BRUSSELS -- NATO's new secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark, said in an interview on October 7 that NATO seeks to persuade Russia the alliance is "not an enemy." Equally, Rasmussen said he does not think Russia poses a threat to the alliance.
But Rasmussen also vowed that Georgia and Ukraine will one day join NATO. On Afghanistan, the NATO chief said a new U.S. strategy should emerge within weeks. Rasmussen spoke with RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas about these statements.
RFE/RL: As secretary-general of NATO, you have made improving relations with Russia one of your top priorities. What gives you reason to believe Russia will want a strategic relationship with NATO?
Anders Fogh Rasmussen: The reason why I'm optimistic is that, at the end of the day, there are a number of areas in which we and Russia are faced with the same threats. We have spoken about Afghanistan -- Russia knows [Afghanistan] very well from the Soviet times. So, we share an interest in stabilizing Afghanistan.
Next, terrorism. Russia herself has suffered from terrorism, and we have a common interest in fighting terrorism. The third example is the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Neither Russia nor we have an interest in the spread of nuclear weapons, for instance.
Fourth, piracy. This scourge of today also hits Russia. And even missile defense, I think, is also an area of common interest, as are disarmament and arms control -- just to mention some examples.
And I think in these areas we should focus on practical cooperation with Russia. Having said that, I also know there are areas in which we will still have our disputes -- Georgia, for example, and enlargement. And we will stick to core principles. But these disputes should not overshadow the fact that we do have shared interests in other areas -- and that's my point.
RFE/RL: Do you think Russia shares this view and will be more inclined to cooperate in future?
Rasmussen: Well, I [am not saying] it will be easy. But -- as the new secretary-general, I have received signals from Moscow that they are interested in a new beginning -- and that's my point of departure.
Also because I think the best instrument to ensure stability and security for all European countries is to reduce tensions between Russia and NATO allies. So, we have a common interest in developing this strategic partnership between NATO and Russia.
RFE/RL: Is Russia asking for anything in return?
Rasmussen: I don't think we should speak about concessions on either side -- neither NATO's nor Russia's -- because this is not a zero-sum game. Sometimes I have the impression that there are groups who think that this is a zero-sum game. But it's not. We could, all of us, benefit from an improved relationship.
So instead of speaking about concessions, we should speak about how we could move forward, together, with the aim [of improving] the overall security in Europe. And I think missile defense is actually a good example, because there was a discussion [asking]: "did the Americans change their missile-defense plans to accommodate Russia? Was it an American concession?" No, the new system is actually better than the old system, because it can be deployed sooner than the previous plans allowed. It can include all allies, it can protect all allies.
So, it's an example that all of us gain from that -- and the Russians cannot accuse us of building a system which is directed against them. So, it's an example that it's not a zero-sum game. We all gain from it.
RFE/RL: Poland and the Czech Republic, too?
Rasmussen: Yes. Poland and the Czech Republic will also be included in the new system. And the important thing is that the new system will be operational sooner than the old system. So, they will be protected at an earlier stage than before.
Protecting Baltic States
RFE/RL: Russia recently conducted major war games at the borders of the Baltic states. Does the alliance have plans for the protection of its Baltic allies in place?
Rasmussen: First of all, let me stress that, of course, we have the appropriate plans and arrangements in place to ensure the security and protection and defense of all allied nations, including the three Baltic states. That's my first point -- it is very important to understand that that's how it is. The commitment and the guarantee in Article 5 of our treaty is very strong. Never doubt that.
Secondly, we have, of course, followed the Russian exercise closely and monitored it. It is my clear impression, my strong belief that this exercise did not constitute a threat against any allied nation. But, of course, I would also appeal to the Russians to understand that such exercises might raise concerns in some countries and [that] confidence-building is also a very important part of our cooperation.
But, once again, we have in place the appropriate plans and arrangements to protect any ally.
RFE/RL: Against whom would you be protecting the Baltic states?
Rasmussen: Against whoever might be a threat. But you have to understand that the core task of NATO is the commitment to collective defense in Article 5. So what I just want to stress here is that it has, over 60 years, been the raison d'etre, the core task of NATO. And it will continue to be. I think it will be a very important element in our new strategic concept.
RFE/RL: Would you be prepared to put the words "Russia," "the Baltic states," and "defense" into the same sentence? Is Russia a threat to the Baltic countries?
Rasmussen: Let me stress I do not consider Russia a threat to the Baltic states or any other allied nation. And this is my point of departure -- I do not consider Russia a threat to NATO. And I consider it one of my very important tasks to convince the Russians that NATO is not an enemy of Russia. NATO is not directed against Russia.
This is the reason why we should develop a strategic partnership. If Russia is threatened, it is definitely not from the west. It's from the south -- to speak very frankly about it. And I think the Russian political leadership is very well aware of that. That's a fact of life. So, based on that, I think we should focus on practical cooperation in areas where we share interests.
Georgia Joining NATO
RFE/RL: So, NATO has interests in common with Russia, there's a shared perception of threats, and if there are disputes these should be seen as secondary to the interests...
Rasmussen: No, not secondary. Don't make any mistake. I stick to basic principles on respect for the territorial integrity of Georgia and other countries....
RFE/RL: This is what I wanted to get at. What happened with Georgia?
Rasmussen: I stick to the principle of an open-door policy, and the open-door policy will continue. And no country outside NATO can veto NATO decisions on enlargement. I stick to these principles. So, they are not subordinated.
But, what I say is, having said all that and sticking to all that, it should not overshadow that we still have common interests in other areas and that we should focus on practical cooperation in these areas. And this is also the reason why I have launched the idea to elaborate a joint NATO-Russia review of 21st-century threats and challenges, and map out where we see areas of common interest, and then develop practical cooperation in these areas.
So, you might say we consider [principles and interests] equally. We have our discussions. Let's continue our discussions. But, at the same time, we should cooperate in a practical way where we see mutual benefits.
RFE/RL: But if Georgia wasn't enough, what will it take for NATO to put values above interests?
Rasmussen: We base our alliance on values, and this is the reason why the Bucharest summit back in 2008 clearly stated that Georgia and Ukraine will become members of NATO -- provided, of course, they fulfill the necessary criteria. [NATO] membership is not guaranteed [automatically]. It's a possibility, if they fulfill the necessary criteria.
Working With U.S. In Afghanistan
RFE/RL: Moving on to Afghanistan: Given the controversy surrounding U.S. Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal's report, and the way the center of gravity of the debate on the country's future has shifted to Washington over the past year, do you, as secretary-general of NATO, feel you're still in control?
Rasmussen: Yes, the alliance as such stands united. We have initiated parallel processes in Washington and in Brussels. We consult on a regular basis. So, I think we are moving forward together. It is premature now to make any final judgment. We are currently reviewing the McChrystal assessment, but I feel confident that in some weeks' time we will be ready to take the final decisions.
RFE/RL: So there is no separation between your position and that of the United States?
Rasmussen: I visited Washington recently, I had an opportunity to discuss these issues with the president, with the secretary of state, [Hillary] Clinton, the secretary of defense, [Robert] Gates. So -- I feel well-informed about the American considerations.
RFE/RL: Do you have a vision of Afghanistan, say in five or 10 years' time? Do you have any red lines that must not be crossed by the authorities there?
Rasmussen: Well, our clear goal is to ensure that Afghanistan will not, once again, become a safe haven for terrorists. And my criterion of success is to ensure that Afghans lead responsibility across the board, from security to development. And security-wise, it means to hand over responsibility for security to the Afghans themselves, province by province, as the capacity of their security forces develops."
RFE/RL: Human rights, women's rights, democracy -- are any of these important enough to function as red lines?
Rasmussen: We must hold the Afghan government accountable to international obligations, including human rights.
This is the reason why I am in favor of organizing an international conference in which we can renew the contract between the international community and the Afghan government, and make sure that the new Afghan government understands that it is a prerequisite for a continued international commitment to continued development in Afghanistan. It's a prerequisite for contributions to Afghanistan that they fulfill these requirements, that they pursue good governance, step up their fight against corruption, and comply with their human rights obligations, including, of course, women's rights.