BELGRADE – We had the opportunity to interview Admiral James Foggo, commander of Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, during his visit to Belgrade last week. We talked with the Admiral about the current cooperation between NATO and Serbia, about KFOR, the NATO perspective of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the importance of North Macedonia’s accession to the Alliance, and whether NATO’s “brain is dead”.

European Western Balkans: Recently, Serbia adopted its second Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) which confirms its close relationship with NATO. How do you assess the cooperation between Serbia and NATO, especially on the operational level?

Admiral James Foggo: I see the cooperation improving in my mind, but as far as Serbia is concerned, it is really up to Serbia with how far and how much they want to go in this cooperation and collaboration with NATO. I mean ultimately it would be great to see Serbia desire to become a member of NATO. Right now, they are partners and your country is very happy with that, and that’s great. We are fine with that too. As a partner, you have a choice of an à la carte menu of things which numbers training, opportunities, exercises, exchanges, study days, bands, chaplains, you name it. There are 1,600 things you can choose from that you can do with NATO.

I will give you a couple of examples. Bilaterally we did an airborne exercise with 63rd parachute regiment in 2017. It was outstanding. I sent a mobile training team back in 2018. Non-commissioned officers who visited that regiment sent me back a photo of our NATO NCOs, sergeants, master sergeants with your sergeants and master sergeants who spent the entire week talking about best practices on how to run a military joint force. And they sent me back an airborne badge, which was something that’s coveted and highly earned. I have jumped out of airplanes myself, I’m airborne-qualified, but not to the extent that some people are, and I really appreciate that as a gesture and a token of appreciation for what we did with the mobile training team. We also held REGEX here in 2018. That was a larger-scale tabletop exercise between NATO and Serbia that showed how we actually conduct training and doctrine and sharing the best practices in planning – planning for any kind of a crisis or any kind of a peacetime establishment type of role of a military in a democratic country. So, you will pick and choose what you want to do and how far you want to take this relationship, and we will be there for you. We obviously encourage Serbia to do more, and we expand the relationship and make it even stronger.

Tomorrow, the last thing I will say, I am privileged and honored to be able to go and talk to the Serbian General Staff College. These are lieutenant colonels and colonels‚ who are probably upwardly mobile, who have done very well in the Serbian Armed Forces, and they have a very bright future. So, I am talking to the future Chiefs of Defence, the future general officers of the Serbian Armed Forces, joint. I am going to tell them about NATO, I am going to tell them what we do in NATO mission in Iraq, what we do at the NATO Strategic Direction South HUB for Africa and the Middle East. And what we did last year during “Trident Juncture”, an Article 5 collective defence exercise. I look forward not only to giving them a presentation, making new friends and taking some pretty hard questions from those guys and women.

EWB: There is still a low level of confidence among Kosovo Serbs regarding KFOR, although they consider it a key player in safeguarding their security. How do you assess the security situation in Kosovo today and is NATO trying to improve its image among this community?

JF: We are always working very hard to maintain what I think is a high level of trust and confidence in all peoples of Kosovo and Serbia, so Kosovar Albanians and Kosovo Serbs, and any other ethnicities and diasporas of the population that live inside the institutions of Kosovo, and also inside your own borders here in Serbia. We carry out UN Security Council Resolution 1244 which tells us that it is our mandate to maintain a safe and secure environment and provide for avenues to conduct freedom of movement throughout Kosovo. That means North, South, East and West. We show no favourites. We are strong. We are 3,600 strong.

That’s been a discussion point that I had with Serbian Armed Forces – is there any plan for any drawdown? My answer to that question is that it is conditions-based. So, as the relationships get better and stability gets stronger, the institutions of government become more and more democratic, and more and more capable of taking care of themselves, then one day NATO will look at reducing its presence. But for right now, we are holding strong and holding fast.

Just had an election in Kosovo. They are forming a new government. I expect that it will probably take a month or two months from now, with the Christmas holiday period. Serbia itself is facing an election in the springtime, maybe March, April, sometime around there. And the European Commission and the European Union has just installed a whole new set of officers, with von der Leyen coming in as the Commissioner, and a Spaniard coming in, Borrell coming in, and his job is High Representative for foreign affairs who will deal with the situation not only in the Balkans, but in Kosovo and Serbia, and the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade. That dialogue is very important. If we can help maintain the dialogue by providing for a more stable and secure environment, we are going to do so. The more confidence the people have on both sides of the border, the more likely they are to talk. I think that this is all good.

We have shown that we can do this for 20 years. So, we just celebrated our 20th anniversary of KFOR presence on the ground here in Kosovo, our relationship with the Serbian Armed Forces. And it was a solemn ceremony, because during that time a lot of people have sacrificed even their own lives to maintain a safe and secure environment. Over 200, as a matter of fact. So far, so good, and I think that stability will continue well into the future. I wish both the institutions of Kosovo and the Government here in Belgrade well in reestablishing and rekindling that dialogue.

EWB: A few months ago, you said that BiH is key to the stability of the Western Balkans. Presidency Member Milorad Dodik stated that BiH has no consensus on BiH’s NATO membership, as Republika Srpska wants to remain neutral. The country presented the so-called “Reform program”, instead of the Annual National Plan, which does not prejudice NATO membership. How do you comment on this development?

JF: You are right. I was in BiH a few months ago and I made the comment that I was disappointed with the slowness of the process to get an Annual National Plan submitted. The Annual National Plan is something of an assessment that is done in Bosnia and Herzegovina to look at its own reform process for its armed forces, obviously made up of Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs from both entities, including Republika Srpska. Presidency member Dodik has been vocal about the fact that he didn’t want to go forward with that plan, although recently there has been a slight change in his position, and a movement forward on “the Reform Program”. I think that’s coming off of where we were, which was Republika Srpska and President Dodik not interested in having any discussion about anything even closely or remotely related to an Annual National Plan, to now where we are with this reform plan. It is progress and you have to savour the small victories.

Tomorrow, as you probably know, I’ll be in Sarajevo, I’ll be there doing what I am doing here – building relationships with the military forces of BiH. Paying calls on people and key leaders. I will be conducting a handover/takeover of forces of NATO HQ Sarajevo from Brigadier General Bissell, our first woman in that job, she’s done a fantastic job. Over a year and a half, she extended about another six months until the new one-star general will be in charge. I think that General Bissell’s legacy will have been to have maintained – one, peace and stability and two, to get the dialogue moving forward with the discussion of reforms, because we were stagnating for long.

You know, one of the things that I think people wake up to there is that the longer you hold off on something as simple as the Annual National Plan submission, there is a reluctance for other institutions in the Euro-Atlantic system to get involved and to assist. That has economic consequences for the country. I think that Republika Srpska has looked into this and said that this is not only bad for the other the entities within BIH, but it is also bad for us, so we have to move forward.

What security and stability at NATO bring to the table is confidence. Confidence of outside investors. People want to come and put resources and money to invest in the future in your country. You can see it here. Your country is doing really well. Your unemployment rate is down, less than 10%. Your annual growth rate is around 4.5%. You haven’t seen those numbers in a long time, that looks pretty good for Serbia and it certainly looks good in economic indicators on paper. You want to keep that trajectory, you want to keep moving towards Euro-Atlantic institutions.

In a place like BiH they can’t do that without foreign direct investment and outside investors coming in and providing them capital. Once they’ve got that, the market economy will flourish, and people will gain dividends. It all starts with stability and security first. You can’t have a strong economy without confidence, stability and security, and that comes from not just the military force, but a strong and capable and credible and ethical police force and Minister of Interior who can keep borders safe from smugglers, traffickers and violent extremist organizations.

So, all of this that NATO tries to deliver is goodness for the benefit of the peoples of those countries. They’re our partner nation and we want to help them out, and I think that perhaps RS has woken up to that, and we’re working in the right direction. The sooner the better, the faster we can do this, the better off that people in Bosnia and Herzegovina will be.

EWB: North Macedonia is expected to become a new member of the Alliance soon. How do you see North Macedonia’s contribution to the Alliance, namely the security and stability of the Western Balkans?

JF: I think North Macedonia has earned the spot to be a new member of the Alliance. In fact, I don’t know if you know, but yesterday before I came here, I was afloat in the Mediterranean on the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. Prime Minister Zaev and Defense Minister Šekerinska, and the Chief of Defence and the Speaker of the North Macedonian Parliament was with him.

During that time, we were able to show them some of the tools that both the United States and NATO bring to the table, in terms of collective defence in the Euro-Atlantic theatre. We welcomed their contribution to the defence of the other 29 nations, when they join here in the new year. I think that they are a very professional force. I’ve seen the people of North Macedonia and the soldiers of North Macedonia in action all over the region and the Balkans, and at my headquarters. I welcome them, the sooner the better.

EWB: How do you see the NATO Leaders Summit in London and what are the main messages for the Western Balkan countries? Is the NATO really „brain dead“?

JF: First and foremost, with all due respect to President Macron, I strongly disagree with the statement that NATO is suffering a “brain death”. Secondly, I will tell you that I was educated in France at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Strasbourg, France, University Robert Schuman. And over the years I have used my language proficiency and understanding of the culture of France to a great extent and to great advantage in my relationship with French people, French military, and NATO. NATO’s two official languages are French and English. So, what I have found over time is that there is no lack of candour on the part of either the French military forces I deal with or French governmental officials. We welcome that in NATO.

So, we are currently 29 and about to be 30 nations that have different opinions and different priorities, and sometimes different tactical or strategic concerns. It is important that we mould all that into what the Secretary General calls the “360 degree approach”. So, depending on where you are, you may be focused on the North, the East, the South, you may be focused on the Russian threat, you may be focused on a violent extremist threat, or you may be focused on some other threat in space or cyberspace. But it is important that we all work together under the guise of collective security, and if called by Article 5 under the articles of collective defence.

The bottom line was, coming out of Brussels or coming out of the London Summit, there was a very robust, candid and open dialogue. People expressed their opinion, the French President, my President, President Erdoğan. They all had strong opinions about certain things. But, we proved through the Secretary General’s political adeptness, through the ability of NATO to be flexible, adaptable, listen and be open and receptive to these concerns of other nations that are part of the Alliance, that we can move forward and by the way, we have seen a huge increase in NATO defence spending over the course of the last 4 or 5 years, upwards of 40 billion euro, going even higher by 2024, with the pledges to get to that level of 2%. That is good for collective defence, because it puts resources into all the nations of NATO so that we can work together.

Another thing that I would add is that the beauty of the NATO Alliance is it’s 70 years young, not 70 years old. And we’ll be around for another 70 years. You couldn’t recreate an organization like that today. It grew out of the post-security environment of World War II with the Washington Treaty of 1949. Very robust, very solid. We will get through all the current discussion about NATO’s future and we will be stronger for it in the final analysis.