Born in Bucharest, Romania, during the times of communism and the Securitate, Oana Lungescu became the spokesperson of NATO in 2010. Earlier she had vast journalistic career with the BBC service in Romania and later BBC World, though she begun as English teacher in a small mountain town in central Romania.
Magda Jakubowska sat down with Ms. Lungescu to ask about the relevance of the alliance today.
(MJ): It has been scientifically proven that women’s involvement in peace processes allows for better conflict resolution, better understanding of women’s needs, especially for those who have been the victims of different conflicts.
What are the other roles that you see women have in security? You have mentioned that there are positions for women in all aspects of what NATO or the UN does, but what exact examples could you mention?
(OL): I see women in all possible roles. I do not think that there are roles just for men and roles just for women.
The nations in NATO come from different traditions, but we all are going in the same direction – both, in terms of our armed forces and in terms of our political representation: we have nine women-ambassadors around the table representing 29 allies; we have quite a few defence ministers who are women, or we have heads of states and governments who are women. The sky is the limit!
So, of course, the role of women in conflict resolution is important. Women are very often seen or portrayed as the victims, and women and children are, of course, primarily the victims of any conflict.
However, to make peace not only possible but sustainable it is important to have everybody on board; no society can afford to just push away half of the population because they are women.
We know that only with women at the table, and only with women’s voices heard, can peace be sustainable.
That is very important, and we, at NATO, make women increasingly represented in our operations. I think we now have 12% women in NATO missions and operations – serving not only as gender advisers, even though that is very important role, for instance in places like Afghanistan.
The presence of women was important during our combat mission in Afghanistan because local women would not talk to our male-gender advisers seeking information. For example, if women were saying they were not going to the market on a given day because they felt something might be happening, then gender advisers or female officers can raise an alarm and get the intelligence from the locals.
So, I think women’s presence is important also in an operational sense – not just because we want everybody to be equal, which of course we do, but it also has its own benefits. It is not just the right thing to do – it is the smart thing to do for all of us!
Recently, we have held a large exercise – the Trident Juncture – which was our biggest exercise since the end of the Cold War. We had some amazing digital materials to communicate about the exercise, and amazingly I have discovered that there were a lot of women in a wide range of positions involved!
So, I did a series of tweets with the hashtag #womenatwork which got a lot of interest (impressions) from outside the NATO bubble because we do tend to communicate among ourselves, but it is also important to reach out to others and to show that ‘yes, we can have women pilots, engineers, or tank-commanders, etc.’
What moved my heart, was to realise that there were a lot of women from many different nations making a very important contribution to an important exercise!
You mentioned in another meeting that your previous work was engaged in international affairs and, therefore, in security issues. To you, this was obvious that international affairs means security, but to others the connection is less clear.
I also see security as the mother of everything else in foreign affairs as most of the decisions are taken considering security aspects. Why do you feel security is important? Why do you think it is inevitable to know basic security issues?
I fully agree with you that security is fundamental.
Without security and without peace, we can have no prosperity, we can have no development. If there is no security, there can be nothing else, or nothing that we would want for our societies. But of course, very often it is very easy to take peace for granted.
Especially, after the period of 70 years where most of countries in Europe have forgotten to a large extent what conflict can mean, and they often see conflict as something that is very far away.
The reality is that even far away conflicts, like Afghanistan or Syria, impact our security here at home. That is why NATO has been in Afghanistan – because Afghanistan served in a large part to organise 9/11 attacks on the United States where so many citizens, from so many countries, including Poland, lost their lives. I remember going to the memorial and seeing the names of Poles that along with so many people from so many other countries were there.
That is why it is important for us to continue to be there with a new training missions, to train Afghan Security Forces, to ensure that they create the conditions for peace and reconciliation, so that we can never see again that sort of attack planned on Afghan soil.
There is a similar situation in Iraq. It is important that NATO is now launching a new training mission in Iraq starting in 2019 and will build on the existing training that we have done with the Iraqi forces to help ensure ISIS/Daesh does not retain a foothold in Iraq or Syria. Because we know the barbaric treatment of women – and not just women – at the hands of Daesh.
So, that is why it is important that all of us contribute to these conflicts. In the end, it is about our own security.
Any turmoil in our neighbourhood, whether it is Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Middle East or North Africa, can create a fertile ground for terrorism on our own soil, can trigger attacks, and, indeed, can also lead to refugee and migrant crises which we have already seen in Europe.
Therefore, we need to help deal with the roots of these crises and conflicts where they appear – and that is when NATO steps in! It is about defending and keeping ourselves safe here at home, but also helping keep our neighbours stable because that contributes to our own security.
Ukraine was an eye-opening situation for the West due to its sheer proximity. What is the attitude of NATO towards the war in Ukraine?
Ukraine is a very important partner to NATO and it has been for many years. It is a partner that has also taken part in many NATO missions and operations. We have very close long-standing relations with Ukraine.
NATO remains fully committed to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty which was also reconfirmed and made clear at the July Summit of NATO leaders.
What we have seen is Russia tearing up the rule book – and not for the first time – basically changing borders by force; this time it is through the illegal annexation of Crimea and the continued destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine.
NATO continues to stand with Ukraine and we support Ukraine both through political dialogue but also through practical cooperation. We have an office in Kiev and provide support to Ukraine through a range of different trust funds and activities; for instance, by supporting their cyber-defence capabilities, by helping rehabilitate the wounded personnel and helping their transition from military to civilian life, and also helping with the ongoing reforms of the defence and security forces.
Imagine you were to sit down to dinner with a family somewhere far away like in Bucharest, or if you came to my home – please feel invited! – and you can meet my sister and her five daughters, how would you explain to them that 2% GDP defence spending is important?
We all realise that the world around us, the world we live in, has become more dangerous and much more unpredictable.
We saw that with the illegal annexation of Crimea, with a continued destabilization of Eastern Ukraine, but also with rise of ISIS, practically at the same time with an increasing number and sophistication of cyber-attacks, with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, etc.
We have seen attacks with chemical weapons – not just in Syria, but also a nerve-agent used on the streets in Salisbury, in Europe. We see programs of nuclear weapons – whether it is North Korea, Iran or others.
So, I think we see a world which is very complicated, and it is of the utmost importance that we maintain our security because we certainly should not take it for granted. Yet, sometimes we can see how easy it is for that world to get spoiled, for dangerous things to happen, and how many risks there are.
It is crucial that we are in a position of strength – weakness can only invite aggression. What NATO has been doing throughout the 70 years of its history – and wants to continue doing – is show a strength and readiness for anything that might happen.
To do that, to stay strong, all of us must invest in our own defence. It is an insurance policy – you must pay a premium for your insurance policy in advance, and in a way, you could say that the premium has gone up, but in terms of NATO premium has practically always been 2% of GDP on defence though it was adopted in 2014 as a pledge by all heads of states or of governments for the first time.
It is significant that it happened in 2014 because it came after Russia’s illegal actions in Ukraine, when we really had to be more serious about our own defence and security. If we are not, we cannot expect others to defend us.
So, this is a promise that we have made to each other. Poland has been very successful in its investment not just in capability but also in readiness and exercises. For instance, we have just seen an exercise “Anaconda” which has been completed in Poland.
Maintaining security is, of course, an ongoing process where we all need to be strong and be confident. Then we can all be in positions to have a dialogue with Russia not from the position of weakness but from position of strength.
NATO’s approach towards Russia is both to show a strong defence and an openness to dialogue because of course Russia is not going away, so we need to manage the relationship we have with them, even though it is hard to anticipate right now whether we can improve that relation.
So, the insurance policy is for everything in life. You do need an insurance policy and it will not come for free. But the benefits at the end will be much bigger – like preventing a fire from happening, making sure that you have everything to ensure that you are safe.
You have mentioned the 70th anniversary of NATO in 2019. What is the plan for this year?
I think it is an important point in NATO’s history, but I think we also need to show not only that NATO has history. We all know that, yet it is important is to show the projects that we have right now, what we are doing to continue to adapt NATO to a changing world.
This won’t be us resting on our seats and talking a lot about how wonderful we have been in the last 70 years, but it is an opportunity to focus primarily on what we are doing now and what we intend to do in the future to keep NATO flexible and ready to deal with the unexpected.
Whatever it is, we can all expect the unexpected, and it is important to remind people that we are safe because of NATO, because of us standing together as a family of nations, and that we have been able to maintain peace and we continue to work for peace by standing together.
This is an alliance where we all work together, where the voice of Poland is as important as the voice of the United States, or as the voice of Germany, the UK, Montenegro: an alliance of equals.
Everybody’s contribution is important, and, when things get tough – you know that you can always count on your allies to be there for you.
Magda Jakubowska is the Vice President and Director of Operations at the Res Publica Foundation. One of her flagship projects regarding women empowerment in security, NATO’s campaign: #WomenAreNATO, has garnered considerable international interest.