James Appathurai

James Appathurai is the former Spokesperson for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He currently serves as the NATO Secretary-General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia.


NATO’s most controversial relationship is with Russia; it’s obviously been strained with the Libya experience and missile defense. Can you bring our viewers up to speed with those two issues and in a broader context?

Let me start with the broader relationship. We’ve actually built over the last few years quite a good framework for cooperation. We have a permanent NATO-Russia council and a whole substructure of committees that work on all sorts of things in terms of industrial cooperation, counterterrorism, and on missile defense. Particularly on missile defense relating to our troops, if they were to deploy together how they would protect themselves against an incoming, what we call a theatre missile, a local missile? So we have a lot going on. We have regular political discussions. I think people easily forget how bad it was before and don’t really necessarily see how much we’ve built. But you’re absolutely right. Missile defense is a big irritant. And, in essence, what the Russians want is a guarantee that our system won’t threaten their ability to use their nuclear deterrent. Our system can’t, for technical and numerical reasons, threaten their deterrent; but they want legal guarantees, which are basically politically impossible to get through any kind of parliament.

We’re trying to offer them other systems of cooperation so that we can link up the systems that will give them the assurances they want. And I’m confident that we can get there because as I said, technically we can’t threaten them and we’ll find a way, but it might take some time. Libya was, in a sense, just as much as a political problem. For many in Russia, from the way I see it; it gave them the impression that NATO was going to go knocking off regimes we didn’t like. What we were actually doing was implementing a UN Security Council resolution, which called for protection of civilians. In the end, it was the Libyans who deposed Qaddafi and then he died. But it sort of confirmed Russian concerns or paranoia about where NATO might go. So we need to keep reassuring the Russians that NATO remains a transatlantic organization, it remains very committed to the UN charter and the UN principles, and it remains pretty much entirely about our NATO territory and values.

So what’s the way forward? We have a new Russian ambassador and we’re going to work with him and the new Russian president, who’s also the old Russian president, to build up more trust. I think the essence of it is trust. We have a lot of cooperation we do, a lot more we can do. But we need the trust and that’s something we can only build step-by-step.

Are there any concrete plans to move forward with missile defense? Are there any locations selected or any details that are on the table?

I mean, there are two tracks. There’s the NATO missile defense system. That’s being built. By 2020 or so, we’re going to have European missile defense to protect European territory and populations because over thirty countries have or are developing ballistic missiles and we have an obligation to defend ourselves. But what we want to make sure is that our cooperation with the Russia system doesn’t get too far left behind. So we’re going to work hard on that. We’ve proposed to Russia to build two centers – one for data exchange and one for coordination of response. And we think that if they agree to that, they’ll have all the confidence they need; they’ll be inside the tent. They’re not quite ready for that, but we’ll keep working on offering them what they need, that’s sort of the essence of it. We also cooperate a lot on Afghanistan, and that’s going to be a shared duty, a shared responsibility for quite some time, even as our mission evolves. So I think we’ll have plenty to do as long as the trust is there.

What happens after the operation ends, in terms of engagement with Libya? Does that take part within the Mediterranean Dialogue? Is NATO working directly with Libya?

With regard to Libya, Libya certainly needs a lot of help to build the institutions that provide for security and governance in a country because they’re starting basically from scratch. The UN is taking the lead now, and they’re working closely with the European Union. We’ve provided a little bit of guidance when it comes to how you set up security structures. But the bottom line is that Libyans have not asked to join our partnership framework; our Mediterranean dialogue. And the reason they haven’t asked is – and this is what they’ve told us – is that they only had an interim government.

Now they’ve had elections, and the government that’s there has legitimacy for foreign policy decisions like that. So they need to bed down and figure out what they want to do. If they choose to join the Mediterranean dialogue, we’ll welcome them with open arms – that’s quite clear. And that will unlock a really broad range of expertise and tools that NATO has to help countries transition to modern, affordable, democratic, transparent, non-corrupt security structures that can provide security. We did it with Central and Eastern Europe. Of course, Libya is not Central or Eastern Europe, but there’s a lot of expertise built up here and we can offer it, in the right framework, under UN lead. But they have to ask, and so far they haven’t.

What are some of the short-term objectives of the Mediterranean Dialogue?

The Mediterranean dialogue comprises six North African countries and Israel, and it’s a great framework because it brings them all together –and it brings them all together with us. That’s actually quite unique, and there’s nothing else quite like it. And it’s still working, even the multilateral aspect of it. We have meetings with the six Arab countries and Israel, and it’s not easy to get all of those countries together around the same table.

On the bilateral front, we cooperate on a regular basis as well – we have priorities in terms of reform and we help them. The region is going through quite some turbulence, and I think everyone knows that. An important country like Egypt, for example, is going through a transition process, which means that cooperation with NATO isn’t always first on their agenda.

But, steadily, we are working on two things. One is our bilateral practical cooperation, and that’s happening. And secondly, we’re looking to put the whole Mediterranean Dialogue onto a new framework, and we’re negotiating with all the countries – that is, the NATO countries and the seven Mediterranean Dialogue countries to set up new principles for cooperation, and I hope that will be done before the end of the year.

What are some of the efforts you’re undertaking in terms of partnerships with patrolling the Gulf of Aiden, working on the east coast of Africa? Are there any plans for NATO to start addressing some of the wider terrorism security threats that are emerging from western Africa?

That’s a very good question. First, I would say the U.S. and the EU are probably the most engaged in that region. It’s sort of a bit out of NATO’s patrolling territory. However, we are concerned about the piracy problem and concerned about supporting the African Union and dealing with problems inside of Africa, and in particular in the region.

So for quite some years now, we’ve been supporting the African Union when it comes to Somalia – bringing troops in and out, providing technical expertise. I expect that to continue for a few years at least, though that decision hasn’t been taken. We have ships off the coast patrolling alongside the EU, alongside a whole number of other countries, to fight piracy. Actually that’s working not just because of what NATO’s doing, but because of what everyone’s doing – and that includes the shipping countries. The incidents of successful pirate attacks have gone down quite substantially. So I think that’s actually something we can say is a success, but we need to keep doing.

The larger issue you hit was a really important one. The whole Sahel region is suffering and will suffer more from small arms that are just proliferating everywhere, from a lack of effective governance; which means extremist organizations, terrorist organizations can find safe haven there. Criminal organizations flow in as well, which means drug trafficking. So the whole security community is focusing in on this region. I’m not saying NATO necessarily will get engaged, but the fact that the EU now is taking a more active role is very good. The fact that the U.S. now is taking a more active role is very good. And one of the first issues we have to assess is how to manage the proliferation of small arms. What’s happening in Mali is directly related to the fall of Qaddafi. All these weapons got into the hands of the wrong people and they’re carrying out operations that they wouldn’t have been able to carry out before, and that’s a problem. Unfortunately in the security world, you never see a whole world at peace, and this region is a new problem.

 Critics have different opinions on the roles both the EU and NATO should play. What kind of challenges does that present?

You’ve correctly characterized the problem. There’s a lot of views on what the EU should do, and what NATO should do, and how they go together. I’d say eight years ago, the concern here at NATO was that the EU might be too strong – duplicating what NATO does, diverting resources away. I think that was the concern of the U.S. as well.

The concern now is that the EU won’t be strong enough. We need the EU to have effective capability. We want the EU to be able to deal with regions like the Sahel; not excluding that NATO might have a role there one day, I don’t know. But now the EU is engaged and the more effective they are at solving that, the better it is for us. NATO cannot be everywhere. We have a hundred and twenty thousand troops in Afghanistan, we’ve got troops in Kosovo, we’ve got ships off the coast of Somalia, et cetera. There’s only so much we can handle.

Secondly, if the EU is effective at developing capabilities, because we have twenty one common members, their capabilities can also be put at the disposal of NATO. So there’s a real mutual benefit. If the EU develops, for example, strategic transport capability and unmanned vehicle capability – I just picked things – that’s great for us as well. What we don’t want to see is unnecessary duplication, and the Secretary General expressed some concerns about separate EU planning. We have a system by which the EU has access to the NATO planning systems for military operations. We have the most robust, most sophisticated, most experienced planning system in the world, and we hand it over to the EU when they need it. Our deputy operational commander is also their deputy operational commander. That works just fine.

So it can come up with arrangements like that; avoiding unnecessary duplication, but having the EU duplicate where it makes sense – i.e., developing more capabilities. It’ll be good for transatlantic relations because it’ll neuter or diminish the criticism from the U.S. that the EU is not pulling its weight.

How do we get there? In a time when the EU is taking billions out of its defense budgets, it’s very important that there’s a strategy where everyone is not just cutting in every direction.

We at NATO are promoting something we call “Smart Defense” – key projects prioritized with cooperation, joint procurement, and what we call “connected forces,” which is enhancing the interoperability between our forces so they can all work better together. To the extent that the EU is following similar pooling and sharing ideas, we think that makes sense as well. The key is that the two organizations can talk and not duplicate each other, and we are working to make sure that doesn’t happen.