NATO-Morocco Cooperation in the 21st Century

Remarks by NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at the NATO-Morocco Public Diplomacy Seminar in Rabat

  • 19 Feb. 2016 -
  • |
  • Last updated: 19 Feb. 2016 19:21

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for welcoming me to your country and for inviting me to this seminar today. 

In recent years, Morocco has been a beacon of stability in a region beset with strife.  It has gone further than most to thwart the chaos and violence that seized so many countries in North Africa and the Middle East – not through repression, but by embracing reform.

The social, political and economic reforms that have been implemented here have helped this country to chart a course of stability and progress.  And you have worked to spread moderate Islam throughout North Africa and the Sahel.  Morocco should be commended and it should be proud of the progress it has made so far.  And I encourage you to continue along this path of reform.

The Morocco I visit today is strong, confident and moderate.   It has close relations with the European Union, strong bilateral relations with several NATO Allies, and it has proved itself to be a solid and reliable partner for NATO. 

While many people consider NATO to be a purely military organization, it is in fact primarily a political alliance linking the major democracies of Europe and North America.  For more than six decades, the ever growing number of NATO Allies – once just twelve, now twenty-eight – have stood side by side, committed to defending and protecting each other’s security.  ‘All for one and one for all’, as the saying goes.

NATO provides a permanent forum for all Allies to discuss in detail the security issues of the day, and to come to decisions on the way forward.  There is no majority voting at NATO.  No country is forced to act against its own interests.  Every decision is taken by consensus.  And if there is no consensus, then there is no decision.  This can slow the decision making process down at times, but it also gives those decisions real political weight.

Of course, NATO was established during the Cold War in response to the Soviet threat.  But as soon as that war was over, many countries in eastern and central Europe, nations which had until then been our enemies, reached out to NATO.  The stability and security that NATO offered was very attractive, especially at a time of such enormous change.  First they sought partnership, through the Partnership for Peace programme, and then they sought full membership in the Alliance.

The growth of NATO has been one of the great success stories of the last 25 years.  It extended a zone of stability to such an extent that today it protects more than a billion people.  But it does more than that.  NATO is an organisation based on values: respect for sovereignty, the rule of law, human rights and the rights of nations and of people to be free.  This is what NATO seeks to promote, and to protect.

Such was the success of our partnerships to the east, that we soon sought partnerships beyond Europe.  Thus the Mediterranean Dialogue was born in 1994.  The Mediterranean Dialogue aims to contribute to regional security and stability, to achieve better mutual understanding between its members, and to dispel any misconceptions about NATO among Dialogue countries.  Hopefully, I’m playing my own part in that last one today.

For over two decades, both through the Mediterranean Dialogue and through NATO’s individual cooperation programme, NATO and Morocco have been able to build a strong partnership, adapting to Morocco’s evolving security needs.  Morocco has always been a true believer in the power and potential of the Mediterranean Dialogue.  Ten years ago, Morocco hosted the first meeting of the North Atlantic Council with the seven MD partner countries to be held in the region, and it hosted the first Mediterranean Dialogue Policy Advisory Group in 2012.  And as part of that continuing Dialogue, I have had a number of meetings with members of the government on this trip.

On behalf of NATO, I want to thank Morocco and to say that NATO stands with you.

Through its partnerships, which now stretch to as far away as Japan and Australia, NATO seeks to help others to increase stability around the world.  We work with the military and political authorities of our partners to strengthen their resilience and to improve their forces’ ability to work side-by-side with our own.  But partnerships are very much a two-way street, with our partners making substantial contributions to NATO operations across the globe.

With its professional and modern military, Morocco has contributed in various ways to NATO missions in the Balkans – first in Bosnia-Herzegovina and then in Kosovo – and to Operation Unified Protector in Libya five years ago.  And in the last few weeks, it has played a major role in seeking to promote a political solution to the Libyan crisis, hosting the UN-led consultations and actively trying to find a bridge between Libya’s warring parties.

Today, the greatest challenge faced by Morocco, and by all countries in the region, is from terrorism and religious extremism.  As states have failed, collapsing into civil war, terrorist groups like ISIL have been quick to fill the vacuum.  This has led not only to a humanitarian crisis and untold suffering, but also to the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War, with millions internally displaced and many more seeking shelter in far off lands.  If nothing else, the refugee crisis has shown Europeans just how interconnected the security of North Africa is with their own.

This month, NATO Ministers agreed to send NATO ships to work alongside EU ships and national coastguards in the Aegean Sea to help stop illegal human trafficking.  NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2 is now conducting reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance in the Aegean Sea.  This is not about NATO sending back boats of refugees, but about helping the responsible nations and organisations to destroy the business model of the smugglers who prey on the weak and the desperate, those fleeing the civil war in Syria and the brutality of ISIL. 

And while Morocco has gone in a very different direction to countries like Syria, there are still very real threats to confront.  Fighters from Morocco, and from many NATO countries, have made their way to fight with ISIL and other terrorist groups.  Many are now dead.  Others are in prison.  But those who remain may one day attempt to return, bringing the threat of further terrorist attacks with them.

And so, along with political reforms, it is deeply encouraging to see Morocco’s commitment to military reform and to international cooperation, as it works with others to destroy ISIL and to maintain security within its borders. 

Across the Middle East and North Africa, NATO is working to develop and strengthen the defence and security sectors of our partners.  in Jordan, we have supported the recruitment and retention of women in their armed forces, and gender training for servicemen and women.  We will be training Iraqi officers in Turkey and Jordan in areas such as countering improvised explosive devices, civil emergency planning, military medicine, and security sector reform. 

We have worked with Egypt’s military to introduce new mine detection and clearing technology.  We are developing a programme with Tunisia to train their Special Forces.  In Mauritania, NATO is supporting the construction of safe munitions depots and training military personnel as they return to civilian life.  And here in Morocco, you have joined NATO’s Interoperability Platform, so that our armed forces will be better able to operate side-by-side. 

The Defence Capacity Building work that NATO is doing with our partners is important, but I do not believe that it’s yet of a sufficient scale to make a strategic difference on the ground.  In my view, NATO and its members need to invest far more to build the capacity of our partners.  This will be high on the agenda of our next NATO leaders’ summit in July.

NATO and its Allies are important players in this region, but we are far from the only ones.  We also need to engage far more with regional organisations and, in particular, with the European Union.  The challenges we face are not simply military, or political, or economic, or social.  They are a complex combination of them all and cannot be tackled by military means alone.  Instead, they require a comprehensive approach by all those with a contribution to make coming together in common cause. 

Cooperation between regional organisations, as well as bilateral cooperation, will be vital if we are to destroy the likes of ISIL and return long-term stability to North Africa and the Middle East. 

But in addition to strengthening our partners, we also need to destroy ISIL.  ISIL’s strongest weapon is its narrative, the idea that, because it is successful on the ground, it is somehow "The Future".  It is what draws people to fight for it and what inspires others to conduct terrorist attacks around the world.  It is vital that we end that success and break that narrative.  The weaker they are on the ground, the weaker their story will be, and the less hold it will have in the minds of their followers.  This will create a virtuous circle that will end in their inevitable destruction. 

To that end, every NATO Ally is part of the US-led Global Coalition to destroy ISIL, whether they are contributing to air strikes or by training and equipping Iraqi security forces.  And I was pleased to see the Defence Minister of Morocco at the table at the recent Coalition meeting in Brussels last week.

Ladies and Gentlemen. For NATO, the challenges we face are not restricted to the Middle East and North Africa.  We also face a significant new challenge from the east, from an aggressive, revisionist Russia.  Russia has long had troops in Moldova and Georgia.  In recent years, it has massively increased its defence spending and modernised its armed forces.  It uses nuclear rhetoric to intimidate its neighbours.  It challenges NATO Allies, flying its aircraft without transponders, close to or even into Allied airspace.  And when it illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, Russia became the first European state to take part of another’s territory by force since World War II. 

The international community has responded to Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine with international sanctions, individual travel bans and exclusion from the G8.  To deter Russia from threatening us, NATO is implementing the largest increase in our collective defence since the Cold War and ended decades of cuts to defence spending.  And we are supporting our partners in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

For the first time since the Cold War, our core mission of collective defence is back on the table.  This month, the United States said it plans to quadruple its commitment to European security to $3.4 billion.  This will mean more troops, more training and more pre-positioning of equipment.  And it fits perfectly with the decision taken this last week by NATO Allies to increase our forward presence in Eastern Europe as part of a 21st- century deterrence posture. 

NATO does not seek confrontation with Russia and we certainly don’t want a new Cold War.  We continue to hope that Russia will come back into compliance with international law, respect the sovereignty of its neighbours, and create the conditions for rebuilding our partnership.  That’s why we are keeping channels for dialogue open.  But Russia needs to know that, if it attempts a short-notice attack or uses ambiguous hybrid methods against a NATO country, it will meet a swift response from all of the Allies.

Ladies and gentlemen,

NATO has been in the business of maintaining security in Europe for over six decades.  Today, we face greater challenges than we have for a generation.  Challenges from the east and from the south. 

One thing is certain, we cannot choose between them.  We must address them both. 

Another certainty is that today our security relies as much on the stability of our neighbours as it does on the defences of our Allies.  There can be no Fortress Europe.  We cannot hide away from the world behind a wall.  There is no wall.  Instead, we must engage with the world in the spirit of partnership.

In just five months, NATO leaders will meet in Warsaw to decide on the way forward for our Alliance, as we face these continued challenges.  Those decisions will shape our Alliance and our security for years to come.  One of the most significant decisions they will take will be on the investment we make in the security of our neighbours.  And in Morocco, we have a neighbour, a partner and a friend that we can rely on.