On the 21st of September 2017 high NATO officials met in Brussels with representatives of the main groups of geopolitical and strategic think-tanks from Romania. The event organized by the Department of Public Diplomacy of the North – Atlantic Alliance, where I represented Titulescu European Foundation, allowed me to identify a dynamics of ideas and discussions that will transform, in my opinion, the role that Romania will play in NATO and in the bilateral relations with its main Western partners.
NATO’s position in Central and Eastern Europe has significantly changed in the first half of 2014, with the outburst of the Ukrainian crisis. Romania took advantage of this moment of instability in the region and became, following a series of diplomatic and political actions, an important player in the North-Atlantic Alliance. But what caused this sudden change in our position? How did things evolve lately? Where do we go after the NATO Summit in Brussels in May 2017? What are the consequences for Romania? What new challenges will we face in the Alliance and how should we integrate such challenges in our national priorities? Where will we go from there?
As we know, NATO is strategically oriented towards all front lines, and as such its objective is to ensure stability and security at all its allied frontiers, showing flexibility and no bias towards a certain territory or region. However the priorities of the Alliance have changed lately following the Ukrainian crisis and with Russia becoming the potential source of threat in the region. This explains the consolidated presence of the North-Atlantic Alliance in the Central and Eastern Europe by establishing, among others, a multinational center of intelligence and security. At the same time NATO officials consider that the dialogue with Russia exists and has to be continued. This dialogue is generally led by the United States representatives and focuses repeatedly on the same topics: the situation in Ukraine, less risks in the field of security and transparency. NATO officials believe that the Alliance had efficient results since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis and succeeded in preventing potential conflicts in the region. The agenda should be enriched with current interest topics such as The Middle East, misinformation, hybrid war… In parallel, due to easily understandable economic reasons, the most influential countries in the European Union (France, Germany, Italy, and Spain) plead – in different tones and nuances – for an acceleration and relaxation of the dialogue with the “Big Neighbor from the East”, whilst the Central and Eastern European countries claim a consolidation of the Alliance in the region. All these phenomena appear in the context where the Russian economy at the worldwide level has a penetration force well below the European Union, the United States, or Japan.
NATO experts consider that Vladimir Putin will win the next presidential elections in Russia. Estimations show that he will attract over 60% of the Russians’ votes, who prefer stability over radical change. Chances that Vladimir Putin be removed from power (including by coup d’état) are very modest. However the votes obtained by the opposition at the latest local elections give experts some hope that there is room for political change in Russia. But such changes cannot at this moment lead to the appearance of a political alternative to replace Vladimir Putin; more likely they will create an influential “boiling” point that the Kremlin leader cannot ignore. Many experts speculate on who is going to take the place of Vladimir Putin when he decides to step away. For now none of the scenarios is plausible. Prime-minister Medvedev is seen by NATO analysts as a very good “number 2“, with little chance to become Vladimir Putin’s successor.
There are a series of official positions that change the old perceptions in the Romanian think-tanks groups and mass-media. First of all, China seems to raise less concern in the North-Atlantic Alliance than Russia. NATO’s high representatives consider that China is an important world leader that has to be invited to most of the talks concerning the major issues of our Planet. Also, despite all controversies in the mass-media regarding Turkey getting closer to Russia after the failed coup d’état from July 2016, the Alliance officials consider that the country led by Erdogan is an important partner inNATO, which complies with its commitments seriously and with professionalism. There is also a series of projects that the representatives of the Alliance see as “unfinished”: in Balkans (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia…), but also in the ex-URSS space (Ukraine, Georgia,..). For each of them, the numerous unclear elements and the risk of growing tensions do not create a favorable ground for identifying viable conclusions or evolution scenarios.
The involvement in the fight against terrorism was visible in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in all the states that joined the Coalition against the Islamic State, where NATO does not carry ground combats but contributes mainly through its structures specialized in imagistic intelligence.
I am concerned about the way the military relations of Romania with France are perceived. At this point there is too much ambiguity. In my opinion, reviving the military relations between the two countries implies a huge effort on the side of the Romanian and French authorities. Where are the ambiguities? First of all at the level of the authorities of the two countries, which have not until now clearly identified the complementarily that might exist between a French-Romanian military cooperation in the bilateral relations or in the European Union and the role to be played by the both countries within NATO. While the Romanian (political and military) authorities consider that the USA should play the leading part in what concerns the military collaboration, due to their key role in ensuring Romania’s security, the French officials – representing the biggest military power in the European Union and an important economic partner for our country – consider that France should be given an equally important role. In addition, there are visible differences in the opinions regarding the allocation of resources (France would like to see more of the Romanian troops getting involved in the fight against terrorism in the Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, while Romania thinks that France should be more present on NATO’s Eastern frontier in Europe), the purchase of equipment for the Romanian Army and last but not least the position towards Russia. (The Romanian and NATO officials have the perception that France, for the reasons mentioned above, is inclined to ask for a relaxation of the dialogue with Russia, while Romania and other East European countries claim stricter measures against Kremlin.)
Even if some Romanian experts (civilians or military) have recommended on various occasions the review of the Montreux Convention, which stipulates the free circulation in the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits and the Black Sea, but in the same time confines the military activity and capabilities in this area, NATO continues to value the compliance with this international treaty signed back in 1936. This position is expressed in the context where the Russian Army succeeded in developing its aerial combat forces alongside its naval forces in Crimea.
More than that, besides the bilateral options that play an important role (for Romania, the partnership with the United States is the best example from this perspective), NATO launches in the Black Sea are a various actions meant to discourage, pick up intelligence and pass the message that this region has become a priority for the Alliance. All Western powers are present with military forces in NATO all across Eastern Europe (including Romania) as part of the NATO obligations. But this is also a sign that they are all ready to accept that if, for example, some attackers hit an American soldier on the Romanian territory or on the territory of other states in the region such attackers commit an abuse against the United States.
In respect of the Republic of Moldavia, NATO officials consider that the best way for this country to ensure close relations with the Western States is by consolidating its national institutions, developing the dialogue with the youth, restructuring the Army and fighting corruption. The North-Atlantic Alliance in Moldavia carries out also atypical projects like the purification of some areas damaged by pesticides. But for NATO the integration of the Republic of Moldavia is not a priority and it does not intend to compete with Russia in this country. Even if the Alliance builds new headquarters in Chisinau Capital and continues to keep a contact officer in Moldavia and develop collaboration programs beyond Prut river, the impact of such actions is limited by the influence and popularity that Russia enjoys among the local population.
NATO’s leaders cherish communication and therefore they have launched the “We Are NATO” Campaign, which will also be visible in Romania. The campaign aims at increasing awareness regarding the North-Atlantic Organization in the Member States and the role it plays in ensuring peace, security and welfare for its citizens, and also the popular support for growing the military expense budget. It is already known that all Alliance countries (including Romania) have committed to growing their defense capacities by allocating at least 2% of their GDP. Besides this obligation to come up with a significant cash contribution, there are also requirements to extend the capacities of intervention and supplementary contributions for the different missions of the Alliance.
What Romania need to do in this context? It is first of all mandatory that our officials proceed to concrete actions, by building well-defined projects and assuming the leadership thereof. To start with, they should raise the awareness among young people, for youth seems to show little concern for NATO issues, bored as they are by the “wooden language” of some political leaders who have a growingly limited vision on what is or should be important for our country and give the impression that they have changed the communist bigotry for Euro-Atlantic bigotry.
Secondly, beyond geopolitical and geostrategic issues, the defense resources- mainly the 2% of the GDP budget- should be responsibly allocated. I have the impression that now Romania’s logic is to try splitting this budget between the Americans, the British, the French, the Germans, and other Western partners. We really need to go beyond this phase of “timidity” where we try to please everybody and end up achieving little and reach a phase where we assume leadership and define how Romania can create added value for NATO. This way we could become a strong pillar in two or three defense domains that are of interest for the Alliance and that we could cover by:
- Pro-active participation in the ongoing process of reforming the command structures within NATO;
- Creating regional research clusters in the area of security (IT, artificial intelligence, military vehicle engineering…). Such projects would increase NATO’s reputation among young people, who, as mentioned above, are less sensitive to the messages of our officials on defense matters;
- Clearly defining the technical resources that must be acquired in the NATO context, eliminating as much as possible the redundant items that can be achieved by bilateral treaties;
- Capitalization on the important cooperation that we have under NATO with the USA and Great Britain in order to start grand military projects with European Union partners. From this point of view, things are very clear: the European Union will become a true power only when the budget, diplomacy, and the army will be common and shared by the Union. It is our interest to support such an approach;
- Activating the “diplomacy of the contracts” by:
- Pro-actively supporting France and Germany in building a shared European defense industry and army in line with our complimentary role in NATO, by covering at the European level the deficient capabilities of the North-Atlantic Alliance, but without creating an alternative or a replica to its role. Such an initiative would allow us to:
- Revive part of the defense industry, which is now “shattered”;
- Leave behind a “two speed Europe”;
- Solve the Schengen issue (YES, I think that this initiative would solve the Schengen issue);
- Better understand the priorities of each country and the manner in which the worldwide resources are allocated within NATO;
- Starting an open dialogue with the United States which would give us the opportunity to:
- Negotiate American investments in the Romanian defense industry, infrastructure, education and research in exchange for the Romanian acquisitions of USA military equipment, to which we are looking forward to;
- Establish larger transparent, pragmatic and responsible military partnerships within the European Union;
- Assume within NATO dialogue and negotiation positions regarding strategic projects with Russia, China, or Japan; as of this moment, this is done only by the representatives of the Great Powers.
- Taking more advantage of our political role in NATO by assuming leadership of major projects of the Alliance at the Black Sea. In this respect, a first step would be to try to supplement the current security shield, of a military nature, by a “capital security shield”, which would be more profitable for all players being or coming around the Black Sea area. We need to build here big international business projects together with other nations from the European Union, Americans, Russians, Chinese, Japanese, Turks …, in economic fields as energy, infrastructure, education, research, or health… I think that Romania could launch and develop alongside the USA and the European Union shared political and economic projects to be built between parties that are currently on divergent positions, such as NATO countries and Russia. Such initiatives could have a positive impact on the objective of the North-Atlantic Alliance to maintain peace in the region.
The forthcoming visit of the Secretary-General of NATO in Romania in the first part of October 2017 could be a good opportunity to start discussions on these topics. It is up to us. De Gaulle used to say ”Nothing great is done without great men, and they are great because they wanted it”.