Multilateral security cooperation: ''From conflict to cooperation''

Opening remarks by NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at the Seoul Defense Dialogue, Seoul, Republic of Korea

  • 30 Oct. 2014 -
  • |
  • Last updated: 30 Oct. 2014 16:22

Thank you to Defense Minister Han Min-koo for inviting me to the Seoul Defense Dialogue.

It is always a particular pleasure to return to the city that was my home for three very happy years, and to see so many familiar faces.  It’s also very exciting to see that, in the six years since I completed my term as U.S. Ambassador, the Republic of Korea has become a truly global player:  not only economically as a member of the G-20, or as the trend-setter in music and the arts; but as an influential political and military power that is contributing to international peace and security far from its borders.  “Global Korea” is no longer an ambition; it’s a reality.

Now, for the last couple of years, my home has been in Brussels, at NATO Headquarters.  This is my third time serving at NATO.  I keep coming back because NATO is the most successful alliance in the world, and an anchor of stability in a turbulent world. 

The reason for NATO’s existence is to maintain the security of its members, based on the principle that an attack on one is an attack on all. 

This simple mantra has contributed to the longest sustained period of peace in European history, even during the forty years when NATO members were threatened by the might of the Soviet Union.  This first phase of NATO’s history, during the Cold War, was defined by the success of our collective defense.  It enabled all of our members to develop and prosper beyond anything we could have imagined when NATO was created back in 1949, and laid the security foundation for what is now the European Union.

But after the Soviet Union collapsed, the world moved on.  As countries opened up to each other, as trade and travel increased, as we all became more interdependent, we understood that security had changed too.  The risks and threats we faced had changed.  NATO had to grow and adapt to reflect that new world.  Our vital interests were no longer restricted by our own borders.  If we were to defend our interests, NATO needed to look outwards, beyond those borders.

This second phase of NATO’s history has been defined by the success of cooperative security.  NATO has established a unique global network of partner countries that have helped to make the world a safer, more open, and more prosperous place.  NATO operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and several other places have shown what NATO can achieve when working with its partners.

But now we are entering a third phase.  Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, its illegal annexation of Crimea, and its intimidation of neighboring countries, including members of NATO, have forced a re-evaluation of NATO’s focus – as has the horrific barbarism of the terrorists known as ISIL in Syria and Iraq, right on the border of Turkey, one of the oldest NATO Allies.  Collective defense is well and truly back on the agenda.

At our recent Summit in Wales, NATO leaders agreed on a more visible presence in the eastern members of the Alliance, with more and larger exercises and a new very high-readiness Spearhead Force able to respond to a threat of aggression in a matter of days.  Allies also agreed NATO should be prepared to play its part in the international effort to stop the advance of ISIL, including by supporting our partner Iraq to strengthen its defense capacity.  And – importantly – at the Summit, Allied leaders agreed to end the years of cuts in defense spending, with every nation making a commitment to move towards spending at least 2% of GDP on defense over the next decade, and devoting at least 20% of that to modern equipment and technology. 

But going ”back to basics” doesn’t mean that NATO is turning inward or becoming Russo-centric.  While NATO’s response to Russian aggression and the challenge of ISIL dominates the headlines, the Alliance at Wales also reaffirmed our commitment to cooperative security.  Wales was the largest summit NATO has ever held.  Along with the 28 members of the Alliance, we were joined by a further 49 partner countries as well as representatives of the European Union and other international organizations.

For NATO’s partners, the Summit was about making firm decisions and delivering concrete action to deepen our cooperation.  A prime example of this is the Partnership Interoperability Initiative.  After our combat mission in Afghanistan winds down at the end of the year, we need to preserve and strengthen the ability of NATO and partner forces to operate together so that we remain able to tackle new challenges together.  That is what this initiative seeks to achieve with 24 partner countries from around the world, the Republic of Korea among them.

Through the Partnership Interoperability Initiative, we will increase the numbers and scale of joint exercises, and improve education and training.  We will also reinforce the OCC – the Operational Capabilities Concept – to give partners greater access to NATO’s common standards and assessments (which are often called the “gold standard” for interoperability and readiness).  And we have committed to strengthening our relationships with all those countries who wish to become more interoperable through a new, permanent format for political dialogue and cooperation: The Interoperability Platform.  Korea – along with our other Asia-Pacific partners – is a founding member.

And for those who already have particularly broad and deep relations with NATO, we offer tailor-made “enhanced opportunities”—  with more political consultations, earlier access to exercises, training, and participation in defense planning.  The first nations to take part will be Australia, Finland, Georgia, Jordan and Sweden, but others will be very welcome.

This is a first: the first standing consultative forum dedicated to interoperability; and by far the greatest opportunity for cooperation and dialogue for those who wish to be an enhanced opportunity partner.

Wherever in the world you may be, we share common interests: assuring freedom of trade and travel; countering terrorism and cyber-warfare; stopping the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons.  By working together to defend and promote our common interests, we can help to make every country and every region more stable and secure. 

Afghanistan has been a catalyst for closer partnership over the last decade, especially with countries that are located far beyond NATO’s borders.  And our joint effort through the United Nations-mandated and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force has achieved a great deal.

For the Afghan people, while there are still significant challenges, they have far greater access to health and employment, their children can go to school, and their country is more secure than it has been for a very long time, thanks to the 350,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces that NATO has helped to train, advise and assist.  And for the international community, Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for international terrorists to plan their attacks against us.

It is a particularly impressive example of what different nations can achieve when they come together under a common cause. 

The Republic of Korea made a truly outstanding contribution to ISAF, particularly in its leadership of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Parwan, working with local people to improve security, improve governance, and develop their own economies.  This has now been successfully transferred to local Afghans.  Your country remains in the area, operating a civilian field hospital and a vocational training centre.  And you have also made a generous financial contribution to the Afghan National Army Trust Fund which will help sustain the security gains that have been made after NATO’s combat mission comes to an end later this year. 

Korea can be proud of what it has done in Afghanistan and NATO is proud to call Korea a partner.

Beyond Afghanistan, Asia matters a great deal to NATO.  How can it not?  Asia is home to nearly half of the world’s population and over half of the world’s trade.  Two of NATO’s Allies are Asia-Pacific nations – Canada and my own country, the United States.  But while we share many strategic, economic and political interests with Asia, NATO is not seeking an active role in Asia.  Our main focus always has been, and always will be, Euro-Atlantic. 

NATO has no ambition to become a global Alliance, but we do have a strong interest in deepening our relations with our global partners, providing our experience and our expertise where it can be of value, and creating the basis for joint action in meeting transnational threats.

With the Republic of Korea, beyond our initial engagement in Afghanistan, we have worked together in counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.  We have agreed a formal partnership agreement, with clear mid- and long-term objectives.  And only yesterday we held the seventh round of our annual policy consultations.

NATO is committed to long-term engagement with the Republic of Korea and with all of Asia, to making that engagement both political and practical.  Improving maritime security is a key area for future practical cooperation.  But we also wish to continue our political dialogue, including through events such as this one, the Shangri-La Dialogue and the Jakarta Defense Dialogue. 

I commend the Republic of Korea for leading the discussion on Northeast Asian strategic issues in fora such as the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative Forum (NAPCI) and the Seoul Defense Dialogue.  I believe that NATO, with its long experience and record of success in multinational defense and security cooperation, can add clear value to these discussions, and help promote the development of multinational security cooperation in this part of the world.

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

I see a bright future for the partnership between NATO and the Republic of Korea, as well as our other Asia-Pacific partners.  By working together and forging a common understanding of where our interests coincide, we can shape decision-making, maximize our influence in world affairs, and promote the international rules-based order that has served our nations and our peoples so very well for such a very long time.

Thank you, once again, for this opportunity to kick-off this year’s Seoul Defense Dialogue. I hope the SDD becomes as well known as "Gangnam Style‎."