COVID-19: Interview with Karl A. Lamers on Alliance unity, political dialogue, and NATO adaptation as crucial crisis management tools

13 May 2020

Germany has contributed to Allied and partner efforts in the COVID-19 crisis, primarily through medical evacuation and providing intensive care beds, and continues increasing its capabilities to manage health emergencies. In this interview, Karl A. Lamers, NATO PA Vice-President and Head of the German Delegation to the Assembly, discusses Germany’s and NATO’s response to COVID-19, the crisis’ geopolitical aspects, strengthening NATO’s political role, and the importance of political dialogue in crisis times.

Four questions with Karl A. Lamers:

I.    Allied efforts to provide resources and humanitarian assistance to the hardest-hit countries have been critical to help Allies and partners cope with this unprecedented crisis. Could you tell us how Germany has used NATO structures to help others and how Germany has benefitted from other Allies’ help over the course of the crisis?

Although NATO has not been the first responder in the current COVID crisis, it has employed its existing tools and mechanisms for disaster relief most effectively. Especially, the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Relief Coordination Centre (EADRCC) with its clearinghouse function has been key to these efforts. Until today, a broad number of Allies have utilised the EADRCC to channel and coordinate the flow of international assistance. 

Amongst these Allies, Germany has contributed primarily through medical evacuation and intensive care beds, and it is currently increasing the respective capabilities by installing additional intensive care kits in transport airplanes and helicopters. For example, the German military forces transferred 22 heavy COVID cases from Italy (with four AIRMEDEVAC flights between 28 March and 3 April) to intensive care treatment in German hospitals, and more than 70 transfers took place from France. Medical evacuation was offered also to Spain. 

Among other support to Allied and partner nations through the EADRCC: 7 tonnes of medical equipment and material from Germany arrived in Italy on the weekend of the 21-22 March, including 300 ventilators, and on 3 April, two Spanish military aircraft flew from Hamburg to Torrejón airport to deliver 50 ventilators sent by the German government as part of the ongoing collective effort by NATO Allies against the global COVID pandemic. Furthermore, also brokered by the EADRCC, Germany gave EUR 40 000 to the Infectious Diseases Clinic, the Karil Clinic, and the Neurology Clinic of North Macedonia for treating COVID-19 infected patients (delivered on 27 March). 

So far, Germany has not solicited international assistance, neither bilaterally nor through the EADRCC.

 II.    What additional steps should NATO and Allied armed forces take to support the national and international response to the COVID-19 crisis? 

Allied military forces and NATO assist the states in important key areas during the COVID-19 crisis. Military forces from across the Alliance provide support with logistics and planning, medical supply and expertise, as well as transport for patients and citizens abroad. There have been numerous missions to airlift medical personnel and supplies, to construct field hospitals, and to provide treatment beds. The EADRCC, as NATO’s principal civil emergency response mechanism in the Euro-Atlantic area, plays an important role in supporting the Allies by coordinating requests for help and assisting to cope with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mutual assistance must be maintained and, where possible, expanded. NATO should prepare for a possible second wave of COVID 19 to enable a coordinated response.

III.    The Alliance is faced with an acute health crisis, but other challenges and threats have not disappeared. Indeed, some actors could exploit this crisis for their own ends. What should Allies and NATO watch out for, and how can we ensure that the Alliance remains ready to respond?

NATO celebrated its 70th anniversary last year. In addition to effective deterrence and peacekeeping during the Cold War, the Alliance also helped to build trust and friendship among member states. Throughout these years, NATO has proved its ability to adapt to new challenges and crises. COVID-19 will cause enormous economic disruption in the individual member states, which will also have an impact on national security policy. The people in NATO countries might demand more spending for health care systems and less for defence policy, so the 2% spending aim for defence might come under pressure. The geopolitical aspects of this crisis have to be very carefully examined, and NATO has to focus on how Russia and China are using this crisis to undermine our liberal societies. NATO has to be firm in countering disinformation. 

The tensions between Iran and the United States, the security situation in the Middle East, the fight against terrorist groups, and the security threats certain African States are facing remain ongoing challenges. 

NATO must continue to work on a unified strategy regarding China and find responses to multiple threats to security such as climate change, the spread of fake news, and disarmament and arms control. Multi-layered crises require complex solutions. NATO unity is essential to meet all those challenges effectively. The Allies need to resolve their differences and agree on political principles, particularly regarding NATO's future direction and priorities. At their meeting in London in December 2019, NATO Heads of State and Government therefore decided to initiate a forward-looking reflection process on strengthening NATO’s political role. In April 2020, the NATO Secretary General appointed a group of 10 experts, co-chaired by A. Wess Mitchell and Thomas de Maizière, former German Defence Minister and currently member of the German Bundestag, who will offer recommendations to reinforce Alliance unity and increase political consultation and coordination between Allies.

The reflection process also offers the opportunity to define Europe’s role in its future defence. NATO relies on the development of a strong European pillar which would also help to bring the relative level of European commitments closer to that of the U.S. in terms of resources and decision making. The shaping and establishing of a European pillar within the well-proven transatlantic community is an effective and practical way to strengthen Europe’s security. 

IV.    What role do parliamentarians play in this crisis? And what role can interparliamentary diplomacy, including within the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, play to mitigate this crisis and prepare for the next crisis?

Political dialogue is an important tool in crisis management by enhancing understanding and finding solutions based on mutual respect. Parliaments are founded on this understanding and therefore particularly suitable places to promote and practice political dialogue. Interparliamentary diplomacy offers a way of making the means of political dialogue conducive also to dealing with problems within and between states at the international level. 

COVID-19 will have a huge impact on various levels. In addition to the social and economic effects, the security policy dimension will affect relations between states and create new challenges. For example, the expected economic slump will make states more vulnerable in security-related industries. Many consequences are not yet clearly foreseeable and will require rapid and effective action at the international level. Cooperation and coordination between states are essential to overcome the crisis.

The NATO Parliamentary Assembly provides a forum not only to build opinion and consensus on security policy issues, but also to discuss specific economic, political, and environmental issues between member nations. It will help to provide timely information on the different national and regional aspects of the crisis and support the finding of solutions through mutual exchange. 

A key element of parliamentarism is that parliamentarians represent their voters and are accountable for their actions. Parliamentarians scrutinise and contribute to governments’ handling of the crises. Within the NATO PA we have the great opportunity to contribute lessons learned from best practices to our respective work within our parliament. 

Karl A. Lamers, Acting Vice-President and Head of the German Delegation to the NATO PA.