General Ben HODGES: "No way the US will pull out of NATO"

02.11.2020 (Caucasian Journal On the eve of U.S. presidential election, Caucasian Journal discusses the risk of America's withdrawing from NATO, verbalized recently by President Trump's former national security adviser. Though in Georgia it is also the election time, the NATO aspiration is not questioned by any party. But is NATO ready to accept new member?  
Our guest today is Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben HODGES, Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis, Commander of United States Army Europe from 2014 to 2017.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of Caucasian Journal: Dear Ben, welcome to Caucasian Journal, many thanks for attention to our international readership. Obviously, one of our central discussion themes will be NATO-Georgia relationship. But let me start with something else, and even more fundamental: The NATO-USA relationship. President Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton has more than once expressed his concern over a “very real risk” of the U.S. withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, if Donald Trump wins a second term. Can you comment on what seemed unthinkable? After all, 2020 had proved already that unthinkable things happen.

Lt. Gen. Ben HODGES:
No way the US will pull out of NATO, even if President Trump is re-elected. The Congress will oppose it, and I think that even the President realizes that the US needs allies, even if he doesn’t always say it or act like it. American prosperity as well as American security depends on a strong, stable, and prosperous Europe... That’s why we’ll remain committed to NATO, even if the President often says things about NATO that are unproductive. Of course it would also be helpful if other allies, particularly in Western Europe, would also demonstrate as much commitment to NATO as even the Trump administration has demonstrated. Despite the tweets, American boots on the ground in Europe have actually increased during this administration. I’d say that US commitment is far more tangible than some European allies. 
 
General Ben HODGES on U.S.-NATO relationship:
1. No way the US will pull out of NATO, even if President Trump is re-elected. The Congress will oppose it.
2. President realizes that the US needs allies.
3. We’ll remain committed to NATO, even if the President often says things about NATO that are unproductive.

AK: Let us get back to Georgia, South Caucasus. This country has recently marked the 5th anniversary of adoption of the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package (SNGP). SNGP is a set of initiatives endorsed at the September 2014 NATO Summit aimed at strengthening Georgia’s security cooperation with NATO. For a long time, the politicians and the experts have been talking about the progress achieved, and steps – or stumbling blocks – that still remain. You have, however, recently stated that Georgia should become a full NATO member right now. Can you elaborate on your position a bit?


BH:
I cannot be more clear... Georgia should be a member of NATO right now. It has done everything required to meet NATO requirements. Of course, it is important that Georgia continues to move forward on democratic reforms, to continue to improve transparency in governmental affairs and elections, and in its judicial processes. It needs to continue improving societal resilience in order to be able to resist Kremlin disinformation efforts and the corrosive effects of corruption. But from a strategic standpoint, NATO must compete with the Kremlin in the Black Sea region – what I describe as the “cauldron of competition” – and having Georgia in NATO would be a significant improvement in this competition, in diplomacy and economy as well as in the military domain.

Members of the Alliance should not allow the Kremlin to veto who joins NATO through its threats and false narrative of provocation by NATO. Instead the Kremlin should have to answer the question “Why do so many former Soviet republics and former Warsaw pact countries want so badly to join NATO?” What do they know and understand, after decades of Soviet rule/oppression and centuries of Russian imperialism, that pushes them to clamoring for NATO membership?

AK: NATO’s security concept is largely based on the Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which provides that if a NATO ally is a victim of an armed attack, other allies will consider it as an armed attack against all members and react accordingly. It’s often considered as one of reasons for Alliance’s hesitation about accepting new members with unresolved territorial conflicts, as such acceptance may immediately trigger a war. On the other hand, the aspirant states seek NATO membership because they need protection “now”, so the everlasting delay undermines the whole concept and leads to mutual frustration. How realistic is it to expect NATO allies would decide positively, given the complicated decision-making process?


BH: Well, for sure it won’t be easy. But strong diplomatic efforts by the USA and others to bring along the rest of the Alliance can be effective. Germany will be key here so diplomatic efforts should focus on Berlin, and on Paris.

By the way, Article 5 is not the only key pillar of NATO... it is trust in each other and in each nation fulfilling its responsibilities for self-defense in Article 3, and the shared values embodied in the Preamble to the Washington Treaty, which created NATO.

AK: In case of Georgia, there have been speculations about how this problem can be circumvented – like, for instance, to apply Article 5 to the part of Georgian territory which is under de-facto jurisdiction of the Georgian government. A creative idea perhaps, but isn’t it a profanation of the raison d’etre of the military alliance?

BH: We accepted West Germany into NATO when there were still a million Soviet troops in East Germany. It took long, sustained, persistent effort by West Germany and the Alliance to support the eventual reunification of Germany, which, happily, occurred 30 years ago. I think that we need to think long term about Georgia... and Ukraine. I’m confident that eventually Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be returned to Georgia, and we shouldn’t wait for that to accept Georgia into NATO. Ukraine is on a different timeline because of Crimea and Donbass... But I’m also confident that eventually both of them will be returned to full Ukrainian sovereignty.

AK: Can this lead to a situation when the aspirant country prefers to develop direct military cooperation with separate NATO states, rather than waiting for the whole Alliance? I guess this may be good for the aspirant, but not so bright for the Alliance as a whole. If this happens, will this be a good or bad thing, in your view? 

General Ben HODGES on Georgia-NATO relationship:
1. Georgia should be a member of NATO right now. It has done everything required to meet NATO requirements.
2. Eventually Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be returned to Georgia, and we shouldn’t wait for that to accept Georgia into NATO.

BH:
Each nation can and should develop bi-lateral relationships. USA and Georgia is a good example. But that doesn’t prevent eventual Alliance membership. I’m proud of what USA has done with Georgia – in diplomacy, private investment, military cooperation, including with the state partnership program between Republic of Georgia and US state of Georgia... and of course there is much more to be done, especially in terms of private investment.

AK: While membership it just a legal status, it is the military component that makes the whole mechanism operational. You have come up with the idea of rotational forces for our region in 2018 – what happened with this concept, is it present in the discussion agenda?

BH: Membership is not just a legal status, it is a commitment to shared values. Regarding rotational forces, I don’t know but I’d like to see it. I’d like to see the USA build up a logistics hub and rotational air base support infrastructure in Georgia. Need to keep looking for ways to take the initiative in the greater Black Sea region.

 General Ben HODGES on Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict:

1. We should be learning from current use of technology there.
2. It is important to keep the Azerbaijan-Georgia corridor open.
3. Need a peaceful resolution... and for Azerbaijan to avoid hubris and overreach, in order to keep Kremlin from intervening on the ground. 

AK: Our region is among the ones with complicated interstate relations. Currently there is an ongoing armed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, in which other countries are also actively involved, including Turkey which a NATO member. As a military professional with huge experience, can you share your views on this burning problem?

BH: 
 1.   We should all be learning from the current use of technology there: How to employ drones so effectively, how to avoid detection (technology but also discipline and training), and how to counter the growing presence of drones.
 2.   It is important to keep the Azerbaijan-Georgia corridor open and free of Russian “peace-keepers”. This is the only East-West corridor between Europe and Eurasia that doesn’t go through Russia or Iran.
 3.    Need a peaceful resolution... and for Azerbaijan to avoid hubris and overreach... in order to keep Kremlin from intervening on the ground.
 
AK: Security and economic prosperity are tightly interrelated. While some argue that stable political situation attracts investment, there is a contrasting theory that large investments in fact help to strengthen security. I know that you pay much attention to the problems investment climate. In particular, you were interested in the experiences of American investors in Georgia, which we published (link). From your view point, what are the priorities for Georgia in the FDI field?


BH: Private investment by European and American businesses will greatly improve security, as well as prosperity, because those nations will want to see their investments protected... which means they’ll be paying a lot more attention to Russian aggression and border violations in the region. That’s why the Kremlin tries so hard to limit/disrupt private investment by the West in Georgia. Georgian government must do all it can to make Georgia as attractive for private investment as possible: transparency in all processes is an important start.

AK: In close future both our countries will face elections. This year’s unusual conditions make it even more challenging to predict the outcomes. However, it is for sure that the same fundamental problems will remain in place and the authorities – old or new ones – will have to deal with them. Is there anything you would like to say to the Georgian and American voters at this moment? Caucasian Journal has almost equal shares of Georgian and American readers…


BH: 
 1.   Respect the vote... no excuse for violence by either side. President Trump should make it clear that he will hand over power in a peaceful way if he loses the election, and that none of his supporters should resort to violence no matter how unhappy they might be. Former VP Biden should make it clear that violence in American cities is not part of constitutional “peaceful protests” and that his supporters should respect the vote if president Trump is re-elected.
 2. 
The US election will be very close again... Important that everybody exercises their constitutional right and responsibility to participate and vote.
 3.  
Very important that we protect the pillars of liberal democracy: electoral process, judicial process, free media, peaceful protests... The Kremlin and the Chinese communist party are doing all they can to undermine these pillars and cause us to lose confidence in our own processes. We have to resist this. 
 
AK: Thank you very much.


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