“NATO remains the over-arching security mechanism for Europe!“
Frederick Benjamin “Ben” Hodges is retired Commander of the U.S. Army in Europe. At the end of 2017 the lieutenant general ended his military career at the age of 60, after over 37 years of service. Hodges is currently working for the Center for European Policy Analysis as its Pershing chair in strategic studies and as a partner in Berlin Global Advisors. Sven Lilienström, founder of Faces of Democracy, spoke with Ben Hodges about democracy, NATO and Europe.
Mr. Hodges, the Faces of Democracy initiative wants to support a better understanding of democracy in Germany, Europe, and around the world. How significant are democracy and democratic values to you personally?
Ben Hodges: Democracy and democratic values are significant to me, as an American citizen, because they are the essence of our country and what we stand for. They are also what underpin the opportunities which unleash the talent and potential of Americans because they are able to pursue their dreams.
Democracy and democratic values are significant to me, as an American citizen, because they are the essence of our country and what we stand for!
I served as a soldier in the US Army for 37 and a half years and my oath was to support and defend the constitution of the United States – so protecting these values was at the core of my service as a soldier.
Keyword European security: in your opinion, to what extent will the security mechanisms in Europe change over the coming years?
Ben Hodges: NATO remains the over-arching security mechanism for Europe. It has successfully protected European, American and Canadian allies and strategic interests almost 70 years, despite many challenging times and disagreements between its members, and I expect that it will continue to do so for many years.
I am confident that NATO will continue to adapt to the challenges it faces now and in the future.
NATO has shown agility and adaptability throughout its existence – this has been very evident over the last few years, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I am confident that NATO will continue to adapt to the challenges it faces now and in the future. The bonds and trust are deep and strong and are not dependent on single issues or personalities.
I do believe, however, that members of the alliance must do more to contribute to burden-sharing – it’s essential if this most successful alliance in the history of the world is to continue as such. I also think that we can find more sophisticated ways to approach this issue, to ensure the alliance has all it needs in terms of capabilities as well as resources and modernization.
I am also optimistic, that the European Union and NATO will continue to improve cooperation and that the EU is serious about developing a more capable European pillar of security.
I am also optimistic, that the European Union and NATO will continue to improve cooperation and that the EU is serious about developing a more capable European pillar of security – PESCO seems to have promise though I haven’t seen enough tangible action and results yet. I’m also very interested in the proposal by president macron for the “European Intervention Initiative” – this seems like a very plausible and useful concept and I hope that Germany and other European nations will support this too. None of these are necessarily redundant with NATO – and they may help spur better investment into modernization but also into readiness.
The alliance has done a good job of adapting to the new security environment that was changed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and alliance leadership continues to do this in a way that is faster and more effective than many may realize. We have to continue this effort, especially in terms of coherence of our collective security efforts. We’ve focused in the last few years on the Baltic countries and Poland, correctly, and the deployment of the enhanced forward presence battle groups is a great example of the effect of unified decisive action by the alliance. We have to expand that effort to the rest of our collective security requirements to achieve more coherence for deterrence, intelligence sharing, transportation, forward presence, logistics, and interoperability.
I see the wider black sea region as the major area of potential friction with Russia in the next decade!
I see the wider black sea region as the major area of potential friction with Russia in the next decade. The alliance needs to continue improving plans and capabilities in the black sea region that can pull together allies (Romania, Turkey and Bulgaria) and partners (Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova) in a coherent way to counter the relentless Russian efforts to intimidate and dominate our friends there. Turkey is a long-time great ally in a very important location – we are always better with turkey in the alliance and must do everything possible to protect that relationship. Romania and Georgia can provide important strategic capabilities and serve as very important strategic anchors for ensuring security and stability in this region and for expanding trade and economic opportunities and prosperity. NATO planning should provide the coherence necessary to achieve that.
At the end of the day, without trained, modernized, ready forces we’ll have serious security challenges because we’ll lack a credible deterrent force and nations will lack the capabilities to protect their own interests or their friends and allies anywhere. We know from hundreds of years of history that this is the surest way to invite more security challenges.
In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper (FAZ) you once said that your passion lies in three things: your family, the Florida State University college football team, and Europe. What is it that fascinates you about Europe?
Ben Hodges: Europe is where we come from. All of the philosophical thinking and writing that led to the creation of the United States of America comes primarily from Europe. Our culture, our language, most of our religion, our architecture, our political foundations, our ideas about opportunity and business and trade – they all have European roots.
All of the philosophical thinking and writing that led to the creation of the United States of America comes primarily from Europe.
I also love history and trying to understand why things are the way they are. Of course, as an army officer, I have had the opportunity to walk on so many battlefields that go as far back as roman times thru the Second World War.
We are indeed a “melting pot” of immigrants from Europe as well as other parts of the world.
Understanding Europe helps me also appreciate even more my own country. We are indeed a “melting pot” of immigrants from Europe as well as other parts of the world – and I’m much more aware of that now, in an intellectual way, than I was growing up, because of my experiences and travel across Europe.
I love how so many Europeans appreciate the United States. I love to hear older generations talk about the way America helped them after the war, or how members of their family saw America as a beacon of opportunity and sent their kids to school there or to work there and to hear Europeans say that makes me want to live up to their expectations.
Following this year’s NATO summit, US President Donald Trump announced that he had won major concessions from the NATO member states. Do you share this opinion?
Ben Hodges: Every president since President Truman has encouraged allies to do more, to take on their share of the burden of collective security, and President Trump is correct to do this too. It’s essential to get this right to ensure that the American people don’t lose confidence in the alliance.
Every president since President Truman has encouraged allies to do more, to take on their share of the burden of collective security, and President Trump is correct to do this too.
I don’t think increasing burden-sharing should be seen as a “concession” – it’s about being a good ally and fulfilling obligations to allies.
On the German political television talk show “ZDF-Polit-Talk” with Maybrit Illner, you said that the two percent target for defense spending is not a “useful measure”. What do you propose as an alternative basis for calculation?
Ben Hodges: Two percent is helpful in that it’s simple and useful for political purposes so I wouldn’t discard it. But it is not useful when seen or used as the only measure or metric for burden-sharing.
I think that the alliance needs to focus on capabilities as much as financial investment. What do we need as an alliance to ensure collective security?
We need more and improved shared intelligence and indicators and warning capabilities, we need increased and integrated air and missile defense, we need greater maritime capabilities, we need improved cyber defense and we need improved military mobility. Many of these “needs” do not fall completely within the ministry of defense or department of defense in most nations.
I think it would be a great incentive for Germany to get credit towards its 2 percent pledge if it dramatically increased investment in rail capacity across Europe.
So nations that invest in cyber protection or improved infrastructure (rail, bridges, highways, pipelines, fiber networks, etc.) should get credit towards their 2 percent because they are meeting real capability requirements. For example, we need a significant increase in rail transportation capability. I think it would be a great incentive for Germany to get credit towards its 2 percent pledge if it dramatically increased investment in rail capacity across Europe. This has obvious benefits for citizens and commercial efforts as well as improving military mobility for the alliance so that would seem to be very attractive politically – more so than expanding military formations. I think there must be some formula the alliance could adapt to do this in a fair and effective way.
I do support the pledge of 20 percent of the 2 percent being focused on modernization!
I do support the pledge of 20 percent of the 2 percent being focused on modernization. You cannot take a modernization “holiday” and expect to have trained and ready forces to handle an ever-changing security environment.
I also think that nations could immediately invest more money into commodities such as fuel, ammunition, transportation that don’t require further research. Just put money into them so that the alliance has these resources at hand – and these should obviously count towards that 2 percent.
So overall I’m for focusing more on capabilities and contributions, not just cash. But since 2 percent is the metric being used for now, then I’m for a more sophisticated approach towards what 2 percent actually means and finding ways to incentivize allies to do that in a way that is compatible with their own internal domestic situations.
At the first summit between the US president and his Russian colleague, discussing the annexed Crimean peninsula was a taboo issue. But what would happen if Trump was to recognize the annexation of Crimea in the medium term?
Ben Hodges: I don’t believe he will do that. The congress of the United States overwhelmingly supports the current policy of Crimea being sovereign Ukrainian territory and the administration does too.
I’m confident and hopeful we’ll take a long term view of this, as we did with the eventual reunification of Germany.
Importantly nearly all of Europe also has the same policy, as manifested by the repeated support for sanctions on the Russian federation. I’m confident and hopeful we’ll take a long term view of this, as we did with the eventual reunification of Germany.
Mr. Hodges, our seventh question is always a personal one: what do you like to do most of all in your leisure time and what objectives have you set yourself for the next years?
Ben Hodges: I’m focused on doing all I can in my life after the army to help preserve the most successful alliance in the history of the world, the NATO, and to ensure Americans and Europeans never lose sight of the importance of our relationships. I’m particularly focused on the relationship between Germany and the United States and will do all I can to preserve/strengthen that. I believe in the importance of the defense of Europe. It directly affects the security and economic prosperity of my own country – and I am committed to that effort.
I’m particularly focused on the relationship between Germany and the United States and will do all I can to preserve/strengthen that!
I’m 60 years old now and in great health and so I plan to stay active for many more years in this pursuit. But, of course, I want to continue my historical studies so in the coming year I’ll visit many more battlefields around Europe next year. My hobby is collecting rocks from battlefields, particularly from the site where a young soldier or leader exhibited courage or initiative or took great risk, or where a small group of soldiers did something which changed the outcome of a great battle. These were always the values and traits I wanted to inspire in my soldiers, to encourage them to be risk-takers and use their initiative, so I collected rocks from those sites so that I could tell use those historical examples to teach. I’ve got over 200 of these rocks now but there are many more I’m interested in getting. I’m very interested, for example, in following napoleon’s first campaign in Italy, where he learned and developed as a very young officer many of the ideas and concepts he’d put into practice in later years.
Mr. Hodges, thank you very much for the interview!
Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Tyler Meister