, but the hope is that they will join the Alliance. And last, we’re going to have four countries from the Indo-Pacific joining us in Vilnius (Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea), all to continue seeking ways for NATO to strengthen its ties with other democratic allies in the Indo-Pacific, so that collectively we can address shared challenges. Those countries do not want to become members of the Alliance, but they want to work with NATO on some of the shared challenges we face, like the People’s Republic of China, or even Russia, and some of the hybrid tactics they use.

It is going to be a very busy and exciting Summit. We will have a lot of new policies that we are rolling out and hopefully it will be a celebration of our continued unity to support the people of Ukraine.”.

Ukraine has been the epicentre of recent NATO efforts. What additional steps will the Alliance take on this matter? Is NATO evaluating the potential of starting peace negotiations?

“We want to continue to give the Ukrainians all the practical support they need. We are focusing on a couple of key areas: air defence, ammunition and artillery, and armour. Most importantly, we have to maintain our unity because President Putin assumes that all of us will look away and get distracted, and that hasn’t happened for more than a year. We have to continue to be united in supporting Ukraine, defending its territory.

In terms of negotiations or some future settlement, I think ultimately NATO doesn’t feel it should dictate the terms of that to the Ukrainians. We are united in that view. We want President Zelenskyy to decide when and how he is going to come back to the negotiating table. But we support his peace plan. He put out ten ideas, ten principles of peace, and we support it as an Alliance. The G7 also offered its support. And what is important is that we sustain his efforts to work towards peace, while he is defending its territory. Of course, one person can make all this go away tomorrow and that is President Putin, because he started the war, and he could end it today.”.

NATO has staunchly supported the Ukrainian side in the conflict with Russia. Will support for Kyiv also concern the reconquest of Crimea?

“The question of Crimea is, too, a question for the Ukrainian government. They really have to determine how far they want to go with defending their territory, if they want to go all the way back to February 2023, or if they want to go further, back to 2014. But that is a decision for Ukraine, and NATO doesn’t feel like it has to get involved in that. My President, Joe Biden, has said that he will support Ukraine for as long as it takes, and I think the Italian government has said something similar. So, all of us are just trying to ensure that the world understands that we will support the Ukrainian people to defend their territory from this illegal and unprovoked war.”.

In the last year, there have been tensions between China and the United States, particularly regarding Taiwan. Taking into consideration the close trade ties between some European countries and China, what is NATO’s position on the matter?

“NATO, for the first-time last summer, put out a new Strategic Concept. This is a document that the Alliance updates about every ten years. In the 2022 Strategic Concept, China is mentioned for the first time. We did that because all the Allies came together, we were thirty Allies at the time, and we reached a consensus that China poses a systemic challenge. China is doing its very best to undermine the rules-based order, and it is also trying to divide Europe from within, and to divide Europe from the United States. It is using a range of hybrid tactics. Whether we are talking about coercion, or disinformation, or malicious cyber-attack, similar to what the Russians do, they try to break down the international system we all created 75 years ago. Therefore, NATO felt strongly that we had to put China into our strategy document and now the Alliance will spend the next year plus thinking about what tools we need, how do we build resilience against some of those tools I just mentioned, how do we protect critical infrastructures and how to ensure that we can contrast any efforts from the Chinese or any actors to undermine our security through cyber-attack. We are building a tool now to strengthen us against anything that is coming from Russia or the Chinese. But ultimately the United States is not trying to enter some sort of new Cold War. We are not forcing our allies to choose. If you read the China’s strategy that the United States put out several months ago, you see that ultimately the United States wants to compete. We want to be a fair playing field. That is our fundamental goal. So, we are investing in our relationship with our allies, we are investing at home in the United States, and we are going to make sure that we can compete with the PRC. And again, that the condition under which we compete are fair. We are not trying to pursue any sort of military aggression, even for any change in Taiwan. We support the status quo. The important is that Europe and the United States are moving together in their joint appreciation that China poses the systemic challenge. Notably, before NATO put China into the Strategic Concept, the European Union actually many years ago also listed the PRC as a systemic challenge. Thus, NATO in some ways is catching up to the European Union on that front.”.

NATO is active also in the Middle East, a strategic area where Italy is playing an important role in counterterrorism and training assistance. What are the major challenges of the region and the next goals of the Atlantic Alliance?

“In the strategic concept that I mentioned, the Alliance defined two primary threats: Russia and terrorism. This takes us not only but increasingly to the southern neighbourhood. We want to work with our friends and partners across the Middle East, across Africa, around the Mediterranean on the shared security challenges that we face. Italy’s role here has been indispensable. First and foremost, in highlighting some challenges in the South, but also in its own partnerships and relationships, Italy has enormous credibility in this neighbouring region. Italy plays a leadership role. Rome is very active in NATO’s mission in Iraq, but also played a critical role in other NATO missions. This is an area toward which the Alliance is increasingly turning to. We are very focused also on the issue of disinformation, because we find Russia is putting out a lot of disinformation about NATO Alliance and the transatlantic partners across Africa into the Middle East. As Allies, we are working together to think about some ways through which we could be better in countering the false narrative just floating around out there.

In conclusion, we have a lot of work to do. We rolled out some new initiatives on the south, particularly with some of our partners like Jordan, Tunisia, and Mauritania. Looking forward to the Vilnius Summit, we will have more to say in this neighbourhood, and we will make some additional announcements.”.

What is the significance of Finland joining NATO and what implications will Sweden’s entrance have?

“These are two countries that already had close relations with the Alliance. They were some of our strongest partners. They have moved as close to the Alliance as they could without membership. Moreover, these are two very capable allies: they share our values, but they also have incredible naval forces, arm forces, reserves forces, that are there ready to protect NATO territory. Ultimately, these countries decided to change hundreds of years of policies in terms of being not aligned. But they fundamentally looked at what was happening in Ukraine and decided on the face of the Russian aggression to change their long-standing tradition and move towards membership. We are thrilled to have Finland join and we hope that Sweden will join in the weeks or months ahead. They are ready and they too will bring a lot to the Alliance.”.

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