“We all agree that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance” said Jens Stoltenberg, speaking at a forum in Brussels on Wednesday, after emerging from three days of geopolitical strategizing at the Bilderberg conference in Lisbon.“The war ensures that Ukraine is becoming even closer to NATO” he said, and talked fondly of “the transatlantic bond” that NATO members enjoy.
Also in Lisbon was the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, who said recently that “Russian aggression against Ukraine has reinvigorated the alliance”. And Bilderberg is where that new enthusiasm for the transatlantic alliance will have been knocked into strategic shape.
If NATO is the military arm of the atlantic alliance, then Bilderberg is its brain. Stoltenberg spent three-nights at the elite geopolitical lock-in, making it probably the biggest date in his official diary, dwarfing the official NATO summit, which is taking place this summer in Vilnius. Stoltenberg has only missed one Bilderberg since taking office in 2014, and this year took along a heavyweight date for the conference: the Allied Supreme Commander Europe, US General Christopher Cavoli. They were arriving in Portugal fresh from a meeting of NATO commanders in Belgium the day before.
Cleary NATO takes Bilderberg a lot more seriously than the mainstream press, which let this major diplomatic summit drift past with barely a glance in its direction. And no wonder Stoltenberg values his time at Bilderberg: this year around 27 senior policymakers were packed into the Pestana Palace, including three prime ministers, the Ukrainian foreign minister and the president of the european parliament. The only downside for Stoltenberg would have been the fierce competition for the four ‘royal suites’, especially since two would have been occupied by Henry Kissinger — one for himself; the other for his medical equipment, defibrillation crew and organ refrigeration units.
Just shy of his 100th birthday, Kissinger is still busily sticking his creaky oar into geopolitics. The former Secretary of State gave an interview to the Economist (Bilderberg’s in-house magazine) which was published on the eve of the conference. In it he growls: “for the safety of Europe, it is better to have Ukraine in NATO”, rather than just “arm the hell out of them”.
Any talk of NATO enlargement would be music to Stoltenberg’s ears. At the Munich Security Conference in February, he talked about how an important marker of “success” at the forthcoming Vilnius summit will be “that we will enlarge the alliance”, welcoming “Finland and Sweden as the two new members”.
Interestingly, at this year’s Bilderberg, ‘NATO’ wasn’t only an item on the agenda, the topic had a practical diplomatic twist: the process of Sweden joining NATO was also being discussed on the fringes of the event. An American journalist, Josh Friedman (@FreeManReporter on Twitter), happened to be filming Swedish participant, Magdalena Andersson, when he realised she was deep in conversation with Sweden’s chief negotiator for accession to NATO, Oscar Stenström.
Stenström was not an official participant at the conference, but the diplomatic process of getting Sweden into NATO can happily grind on between sessions — after all, Stoltenberg is often promising “to work hard” to finalize this process. The current Finnish Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, would have been another useful member of these side-talks.
‘Ukraine’ and ‘Russia’ were also, inevitably, on this year’s conference schedule. As for arming the hell out of Ukraine, this has been excellent business for some of the arms companies in Lisbon. Swedish defence contractor Saab, which has seen profits rise in recent quarterly reports, was represented at the conference by its chairman Marcus Wallenberg. The enormously wealthy Wallenberg family is the largest shareholder, and Marcus is a Bilderberg board member. And then there’s Palantir, the controversial software company, whose equally controversial CEO, Alex Karp, said recently that Palantir is “responsible for most of the targeting in Ukraine”. Karp was in Lisbon with his mentor and boss, the founder of Palantir. Peter Thiel, who recently backed a German start-up delivering drones to Ukrainian forces.
“Bad times are very good for Palantir” admits Karp, who last year was the first western CEO to visit Zelenskyy in Ukraine. With such a hands-on commercial interest in the war with Russia it’s hardly surprising that Karp took two mountainous bodyguards to Bilderberg. But hefty as they were, they were vastly outnumbered by Stoltenberg’s security contingent. When the NATO boss went out jogging in the morning it looked like the start of a charity marathon.
Karp has been waxing lyrical of late about the weaponization of artificial intelligence, and “the power of advanced algorithmic warfare systems”. He declared theatrically that AI will allow militaries to “create software that is so obviously dominant that adversaries quiver and scurry away instead of attacking us or our allies.”
According to Demis Hassabis, the CEO of DeepMind (another billionaire tech expert at this year’s Bilderberg), when you build an AI system “there’ll be a residue in the system of the culture and values of the creators of that system.” God help us all if Karp’s psychopathic AI gets off the leash. Worringly, Palantir doesn’t just want to dominate on the battlefield. On a call with Wall Street analysts earlier this month Karp was in an expansive mood: “Our strategy on AI is to just take the whole market”. Which means we can look forward to a time in about 18 months when our smart fridges are being run by military-grade AI. God help you if you run out of eggs.
Stoltenberg’s take on AI is a bit less silicon-rattling than Karp’s, saying last month that NATO is seeking “to engage with China” on the military use of artificial intelligence and “to perhaps agree on some rules of the road for responsible use”. AI and China were both on the Bilderberg agenda this year, which would have made the AI arms race a key theme of the talks. According to Bilderberg board member Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO, in the tech race against China, “a hybrid approach that more tightly aligns government and private sector efforts is needed to win”.
This blurring of the lines between public and private is Bilderberg’s bread and butter. At the Lisbon conference you had senior figures from the military, political and intelligence communities locked away for days with a ravenous galaxy of CEOs and private equity investors. For Eric Schmidt, this is the perfect brew for world domination in AI. For many outsiders, it’s a calamitous recipe for corporate lobbying. Perhaps it’s just a happy hybrid of both.
As for NATO, Bilderberg is a vital political and economic opportunity: a chance to sharpen their military strategy on the steely minds of the academics, and to see what investment deals can be done: war isn’t cheap, and some of the world’s deepest pockets have a seat at the table. But, perhaps most importantly of all, it’s a chance to get some serious off-the-books diplomacy done, in the cosy nooks and luxurious crannies that surround this conference — without the press or public poking their pesky noses into their vital geopolitical affairs.