by NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at the conference on NATO-Israel cooperation, La Hulpe, Belgium
It’s a pleasure to say a few words at the start of this conference on the NATO-Israel relationship and our Mediterranean Dialogue. I should like to thank our friends from the Forum of Strategic Dialogue who have worked hard to organise our meeting. I want to welcome Ambassador Walzer and the many Israeli colleagues who have travelled here. But I am equally glad to see several familiar faces from NATO and the Brussels strategic community. Thank you, as well, for venturing out of town, and being here this morning.
This is a timely conference, because our security environment is more challenging today than it has been for a long time. And it is critical that like-minded nations have a frank and open discussion on how to come to terms with that environment, how we can work together more effectively to meet new risks and threats, and how we can provide greater safety and security for our peoples.
During the course of this year, we have seen Russia’s continued attempts to destabilize Ukraine. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its ongoing aggression – direct and through proxies – in Eastern Ukraine, have blatantly breached international agreements and confidence-building measures. Russia has deliberately undermined stability on its western border and threatened the foundations of the post-Cold War order across Europe. And through its own choices, Russia has isolated itself on the international stage, putting at risk its own long-term economic growth and stability.
I have been involved with Russia for most of my professional career. But this dangerous dynamic could shape Russian actions for some time to come. And we must be prepared to meet that challenge.
In NATO’s southern neighborhood, we face the challenge posed by the terrorist organization ISIL. ISIL’s violent ideology is pouring oil on the fire of extremism and sectarianism that is already burning across the Middle East and North Africa, in the wake of the turbulence unleashed by the Arab Awakening. And ISIL’s advances in Iraq and the Levant also risk exporting terrorism much further afield, including to NATO and EU member states. And so it represents a fundamental threat to the security and stability of all our nations.
All these challenges are different in nature. But looking at the big picture, we see a range of attempts to revise, if not reject, an international order that promotes democracy, sovereignty, and the rule of law.
This rules-based and values-based order is the guarantor of freedom, security and prosperity for all our nations. It is not a zero-sum game. It is a win-win situation. That is why we must do what it takes to protect this order. And NATO is determined to play its part.
At our Summit in Wales two months ago, we agreed on a clear course of action for the Alliance to respond to this wide range of challenges. We adopted the Readiness Action Plan – the biggest reinforcement of NATO’s collective defense since the end of the Cold War. We are making our forces more agile, and better able to respond to any threats against any Ally from wherever they may come. We are maintaining a continuous NATO presence on the Eastern part of the Alliance to reassure Allies and deter anyone who might challenge us. And we are developing a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force and robust command and control structures to ensure we can respond quickly to conventional and “hybrid” threats.
The capabilities and forces that we are now developing are very clearly aimed at enhancing NATO’s overall resilience. We want to be able to deploy them quickly not only whenever, but also wherever, threats emerge – whether it’s in our Eastern or our Southern neighborhoods. And we also decided in Wales to strengthen our cooperation with partner countries in both those regions – and indeed much further afield – to meet the new threats.
One new initiative is aimed at strengthening the interoperability between NATO forces and those of interested partners. At Wales, our Defense Ministers met with 24 especially interoperable partners, who are founding member of our new Interoperability Platform. And we are keen to expand our practical cooperation on interoperability issues with these and other partners.
The Wales Summit also launched a new initiative to help partners to strengthen their ability to address security challenges in their own region. This initiative builds upon NATO's extensive expertise in defense capacity building, for instance in Kosovo and Afghanistan. And we made clear that we stand ready to assist Iraq in strengthening its security sector, if the new government so requests.
Jordan occupies a special place in both these initiatives. Jordan has made valuable contributions to NATO missions and operations, including in Afghanistan and Libya. Jordan’s importance as a regional security player has only grown with the rise of ISIL. And so we are interested in further enhancing the interoperability of our forces, and in helping Jordan to project stability both in and beyond its region.
At Wales, NATO leaders also clearly recognized that, since the entire Mediterranean region faces huge security challenges with wide-ranging implications for Euro-Atlantic security, our Mediterranean Dialogue is more valuable than ever. And there was a strong appeal to all our seven Mediterranean partners to make the most of the opportunities for dialogue and cooperation that are on offer.
The Mediterranean Dialogue was never intended to have a direct influence on the Middle East Peace Process, or in tackling the wider challenges of the region. But it was a genuine attempt to improve mutual understanding, to dispel misconceptions, and to foster a dialogue that otherwise would not exist. Against that background, as we celebrate the Dialogue’s 20th anniversary this year, there is much that we can all be proud of.
On the political side, there has been a steady increase in our consultations on security issues of common concern, including at Ambassadorial and Ministerial level. At the same time, on the practical side, our MD partners have been able to engage in more and more focused and tailored cooperative activities.
Over the past two decades, active partners like Jordan and Israel have developed strong bilateral relations with NATO, and we very much welcome and encourage that. Israel was the first to conclude an Individual Cooperation Programme with NATO back in 2008. And we are glad that other Mediterranean partners have also seen merit in focusing and structuring our cooperation in that way.
At the same time, the Mediterranean Dialogue has also developed into a unique multilateral forum. In fact, it’s the only structured framework where the 28 NATO Allies, Israel and key Arab countries sit together on a regular basis. Just last week, we held another round of informal, off-the-record, but very constructive consultations, hosted by Greece. And we are keen to maintain and strengthen that very valuable multilateral dimension of our Mediterranean Dialogue.
So there’s a lot to celebrate after twenty years. But clearly, there’s also more that could be done. Looking ahead, I see three main strands in NATO’s future engagement with our southern neighbors.
First, a firm offer to assist countries in transition with defense and security sector reform, including planning and budgeting; dealing with surplus ammunition; and encouraging what I would term “good security governance.” These are all issues where NATO and its member nations have unique expertise to share. And we will continue to take a hard look at how we can best complement parallel efforts by other international actors, including the European Union.
Second, I see potential for a much greater focus on capacity building. We want to help the countries of the region to be better able both to address security concerns in their own region and to participate in international peacekeeping and crisis management operations – including those led by NATO. This could involve greater military-to-military cooperation, and more opportunities to take part in NATO training, exercises and education programmes. But it could also involve more structured cooperation between NATO and organizations like the African Union and the Arab League.
Finally, I expect a further strengthening of our dialogue and cooperation where we share the same values and interests with our partners, to tailor our partnership even better to their specific concerns and requirements. And I see particular scope here for our relations with longstanding, active partners like Israel.
Despite a complex regional security context – if I can be permitted such a diplomatic euphemism – we have managed not just to keep open the channels of communication between us, but to actually broaden and deepen our political dialogue. The program and attendance for our meeting today reflect both how far we have come, and how much our security interests and concerns now overlap. And so I look forward to a very interesting conference.