Former NATO Chief: The United States Should Be the World’s ‘Policeman’

Interview: Anders Fogh Rasmussen discusses the need for American global leadership and the threat from Russia

Then-NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in 2014 / AP
September 30, 2016

Anders Fogh Rasmussen was prime minister of Denmark from 2001 to 2009, and months later began serving as NATO secretary general until 2014. He is currently promoting his new book, The Will to Lead: America’s Indispensable Role in the Global Fight for Freedom. The Washington Free Beacon interviewed Mr. Rasmussen during a visit this week to Washington D.C.


Washington Free Beacon:What motivated you to write The Will to Lead?

Anders Fogh Rasmussen: Two things. First of all, I realized during my terms as prime minister of Denmark, and not least as secretary general of NATO, that we need more determined American global leadership. And secondly, something that’s even more personal. Right from my childhood, I have been very much engaged in the transatlantic relationship. So I’ve always had a strong interest in what’s going on in America. For these two reasons, even before I left my post as secretary general, I decided that once I was released from my duties I would spend time writing this book.

Vladimir Putin

WFB: Suppose a newly elected foreign leader asked for your advice on how to deal with Vladimir Putin. What would you suggest?

Rasmussen: I would tell him or her that a firm stance is necessary, because that’s the only language Mr. Putin understands. Mr. Putin likes to portray himself as a strong man. He’s often seen with his black judo belt, hunting dangerous bears, all that stuff. And he only respects and understands the language of power. That’s clearly my recommendation: be firm. Stay united in the West. Because that’s the best way to achieve a partnership with Russia. Only then will Putin realize how important it is to pursue cooperation instead of confrontation.

WFB: You’ve criticized President Obama for what you suggest is his failure to see the strategic merit of U.S. global leadership. Would you expand on that? 

Rasmussen: President Obama hasn’t hidden the fact that he is reluctant to use American military power to achieve his goals. I think it’s a broad approach, [and] in very concrete time you’ve also seen it implemented. The Syria red line is just one example. Namely, the threat that if [Bashar al] Assad used chemical weapons against his open people he would meet consequences. But Assad crossed these red lines many times before President Obama finally said, ‘Now it’s finished! Now we will strike!’ And the fact that these red lines were crossed had a disastrous effect on U.S. foreign policy. It undermined the credibility not only of the president’s words but also of American commitment.

But I also think the American decision to withdraw from Europe sent a signal to President Putin that he could operate without facing serious consequences. So these are very two concrete examples. Let me add to that, going back to Syria, when President Obama finally threatened military force, Assad gave up a majority of his chemical weapons. That exemplified how the threat of military force can facilitate diplomatic solutions.

WFB: How do you assess the current situation in Syria?

Rasmussen: Things have become more complicated since the reckless Russian military operation in Syria–which again is a consequence of the American reluctance to lead in Syria. That reluctance left behind a vacuum that Putin exploited. So now he is a player in the region—that was also always his goal. I think he wanted to demonstrate that we cannot find solutions to the problem in Syria without Russia on board. This has complicated matters. You cannot hope to retain Assad, because the moderate opposition will not accept that over the long term. I think we should have provided more assistance to the moderate rebels in Syria. Now it’s too late, I’m afraid.

So I think from here we will have to do our utmost to find a political solution. In my opinion, we should try to find solutions à la Bosnia in the 1990s, where we respected ethnic and religious dividing lines. While we kept Bosnia as a state entity, we created a lot of autonomy for the religious communities. I think the same–while more difficult–could be done in Syria.

BALTOPS 2016 annual multinational exercise, Ustka, Poland - 15 Jun 2016
Polish forces take part in BALTOPS 2016 / AP

WFB: How great is the threat that Russia will attack the Baltic NATO member states–Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania?

Rasmussen: It is a potential. But first and foremost, I would stress that the three Baltic states are well protected under Article Five of NATO. Correspondingly, an attack on one of them would be considered an attack on the whole alliance. And I’m sure Putin realizes that he would cross a red line if he attacked openly one of those three Baltic states. So I don’t think an open attack is the imminent threat, but hybrid warfare could be pursued as we saw in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. That is to say Russian covert action forces combined with a sophisticated disinformation campaign. I see that as a more concrete threat.

WFB: What sense of fear do you perceive in Eastern Europe over the potential of a Russian attack?

Rasmussen: I think that they all know because of NATO membership they are not threatened directly. But I think the major concern in Eastern Europe is the risk of more Russian influence and dominance on the European scene. As we all know, the Western European countries in particular are quite divided in their approach to Russia. The U.K. has a very tough stance–it’s a stance that is much more like the Eastern Europeans. The Scandinavian countries tend to have the same approach. But in Germany in particular, the approach is to accommodate Russia. And recently France and Italy have followed suit. So in Europe you have a very divided approach to Russia. And Putin loves to create a split within the alliance.

In general, I think the Eastern European member states are worried about a weakened European approach to Russia. Hitler tried to create a dominant European power in confrontation with the United States. That’s exactly what Putin attempts to achieve. Not in the same way as Hitler, not by conquering territory. But he will definitely expand his influence in Europe if the U.S. retreats. This is a serious concern in Eastern Europe and it should also be a concern in the United States, because eventually the United States could experience a more hostile Europe, a Europe dominated by the Russian desire to challenge the U.S.-led international order.

WFB: Do you think the U.S. military’s standing deployments to Europe could defeat a Russian attack? 

Rasmussen: Clearly if Russia launched an overt attack, the resources they would employ would be so significant that the U.S. could not defeat a Russian attack. That said, I do believe the deterrent effect of what NATO decided in 2014 and 2016—to increase our presence in the East and to establish a rapid reaction force—is significant. I don’t think [the Russians] would dare. Because they would not only meet Latvian soldiers, they would meet other NATO forces. If they so wished they have such overwhelming might that they could take a NATO country, but the military and political cost would be so significant that I don’t think they would do it.

WFB: How do you think other NATO states can be persuaded to spend more on defense? 

Rasmussen: In that respect, I think Putin is an excellent generator. Because after he attacked Ukraine, Europeans realized we are in a very different security situation. We in Europe were, and I say we because I was among them, very quick to harvest the peace dividend. In general I think the level of defense investment in Europe is around 1.5% GDP. And it has to be raised to at least 2% GDP. We adopted a resolution in September 2014 that all 28 allies will spend at least 2% GDP on defense within the next decade.

WFB: What do you think about the European Union’s efforts to establish a military structure independent from NATO?

France GIGN
Officers of the GIGN commandos of the elite French force, perform a military exercise / AP

Rasmussen: First, I don’t think it is strengthening security cooperation. That is the first thing people are thinking of when facing European security challenges. I see this as a French effort to take advantage of the British departure from the E.U. to advance one of their ideas to strengthen the European defense force. I don’t think it’s an appropriate answer. Secondly, I think the Europeans should spend more on defense, but I don’t think more headquarters is the answer. During my time at NATO, we got rid of some headquarters. There’s a real risk of expensive duplication. Does the idea threaten NATO’s purpose and existence? No. I want to see it before I believe it. But why would they send more defense resources to the EU when NATO is the only show in town when it comes to hard power?

WFB: Are you concerned about Turkey’s continuing NATO membership in light of President Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and his relationship with Russia. 

Rasmussen: I don’t have concerns regarding their future membership of NATO. I consider it a given that they will remain members of NATO partly because they will need the protection that only NATO can provide. Partly because NATO needs Turkey as a bridge between the West and the Middle East. But I am concerned about the political developments in Turkey, because Turkey must live up to all its democratic responsibilities under the rule of law. And I hope all NATO member states will make that case to Turkey.

WFB: Where does NATO need to improve its capabilities over the next generation?

Rasmussen: I think we see three emerging challenges. Firstly, we must get better at fighting terrorism. NATO must improve its capability to deal with terrorists. Among other things we should increase our intelligence exchange programs. Secondly, cyber security will be a key challenge of the future. We need to strengthen cyber protections in NATO systems and in member states because the whole system is integrated, and it is only as strong as the weakest link. Third, territorial security. You will see autocrats like Putin try to grab land by force. And the only response is a strong, collective defense.

WFB: Expanding on cyber security, the question of email security has played a significant role in this year’s U.S. presidential election. As head of NATO, did you ever worry your email was being hacked? 

Rasmussen: Yes, always. Even if you protect your emails with all measures available, there’s always a risk. When you send things in a transmission there’s always a risk. So I’ve always believed that you shouldn’t write emails that you couldn’t defend if they became public. I always transmitted sensitive messages in person or in other secure ways. NATO faces so many cyber attacks [that] we can never be relaxed.

WFB: On a slightly different note, what do you think about the current debates in the West over free speech on college campuses?

Rasmussen: We need a robust defense of the right to free speech. We need a showdown with the culture of offense. I’ve been a bit surprised to see the debate at American universities, because this political correctness–according to which you are not allowed to say specific things because other people might feel violated by it–only ultimately stimulates violence. In Denmark we have a tradition of being very outspoken. So you will hear outrageous things. But in return we have a relatively safe society. The only way to handle a globalized world is to have no right against being offended. Universities cannot achieve their research goals without giving students and professors the right to challenge the status quo–even with crazy ideas.

WFB: The central theme of your book is the exceptional importance of U.S. leadership. But what would you say to the American who says, "Let the world deal with its own problems. Keep us out of it?" 

Rasmussen: I would tell the Smith family in Peoria: the overall headline would be that it’s in your self-interest to be the global leader. I would suggest three things. First, if you do not attack the enemy on their soil, they will attack you on your soil. You saw that on Sept. 11, 2001. Go overseas and fight the enemy. Secondly, I would say that prevention is less expensive than a cure. So it’s very important for the U.S. to address conflicts while they are still small and manageable. The U.S. should not do what it did in the 1920s and 1930s and let world problems grow to a point that resolving those problems costs a huge amount of blood and treasure. Third, it is in the U.S. interest to preserve the world order that the U.S. itself created after the Second World War.

It’s a fact that America prospers when the world is at peace and free trade flows across borders. And that’s what came out of President Truman’s framework after the Second World War. He created institutions that have served an unprecedented era of peace. And right now that order is under attack from Putin, from terrorists, from rogue states everywhere. For these three reasons, I think it pays for the United States to pay the necessary resources to be the world’s policeman.