An Alliance For Our Times: NATO and its Partners in a “World Disrupted”

Keynote address by NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at the International Security Forum, Geneva

  • 13 Jun. 2016 -
  • |
  • Last updated: 13 Jun. 2016 16:22

Thank you for that kind introduction.

It’s a great pleasure to be back in Geneva and an honour to be able to address such a distinguished and knowledgeable audience.

I want to thank the conference organisers for doing such an outstanding job in bringing you all together. NATO is delighted with its continuing association with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. If Switzerland is the champion of international dialogue, and Geneva the capital city of international dialogue, then the GCSP is one of the most constructive and influential facilitators of that dialogue. So, thank you.

This building also hosts a number of other institutions and organisations with which NATO is proud to work – including the Geneva Centre for Democratic Control of the Armed Forces, and the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining. Your efforts help us to translate our good intentions into meaningful action on the ground. So, thank you too for everything that you do.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

The conference organisers have presented us with a puzzle.  They have asked us to address what they describe as “Global Disorder – Security in a World Disrupted”; to discuss and analyse that “disrupted world” and to find ways of remedying that disruption.

In many ways that is NATO’s puzzle too:  to understand the various challenges we face and find a collective solution to those challenges.  In fact, many of the themes you will be discussing over the next three days – violent extremism, resilience, security sector reform, cyber defence – are issues the North Atlantic Council in Brussels discusses on an almost weekly basis.  How can NATO and its partners contribute to stability and security in the Middle East and North Africa?  How can we make our societies and infrastructure more resilient?  How can we protect ourselves from cyberattack?

In an effort to contribute to your discussions, I want to explore how NATO perceives our “disrupted” world and how we are responding.

And because this conference is taking place here in Switzerland – an important NATO partner – I also want to focus on the significance the Alliance attaches to partnership with non-NATO members.

Let me begin with a few words about Switzerland’s own unique contribution. This year marks twenty years since it joined NATO’s flagship Partnership for Peace programme.  Indeed, this conference is part of its contribution to that programme.

Switzerland’s goal is NATO’s goal: peace and stability in Europe and its neighbourhood.  To that end, it makes many valuable contributions:  to the NATO-led KFOR mission in Kosovo, to capacity building in the Republic of Moldova, and to efforts by other NATO partner countries to demilitarize.  In view of its highly developed IT sector, Switzerland is also very important partner on cyber defence. Importantly, all that Switzerland does with NATO is strictly in keeping with its  policy of neutrality. 

NATO is a pragmatic Alliance.  We like contributions we can see or count: troops, equipment, funding.  But sometimes it is the softer, less tangible contributions which are just as valuable. And Switzerland’s contribution here is unique.

The truth is that you don’t just contribute to what we do.  You shape the way we think.  Switzerland’s comprehensive, holistic approach to security informs ours – be it on the women, peace and security agenda (UN Security Council Resolution 1325), the protection of civilians in armed conflict, the fight against corruption in the military, or the need for democratic control of armed forces.

It is all very well trying to create a secure environment – as we have in Kosovo – but if that environment isn’t sustainable over the long term, then the blood and treasure we expend is wasted. That is where work on security sector reform and democratic control of the armed forces, among many other things, comes in.  And it is why Switzerland’s intellectual and moral contribution to NATO is so important.  Switzerland has been a driving force behind the development of NATO’s policy on a wide range of human security issues.  And, as a result of its partnership with NATO, I believe that Switzerland has profoundly enhanced its influence on, and contribution to, international security.


And now let me turn to the “disrupted” world that the conference organisers have asked us to discuss.

The “disruptions” or challenges NATO faces are, of course, very real.  The security environment in and around Europe is, perhaps, the most dangerous and unpredictable it has been in decades, since the height of the Cold War.   Chief among the challenges are the actions of a more aggressive and assertive Russia, and the tide of violence and instability which has swept across the Middle East and North Africa.

Those are the two biggest challenges we face but, of course, there is much else besides:  missile proliferation, cyber attacks, threats to our energy security, terrorism. You will be discussing many of them in this room over the next few days.

It will not surprise you to hear that NATO is alert to these threats, and taking steps to respond.  And, in doing so, we are taking an all-round, 360-degree approach, keeping a watchful eye on our perimeter not just in the four military domains – land, sea, air and cyber – but the political and communications arenas as well. 

It is this comprehensive philosophy that has guided the creation of our Readiness Action Plan, the centrepiece of our response to a newly aggressive Russia.  The RAP, as we call it, has resulted, among other things, in the trebling in size of our NATO Response Force (the NRF) to more than 40,000 troops; the creation of a Spearhead Force within the NRF capable of reinforcing any ally within 2-3 days; and the establishment of a series of small headquarters in the east of the Alliance to coordinate training, exercises and, if necessary, reinforcement.

The RAP was one of the measures our leaders agreed at NATO’s Summit in Wales two years ago.  But our response did not end there.  Enhancing our forward presence in the east of our Alliance, and taking further steps to strengthen our deterrence will be key outcomes of our upcoming Summit in Warsaw in just three weeks’ time.

Those are the kinds of actions we would prefer not to need to take. But Russia has forced us to act. Its illegal annexation of Crimea represents the first time since the Second World War that a state has used force to try and change international borders in Europe. 

Moscow’s aggressive actions – including its direct sponsorship of an illegal armed insurgency in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine – are in flagrant violation of international law. And they have gravely undermined the post-Cold War European security order – an order which Russia itself helped to create.

At the same time, Russia has employed subversion, propaganda and cyber attacks to test NATO’s readiness and resolve.  It has ignored many of its obligations under arms control and transparency agreements, and it has amplified its nuclear rhetoric. All of these actions have been justified by a carefully-crafted false narrative which claims that NATO’s goal is to weaken and encircle Russia. 

In responding to this very real “disruption”, NATO’s approach is to combine defence and dialogue.  We are ensuring that we can defend ourselves against any threat, so that any potential aggressor thinks twice before testing us.  This preventive approach underpins the decisions we will be taking on our enhanced forward presence in the east of the Alliance.  But we are also keeping channels open for political dialogue.

Our message is simple: we do not want a new Cold War; everything we do is defensive, proportionate, and in line with our international commitments.

There was a time not too long ago when NATO and Russia forged a strategic partnership based on mutual interest and the shared belief that international affairs can be more than a zero-sum game. That cooperation would be better than today’s tense stand-off, better for all concerned.

NATO has not given up on the goal of a strategic partnership with Russia but, clearly, a great deal must change for us to achieve it.  Russia needs to end its aggression against Ukraine, withdraw its forces from the Donbas in accordance with the Minsk agreements, and come back into compliance with international law.  Motivated by the vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace, we will be steadfast and we will be patient.


The other great disruption to which the Alliance is responding – and which will be another key theme at the Warsaw Summit in July – is the situation along NATO’s southern borders.

An unstable Middle East and North Africa – where fragile states risk failure, where terrorist groups like ISIL are free to go about their bloody business, and from where millions of people are fleeing – is a strategic challenge we cannot ignore.

The truth is that securing our homelands is not just about defending our borders. It is just as much about projecting stability beyond our borders. Because if our neighbours are more stable, we are more secure. 

Understanding that, NATO’s response to the situation in our southern neighbourhood is multifaceted.  Part of the wider international effort to defeat and destroy ISIL involves the use of military force.  While NATO itself is not involved in the US-led Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, all 28 NATO Allies are, as well as many of our European and Middle Eastern partners.

NATO may contribute directly to the coalition in the future – possibly by providing surveillance by NATO airborne warning and control planes in support of coalition air operations   But our main contribution is likely to come in the form of building the capacity of our partners in the region.  We are already supporting Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia – for instance, training hundreds of Iraqi officers at a training centre in Jordan in how to counter Improvised Explosive Devices, and helping the Tunisians improve their special operations forces. 

Following a request from Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi, we just sent an assessment team to Baghdad to explore what more NATO could do by expanding this training and assistance to Iraqi territory.

In addition, we have a mandate to assist the Libyan Government of National Accord to build its security institutions, if requested, and as part of wider UN-led efforts.

So, to recap:  two major disruptions, two measured and comprehensive responses, two themes which will define the upcoming Summit in Warsaw. Faced with “global disorder”, to use your term, NATO has taken the view that we must protect our nations by strengthening our collective defence and we must project stability beyond our borders.

But, of course, that will not be the sum total of our discussions at Warsaw. And, as I have already intimated, the third theme – the theme which cuts across everything else we do – will be partnership:  partnership with nations like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia who share our goal of a Europe whole, free and at peace, but face pressure from Russia aimed at limiting their sovereignty.  Partnership with our near neighbours Finland and Sweden to whom the security of the Baltic Sea owes so much.  Partnership with countries at risk in the Middle East and North Africa, such as Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia.  Partnership with countries across the globe – Japan, Australia, South Korea, Mongolia and New Zealand – who see NATO as a means for magnifying their contributions to international security.  And partnership with international organisations who share our goals, including the United Nations, the OSCE and, above all, the European Union.  In fact, in Warsaw, our partners will play a more prominent role than they have at any previous NATO summit.

That NATO should put so much store by partnership should come as no surprise. Our most recent Strategic Concept (2010) is very explicit about their importance. I quote: ‘Dialogue and cooperation with partners can make a concrete contribution to enhancing international security, to defending the values on which our Alliance is based, to NATO’s operations, and to preparing interested nations for membership of NATO.’

But it goes a lot deeper and further back than 2010.  NATO’s historical experience is of an original alliance of twelve, growing to what is today 28 – soon to be 29.  Those 28 members of NATO have forged shared and formal links with dozens of other countries around the world.

That shift from 12 to 28-plus has given us an urgent, unshakeable belief in the possibility, and the value, of cooperation – a zealous commitment to transcending the old ways of doing things, to accelerating the shift from a twentieth century model of international security, defined by competing states, towards a twenty-first century model founded on mutually beneficial cooperation.

The fact that the security environment we face is so complex and fragmented makes the case for that new model all the more powerful. NATO’s 67-year history – including our recent experiences in Afghanistan and the Balkans – has taught us, for example, that when we pool resources, when we work together to strengthen others’ stability and security, we are greater than the sum of our parts – Allies and partners both.

Partnership has transformed NATO. It has been the crucial ingredient in our successfully adopting a comprehensive approach to security, one defined not just by the political and military, but the social, cultural and institutional.  The result is a much smarter and more effective Alliance – particularly when it comes to urgent issues such as migration, hybrid warfare and terrorism.

The truth is that the nature of the new security environment means that meaningful, two-way partnership is a necessity, not a luxury. And, as a consequence, NATO has increasingly opened up its core business to partners.

But we need to have the confidence to work harder – and push harder – to expand and enhance those partnerships, to involve more countries, more closely, in more fields of activity – to the benefit of all.

Importantly, the relationships we forge with partners will always be based on reciprocity, mutual benefit and mutual respect. They are conducted in a spirit of joint ownership. And they are tailored to ensure that partners’ circumstances, needs and ambitions are understood and, as far as possible, satisfied. Last month, for instance, NATO accepted requests by Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait and Qatar to establish diplomatic missions at our headquarters in Brussels.

In practical terms, our cooperation with partners can include anything from political dialogue and consultation to participation in NATO-led missions; from defence capacity building and training, to joint exercises to improve interoperability; from advice on counter-proliferation to assistance on civil emergency planning. In fact, partners have a menu of around 1400 activities in which they can participate alongside their Allied counterparts.

Afghanistan has taught us a great deal about working with our partners – particularly when it comes to training and capacity building. And, as I have already mentioned, we are applying the expertise we have acquired there to train the armed forces in countries such as Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia, but also in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

We are also building on what we have learned over the years from our many different partnership initiatives. Including, for example, the Mediterranean Dialogue programme involving countries like Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia – and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative in which Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE participate. In the light of the deteriorating security situation to the South, the relationships we have nurtured there have become increasingly important.  And, importantly, in the evolving partnership paradigm, NATO won’t just help its partners.  When it comes to projecting stability, we will help those partners to help others.

At the same time, we are exploring all means of developing and refining cooperation with regional organisations such as the African Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Paramount, of course, is what we see as the urgent need to knit NATO and the European Union more closely together. Together, our two organisations have helped to spread peace and prosperity across Europe. Closer cooperation between the two – on hybrid threats, cyber defence and maritime security, among many other things – is, frankly, a no-brainer. It is also one of our key ambitions for the upcoming Summit.

The point is that NATO is serious about partnership. And we want our partners – including Switzerland – to be even more involved in what we do. Today’s more fragmented security environment means there is both a greater need for partnership, and a greater potential for partnership.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We face a disrupted world.

A series of new challenges requiring innovative, comprehensive solutions.

In the face of all that is going on in the world, it would be easy to get disheartened.

But I am an optimist. And part of what allows me to be optimistic is NATO – and its long track record of reinventing itself when the circumstances change, and in getting the job done, in good times and in bad.

NATO does not underestimate the determination and staying power required.

But we are taking steps to respond to today’s challenges – side-by-side and hand-in-hand with our many partners.

And if our 67-year history is anything to go by, then we will succeed.

Thank you for listening. I look forward to your questions.