Interview series: International Security in 2021

Unfiltered Voices founder Ilayda Nijhar spoke with Bruno Lete, Senior Security & Defence Fellow at the German Marshall Fund and Board Advisor at Unfiltered Voices, about international security issues for 2021. This interview was conducted remotely on January 19th 2021.

– In your opinion, what are the top 3 security issues for 2021?

The impact of Covid-19 and its implications on our economic security will remain a key issue for 2021. Covid will continue to put a huge strain on economies, budgets, and also the geopolitical power of countries. The first country which will overcome the damage caused by Covid will have a comparative advantage over other countries. Therefore, 2021 will be a race to see which country overcomes Covid which will in turn provide them with a comparative advantage in geopolitics.

China – US relations. The competition and rivalry between both countries is widening in different domains and is no longer limited to the economic field but also the military and Cyberspace. This also feeds into the wider struggle of which country will dominate the 21st century. The US-China relationship also impacts Europe and we (Europeans) feel that we can shape our own relationship with China, as with the EU recently singing a new investment agreement with China. Overall, however, whatever happens between the US and China will also impact Europe. The struggle between the two powers will have a global impact and further developments can be expected in 2021.

And what would you say is the third key issue?

The third key issue for 2021 would be digital security. Technology is evolving at such a fast pace and we are witnessing more and more activity in the Cyberspace. Cyber attacks, hacks, leaks are all becoming more sophisticated in nature and increasing in number. Interestingly, when looking at the latest digital reports, governments and states are still the biggest cyber actors of our day due to the infinite amount of resources they have resulting in malicious behaviour in the Cyberspace. This problem will clearly continue and increase in 2021.

– What does the Biden administration mean for European security? Do you think it will it be a reset of transatlantic relations?

When looking at Biden, the tone and attitude on transatlantic issues will most definitely change. The Biden administration will embrace multilateralism which will bring the US in line with European aims. This will be overall a positive development which the Europeans will very much welcome. But we also need to be realistic, Biden will not generate tectonic shifts in transatlantic relations. There has been much damage caused over the past 4-5 years and there is a real trust deficit from the European side towards the US. Moreover, Europeans are also aware that much of US foreign policy will reflect domestic politics given the Republican trends have not disappeared in the US. This will in turn inevitably have an influence on US foreign policy. 

All aside, there will be a more positive tone in transatlantic relations. But this is not to say there will not be challenges. Biden will most likely have comparable policies as the Trump administration towards China. Similarly, China will also continue to be a major point of disagreement between the EU and US. If we compare this to when Obama came in 2009, there was much hope but we quickly understood that it wasn’t the honeymoon we were hoping for. The reality is that the US is a global power and global powers have global interests. US foreign policy will be focussed much more on Asia with less attention towards Europe. Having said that, Europe also has developed its own interests over the past years. This will be a trend that Europeans will want to uphold as well as demonstrate that it can stand alone and not necessarily always be dependent on the transatlantic bond. So all in all, yes, the relationship will be better than the past 4-5 years, but that is not to say it will be a honeymoon.

– Do you think NATO’s position in the world will strengthen or decline in 2021?

There are two issues which shape NATO’s position: internal and external factors. External factors refer to the extent to which countries such as China and Russia can put a strain on NATO’s position with internal factors referring to how much unity there is between transatlantic countries inside NATO. I believe it is the leadership of Europe and North America inside the alliance which will define NATO’s position. If both sides of the Atlantic can keep their unity then NATO’s position will remain strong and adapt to the challenges it faces. It will not be China or Russia which will decide the future of NATO. It is us, the transatlantic community, that needs to show unity otherwise we risk facing some serious problems. Having said that, Biden has stated on numerous occasions that he wants to strengthen US relations with NATO and I think this can be seen as good news for the alliance in 2021.

– What security related issue is overlooked in your opinion which needs to be focussed on in 2021?

Speaking as a European, I believe a real generational problem for Europeans lies in Africa. There are many trends in Africa which will impact European security ranging from climate change, changing demographics and economic issues. All of these challenges are resulting in much instability across the African continent. And Europe cannot turn a blind eye to Africa as whatever happens there will undoubtedly have an impact on European security. And this is not just for immigration issues but also when considering Africa a major source of raw materials. We need to seriously consider all of these things as Europeans, but we currently are not. The right thing to do right now would be to invest resources into stabilising countries in Africa. Perhaps we will not feel that impact in 2021 but in the long-term we most certainly will. 

– Do you think more could be done to attract young people to the security field?

The security field is a traditional field with limited capacity for jobs which I do not think will change radically anytime soon. I truly believe in the entrepreneurial spirit which young people have which they can utilise to their own advantage, quite like what is being done at Unfiltered Voices. The think tank scene tends to be dominated by traditional players but there are still many gaps in the market to fill which is where I believe young people have a role to play. Unfiltered Voices is a clear example of how to do things and to make your voice heard while also building your own credibility. Young people need to go out of their comfort zone and make opportunities for themselves; and I would encourage them to get involved with platforms such as Unfiltered Voices to better their chances of working and setting a foot in the security field.

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