This week marks the annual NATO ministerial meeting in Washington, when foreign ministers from the Alliance’s 29 members convene to discuss shared security threats. It also marks the 70th anniversary of NATO itself: a milestone that has been met with both celebration of NATO’s past and trepidation about its future.
One of the foreign ministers in town this week is Lithuania’s Linas Linkevičius, a seasoned diplomat who has long argued for a tougher line on Russia and for prioritizing the fight against disinformation. Charles Davidson, Publisher of The American Interest, and TAI Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Gedmin recently sat down with the Foreign Minister to discuss the state of the NATO alliance at a time of profound uncertainty. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Charles Davidson for TAI: I’ve known you for many years as a strong defender of Western values, and I remember an incident about four years ago when you were speaking at a think tank in Washington. In the Q&A at the end, a young man from the Russian Embassy stood up and disputed what was really happening in Ukraine. You spoke to him directly, first debunking his claims, and then saying that he must know in his heart that what he said was completely inaccurate. And he sat down with no rejoinder.
Linas Linkevičius: No one supported him, that’s right. Although there were other people from the Embassy present, I remember.
TAI: Let’s start by talking about that incident, and about culture. Lithuania has a strong culture of freedom and democracy. But when we look at the broader arc of Eastern Europe, we see big differences in how committed people are to liberty. How do you view this issue of culture in Eastern Europe, and how can Lithuania be a leader, encouraging others to follow your example?
LL: It’s not a question unique to Eastern Europe. This applies to Western Europe, as well. We talk a lot about “resilience” nowadays—it’s a popular word, and it has to do with information. If people are informed, they are more resilient. If people are not informed, they really have no immunity to disinformation.
We had a hard time explaining this to our allies in 2013, when we held the presidency of the European Union Council. For instance, we said that we had to take this counter-propaganda issue very seriously. It was not understood. Many colleagues said, “No, we’re not going to do European propaganda. We’re not going to do censorship and prohibitions.” And we said, “No, we are not calling for that. We are just asking that you take these propaganda attacks seriously.” If you’re brainwashing people, it’s a very efficient weapon. And you can prepare people to be demotivated during elections and referendums.
Now we have some movement on this issue. We have the East StratCom Task Force in the European External Action Service. Next year its budget will be increased. We have the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga. I still believe we need more interaction within NATO because we all face the same challenges, the same sources of disinformation. We’re not necessarily trying to lead on this issue, as you said, but these developments do make us feel better.
You used the word “debunk,” which reminds me of something else. We have a great resource that was recently mentioned in the Financial Times: Debunk.eu. This is a Lithuanian platform run by journalists that involves media, smart software solutions, IT solutions, and even artificial intelligence. They’re screening about 10,000 articles per day in real time, and debunking fake news. I’m really proud of this initiative because it shows that it’s not just government that should play a role here, but also ordinary people, journalists, and NGOs. They’re doing this on their own time, for free, because they’re so enthusiastic. This is an example of resilience, and it works.
You mentioned this one Russian guy at the think tank. I also once participated in a discussion with Russia Today journalists, and I talked to them in the same way. I said, “You are deliberately lying. You know that there are Russian soldiers on Ukrainian soil, but on your channel, you are saying something else. So why are you doing this? Do you really believe it? No.”
If you are deliberately spreading lies, this is not an alternative point of view. This is not freedom of expression. It takes time to learn this lesson. So to get back to your question, we do not think that we are smarter than others on this issue—but maybe we have more experience.
I still remember, let me remind you, how dramatic the events of January 1991 were. I remember the victims by the television tower [when Soviet soldiers fired on crowds of civilians in Vilnius – ed.]. And in the Soviet Union, they couldn’t show this on TV. If there was no CNN or BBC coverage, it would have been lost, and nobody would know what happened. That experience of so many years ago showed us how this fake news works, how powerful it is. We needed no persuading that we should take this threat seriously. But it takes time to explain to allies and partners.
TAI: Some Americans look at the world and see China, Iran, North Korea, and a host of domestic challenges, and they ask, “when it comes to Russia and Eastern Europe, what’s wrong with the idea of letting America step back and the European Union step forward?” How would you respond, Minister?
And second, about President Trump specifically. There’s one group that notes his peculiar fondness for Vladimir Putin, and another that says, “But you know what? On Eastern Europe, in practice, he’s been better than Obama.” What are your thoughts?
LL: On your second question, yes, I’m always saying, “Let’s judge by the developments on the ground—what is visible, what is tangible.” So, as an example, we have these Enhanced Forward Presence troops in the Baltic states and Poland. 1,500 is really not a big number. But it’s a strong multinational message to the world and to the framework nation, Germany. For them it was a big deal. There is a clear U.S. presence, a clear U.S. engagement, resources and money being allocated.
So I really would like to distinguish between rhetoric and what is happening on the ground. There is a real predictability and continuity to U.S. policy on the ground. And we have to behave ourselves, too. I’m so happy that my country’s a member of this 2 percent co-op [NATO members spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defense – ed.], and it’s meaningfully supported across our whole political spectrum. It’s sustainable, and we will increase to 2.5 percent by 2030, by agreement between our political parties.
It’s not just numbers that are important. We are strong supporters of cohesion between the European Union and NATO. We want to have interactive policies. We want to see mutually complementary relations, rather than competition.
But let’s take rhetoric, which is also important. We are now undergoing a stress test of Transatlantic unity. And there are some not-so helpful calls in Europe to discuss a European army, which is meaningless. There is nothing here. That’s an example of something that creates ambiguity, uncertainty, or mistrust in the United States.
And then there are the rumors that the United States might eventually leave NATO. This doesn’t help, either, because then the forces who speak for autonomy in Europe get louder, and say, “You see, they’re discussing this option, so we have to go our own way.” And they don’t want to support each other. This would be extremely detrimental to the fate of liberal democracy in the world. If Euro-Atlantic unity is shattered, it will cause tremendous damage.
But again I say, let’s not judge just by personalities or tweets. Let’s judge by developments on the ground and let’s focus on what we have to do ourselves.
On China, Iran, and North Korea, the European and American positions should match more. The last example was more or less positive. And Venezuela? The Americans made a decision, the Europeans discussed it, and the majority of us decided to support the Interim President. This was exactly the kind of cooperation we would like to see. If that would happen with regard to Iran, it would be good. China, as well.
China is emerging as a global player. This didn’t start yesterday. There’s nothing surprising here. They have huge potential. It’s also not a secret they try to intervene into strategic sectors of the economy. By the way, we cannot neglect Russian and Chinese naval exercises in the Baltic Sea. This had never happened before, until a few years ago.
You’re right that if some player leaves the region, somebody else will return. But I do not think it will be the Europeans, unfortunately. We have to be more active in solving international conflicts and managing crises. We, the European Union, have potential to do more, but we’re not doing it. And this is another problem. So when the Americans are leaving, like in Syria, they should understand that Iran and Russia will take over, and we all know the results. So these are really quite unwelcome developments.
TAI: You said Lithuania is a member of the 2 percent club. When we Americans are not in the room, and you Europeans are talking to those who are not members of the 2 percent club, what is that conversation like?
LL: We have such conversations, but those conversations have deeper roots. It has to do with history. When Western Europe was quite well developed and secure, people had to be convinced that they should spend more on defense. And in countries that have a relatively high GDP, this poses a very big challenge. For Germany or the Netherlands, 2 percent is really big money. I’m not trying to defend their position, but just trying to say that this is not so simple.
Believe me, I am saying to my colleagues that we have to deliver, because otherwise we will undermine trust. We will provide unnecessary arguments for opponents. That’s true. But we are talking about this in context, and also inviting Americans to talk more about output efficiency and not just these sacred numbers. You can spend resources, but it’s more important how you’re spending these resources. You can create autonomous structures or do something nationally with no thought toward collective gain or filling real gaps in capabilities. This is wrong. Output efficiency is important.
And in the same context, pragmatically speaking, you have to respect the taxpayer’s money. People paying taxes want to see results. First of all, it’s not a secret that they need to have health care and education, especially if you’re living in a secure environment like Western Europe. And why should you steal resources from health care to pay for something else whose purpose is not clear? So it takes time to explain to the public that you should also share some responsibility and sacrifice something for the common good.
In the course of these discussions, I often mention Judy Dempsey, who has written about this at Carnegie. Some time ago, when Americans allocated resources for Germany to get back on its feet, it was so the Germans would take responsibility on their own. And that was understandable at the time. Later, this idea disappeared, and the security felt like a given.
It will not come tomorrow, it will not come soon, but this is a gap of understanding that should be filled. And we would be happy to play a role here.
TAI: You’re right that there can be an absurd quality to the debate if we just focus on spending, if everybody is buying different equipment and there isn’t interoperability. Could Lithuania could play more of a leadership role on that issue? At the EU level, how do you ensure there’s some intelligence and coordination in defense purchases?
LL: This is a matter for big dealers, basically. We are not the country that will make a difference here. But I can provide you a relevant story. You probably know that there is a European Defense Agency in the European Union.
I was Defense Minister when we were discussing the name of this new agency. There were two camps at that time. One wanted to call it the European Procurement Agency, the other was for the European Capabilities Agency. We were members of that second camp, the UK and us. We knew we needed capabilities to contribute to and supplement our defense. And some were more focused on procurement preferences that are economic, let us say. As a result of that fight, we established the European Defense Agency. That was a kind of compromise.
But these people are still alive, you know? Those who were discussing and competing with us. And that explains certain aspects of the debate. So we would like to play a role in this debate, and we will make our positions clear, but, unfortunately, those big dealers who have huge resources, who are buying fighters, missiles, and other capabilities, are engaged here too. They should understand that cohesion is more important than national, narrow interests.
TAI: Six months ago, supporters of Donald Trump and his Europe policy would assure people by saying, “There are a lot of Atlanticists in this administration: General McMaster, General Kelly, General Mattis, Wess Mitchell.” Now they’re all gone. How do you interpret that? Is that a cause for concern?
LL: Sure, the world is concerned. But we cannot pre-judge. We don’t know what will happen, who will replace whom, and what kind of continuity there will be in Congress and the Administration. And, frankly, there’s a lot at stake, and I do not believe it’s so easy to change course. I hope. But these last developments you mentioned are really concerning, because I believe it’s a big loss to Transatlantic unity, cohesion, and practical deliverables. Let’s hope it will not be worse, but we will wait and see.
During recent discussions, we’ve sometimes said that there are not so many at home in this Administration. All the acting and temporary officials—this is not a good sign. It would be good to have more clarity here.
TAI: You’ve been Lithuania’s Defense Minister, Ambassador to NATO, and Foreign Minister, and over the years you’ve developed a very good relationship with Angela Merkel. She will leave office soon, and German politics are very fluid. What hopes and concerns do you have about a post-Merkel Germany?
LL: There are concerns. Frankly, it’s a matter of leadership in Europe. We need leaders who are able to lead—not just to respond, to defend, or to clarify when something happens, but to lead. And Chancellor Merkel still is one of a few who are doing this. So this is a big loss.
Who will come next is difficult to say. There will be elections in Germany in 2021, and who knows who these alternative forces will be. And before that there are the elections in the European Parliament, which are coming up soon. Predictions say that there will be less success for traditional forces and that radicals or populists will take over. That’s also a situation of great uncertainty.
This is a crisis of leadership, and when these crises emerge in history, usually somebody steps up. Somebody tries to lead. We desperately need these people. If not, the fate of alliances and liberal democracy will not be a given. When I’m asked if I am confident about the future, well, I have to say that I’m really not. I’m not confident. It has to be fought for, now.