Home Features An interview with Jamie Shea: Negotiating with NATO

An interview with Jamie Shea: Negotiating with NATO


Rory Morgan and Emma Thomas, Features Editors, chat with NATO’s Jamie Shea about global security, political rhetoric and getting drunk at university

You could hardly blame us for feeling a little bit intimidated. Sitting across from us was Jamie Shea, or the Deputy
Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges for NATO, to be more precise. Jamie has come to the
University to give a talk intending to ‘analyse the situation’ of global affairs and answer the question: ‘is it as bad as it looks?’ regarding international security threats.

Shea opens by reflecting on the three moments that have stood out during his career at NATO. “The first thing was when I was the spokesman of NATO back in the ‘90s, in my younger, slimmer days. I had to step up to the plate during the Kosovo crisis when suddenly NATO was under intense media pressure; and this conflict went on for 78 days, which was 77 days longer than anybody had anticipated.

“The second thing is that I did a lot of work in writing NATO’s new strategic concept back in 2010. Normally when you write this kind of thing it ends up in a waste paper basket, but this time no! It actually got through the NATO bureaucracy and was adopted by the NATO government and is still the basis of NATO strategy.

“The third thing is that for all of my career I have been teaching about NATO in various universities and now many of my former students are ambassadors who are colonels in the armed forces, who are involved in think-tanks and international organisations. I feel that, in a modest way, I have been able to at least ensure that when I pass into that great bureaucratic sky, at least I’ve left a generation of people who areinterested in security issues.”

With such a senior representative of NATO sat across from us, we had to ask the obvious question. Should we be worried about another Cold War with Russia? “I think that the Cold War as we knew it won’t come back for the following reasons: Russia does not have a messianic ideology like the Soviets had, which was followed by millions of people around the world. Russia is a great power, but it is a lonely great power.

“That said, you could have something that would resemble a mini Cold War. Not globally, but in certain regions where Russia is applying military force. Russia is also heavily dependant on international trade and commerce – much more so than the Soviet Union. My hope is that economic pressures will oblige Russia to come back to a form of more cooperative international behaviour. We may have some stormy weather in the immediate future, however.”

Economic sanctions are a common course of action, so Shea’s attitude was far from surprising. We wanted to know, however, what it took for further action to be applied. “Obviously we have to make sure that there is a big distinction between Russia threatening countries which are not part of NATO” (Shea is quick to add he condemns this) “and Russia being able to threaten countries which are part of NATO, because NATO countries have a legally binding security guarantee. An attack on one NATO country is an attack on everybody and will be met with a response. I also believe that once we have established that that guarantee is credible, Russia will begin to negotiate again.”

Highlighting the finding in 2010 that the world’s military spending was made up by 70 per cent NATO country members (and gaining a shocked response of “you’ve done your homework!”), we were quick to ask if this was a necessary expenditure.

“The US is approximately 50 per cent of that total and has been historically. A lot of that spending doesn’t go specifically to NATO; it goes to the personnel dealing with Ebola and forces in Iraq dealing with the problem of the Islamic State for example. What the Europeans spend is far less impressive.”

Shea, however, does not shy away from a somewhat critical stance of the organisation’s expenditure. “We in NATO don’t spend our money very wisely, because a lot of this money spent goes towards duplication. In Europe we have four different types of fighter aircraft, we have four different types of battle tanks, we have seventeen different types of armoured personnel carriers.”

Quick to criticise Euro-sceptics, Shea also praises the advantages of free movement in Europe. “I don’t for one minute buy into this narrative of the Polish plumber taking away our jobs. It’s complete nonsense. The Polish plumber has vastly improved our lives everywhere.”

He does, however, concede some of the current difficulties that come with new members joining NATO. “It’s more difficult now, as both NATO and the EU have certain standards and conditions you have to meet before you can be ready to join.”

With NATO now being forced to work in the unpredictable region that is the Middle East, we were keen to find out how the organisation has adapted to working in this atmosphere. “The entire region is in turmoil. The CIA has counted 1,400 different Jihadist groups, and new ones are springing up every week. One minute they’re fighting each other; the next minute they’re declaring peace. It’s a moving picture, borders are open. What can we do? The first thing is that where states are functioning we need to help them. In Iraq it’s very important to get the moderates to start working together. Also, we must help them to rebuild their economies. We must also try to bring the major countries together with us in a kind of coalition. Somehow we’ve got to try and get the major players together against the common threat.”

But even with a wealth of knowledge on international relations, Shea admits that there are no automatic solutions.
“Henry Kissinger famously said: ‘the beginning of wisdom in international relations is when you realise there are no solutions to problems.’ Now, I wouldn’t be that pessimistic, but I would certainly say there are no easy solutions. This is going to take a long time, and it’s going to take a lot of engagement.”

Shea offered a refreshingly pragmatic perspective concerning how public figures can counter terrorist propaganda, whilst avoiding contributing to the Islamophobia and heightened tensions that some have in part attributed to the ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric of Bush and his contemporaries.

“That’s something I learned when I was NATO’s spokesman – you have to be careful about language. The easiest way to have an enemy is to call someone an enemy. “One shouldn’t do anything that plays into the narrative of terrorists. You only glorify them in their own self-image.”

At the time of writing, as Shea pointed out, over 3,000 Europeans have gone overseas to join extremist organisations. “That’s quite enormous,” he comments. “What do they find attractive about the ISIS narrative of chopping people’s heads off that would make them want to risk it all? We need to engage the families and communities where these people come from,” he continues. “We should focus our efforts at understanding why the other guy’s narrative has this magnetism and we need to effectively deconstruct extremist narratives, more than trying to use our own slogans.”

Shea himself is no stranger to seeing his words backfire. Harking back to the late 1990s, Shea defended his
controversial claim that Kosovan civilian tragedies were a ‘necessary evil.’ “You’re under a lot of pressure at the time. I’m not trying to make you feel sorry for me,” he quickly insists. “But because NATO made some mistakes, there was a sense among some of the public that if any civilians got caught up in it you should just stop immediately.

“I had to try to make the case why as much as [civilian casualty] would be regretful, the bigger objective of stopping the fighting was going to save a lot more lives in the longer run. Whether or not I succeeded, I don’t know.”

When we shared with Shea a quote from a Syrian refugee who claimed that less people would have joined IS had the West intervened earlier, he argued that NATO’s caution was necessary. “In any intervention, you always have the sin of commission – I went in and caused a lot of damage; or the sin of omission – I didn’t go in. In the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, a lot of people were saying these interventions were a waste of time. And then you get Syria and the pendulum swings right to the other extreme.

Shea recognised the complexities of IS, but passionately rejects the notion that their bureaucratic systems could allow them to be considered a ‘state,’ albeit fundamentalist. “The techniques they use, of extreme ethnic violence, the capture and mistreatment of women, beheading, propaganda… have all the hallmarks of a terrorist organisation. The last thing we want to do is dignify them by suggesting that they are some kind of government.

“But they are certainly not Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda was essentially trying to hurt the West; Islamic State is primarily concerned about seizing land in the region. “Islamic State is more open [than Al Qaeda]; they have over 30,000 fighters from 80 countries. But, besides the brutality of the tactics, which I believe will eventually turn people against them, size could be their weakness.”

Despite the Snowden leaks that have problematised the claim of governmental honesty, Shea remained adamant that NATO is honouring its 2010 public transparency reform. “There’s not much about NATO that I know that a good journalist doesn’t. We take the policy that if we can’t defend it in public, we shouldn’t be doing it.”

This conscientiousness, Shea attests, is necessary of us all in the modern age. “When I was at university I used to go out on a Friday evening, have a few beers and do silly things on the bar without fear that anyone would snap it. The age of absolute right of privacy has gone, and we have to adjust our behaviour accordingly.”

Although the brutal tactics of the IS have shocked communities across the world, Shea identified the use of social media as one of their most frightening weapons. “Things go viral before you can even contain it, which can cause violent demonstrations. The Internet is almost impossible to shut down – that’s good, particularly when combating dictatorship; but the disadvantage is that if you start censoring, new sites come up all the time.

“Instead of relying upon the technological medium to transmit our values, we’ve got to put the message on the medium, and make the defence of Western liberalism seem as ‘cool’ as the idea of overthrowing Western democracy.”

As our 50 minute interview drew to a close, with Shea’s manager calmly sipping his Costa smoothie, Shea left us to ponder one final thought that is perhaps a fitting message for the present international climate. “We live in an age of anger. We’re all angry. But anger is not a weapon; it’s not a solution to anything. So we need to make the Internet an effective medium for a rather more boring message – one of participation, relativism, democracy and tolerance.”

Rory Morgan and Emma Thomas, Print Features Editors

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