‘If you want peace, prepare for war'

Speech by Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of the NATO Military Committee, for the Machiavelli Lecture

  • 22 Feb. 2023 -
  • |
  • Last updated: 30 Dec. 2023 17:15

(as delivered)

Speech by Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of the NATO Military Committee, for the Machiavelli Lecture

Ladies and Gentlemen,


One year and one day ago at this time I was standing in my office at NATO Headquarters in Brussels.

I was looking at a map of Ukraine that we had put up a few months before. 

And I knew: tonight I will receive a phone call that the invasion has begun.

I sent everyone home early, because it was going to be a short night.

Quarter past four, I got the call.

Half past six, I was at headquarters.

Half past eight, there was a meeting of the North Atlantic Council where the first facts about the invasion were discussed.

Around the table there was a sense of dismay.

Not because we had not seen the invasion coming.

In the months before, intelligence had been shared on an unprecedented scale and NATO's intelligence picture was better than ever.

But dismay because in the course of one night, the course of world history had changed.

It is a tectonic event.

War is back on the European continent.

Just weeks before, we had sat down with Russia in a historic NATO-Russia Council meeting. 

The Russian delegation was ill prepared and uncoordinated in its expressions.

The Russian statements deviated so far from reality that they were met only with surprise and calm contradiction by NATO Allies.

Russia claimed, among other things, that NATO was responsible for the break-up of Yugoslavia.

After which countries like Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia and North-Macedonia one by one asked for the microphone to explain the real course of history....


Ladies and Gentlemen,

In the run-up to 24 February, diplomacy was conducted at all possible levels.

And while those talks were still being conducted... and all alarming intelligence reports were being denied by the Russian side…  the first tanks drove across the borders of Ukraine.

The tracks of the T-72 and T-90 tanks crushed all the mechanisms of conflict resolution and international diplomacy we had built together over the past 70 years. 

And soon these tanks, along with merciless shell and missile attacks, would wreak unprecedented havoc on sovereign, democratic Ukraine. 

The Russian incursion ushers in a new era of collective defence.
Not just for Ukraine.

Not just for the entire NATO Alliance.

But for all free, democracies in the world.

The vibrations of the Russian tanks are felt - to this day - as far away as Japan and Australia.

For 20 years after the Cold War, NATO Allies tried to establish a balanced form of cooperation with Russia.

It was the first country to be designated a 'Partner for Peace' by NATO in 1994.

But since the war in Georgia in 2008, Russia has embarked on an increasingly steep downhill path.

And has now even reached the low level of abducting and mistreating Ukrainian children in a network of so-called 're-education camps'.

NATO Military Authorities have closely followed the Russian pattern of aggression.

In response, we have developed strategies for the collective defence of NATO territory.

To expect the unexpected.
Those strategies were sorely needed.

Because the fundamental difference between crisis management and collective defence is that it is not we, but our adversary who determines the timeline.

We can no longer decide for ourselves where and when we participate in a conflict... or what our 'level of ambition' is....

We have to prepare for the fact that conflict will present itself at some point.

And then we will either be ready....

Or not.

It requires a winner's mentality. Because in a war, there is no second place.


Collective defence requires a shift in mind-set that goes far beyond the armed forces.

Preserving peace... means: preparing for war.

Niccolò Machiavelli even goes so far as to say that you have to arm yourself even more strongly in peacetime than in war.

Both operationally and mentally.

Because that is when you have the time and space to make yourself stronger and to learn from history.

Time and space are two things Ukrainians absolutely do not have.

Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, they have been in the highest state of readiness.

And, together with their armed forces, the Ukrainian population has developed a resilience that inspires the whole world.

There is hope.

David can indeed win from Goliath.

Resilience in Ukraine is an old man stopping a tank with his bare hands.

Is a woman smashing a drone with a jar of tomatoes.

Is a group of young women using Tinder to locate young male Russian soldiers.

Is a soldier who not only blows up a bridge, but also himself, to prevent Russians from entering his territory.

Are journalists who risk their lives to show the world the brutal reality of war.

And is now even a ballerina from the national opera who signs up to serve in the trenches....

A ballerina in the trenches... consider for a moment how far removed this is from your everyday reality.

For people in the military, war is a reality that we face much more often.

It is sometimes even claimed that we 'love it'.

I know that even after this lecture people will write that I am a warmonger.

Just as I was scolded for murderer in 1981 when I walked across the Dam Square in uniform on my way home.

I can assure you: soldiers do not like war any more than doctors like illness ... or firefighters like fire.

Servicemen and women know far too well the devastation of war and violence.

In my 41-year career in the armed forces, I have seen it time and time again. 

The grief and despair of losing a colleague.
Someone's father.

Someone's mother.

Someone's partner.

Someone's child.  

The grief of a colleague who, due to a mental or physical injury, can no longer be in the military and pursue his/her life's purpose.

The grief and pain of people who have killed an opponent by order of the Dutch government, and have to live with that fact forever.

War equals devastation.

That is why the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces are ready to do everything in their power to limit war and preferably even prevent it.

Men and women in uniform are steeped in the realisation that war is very close.

But the average Dutchman or woman is not.

That is understandable.

Come May 5th, we will have the luxury of celebrating 78 (!) years of freedom.

And then we routinely say to each other “freedom is not to be taken for granted”... which we then forget on May 6th.

But in countries like Finland and Sweden... people do feel the threat of war.

In a matter of months, these countries have left decades of neutrality behind.

This was not an imposed decision by their governments.

But a bottom up movement, spanning all parts of society.

The Finns and Swedes realised that they could no longer rely on the guarantees of the international rules-based order.

Neutrality was no longer an option.

We too, as the Dutch, are part of that international rule rules-based order.

Our entire prosperity is built on the guarantees of that system.

And on the assumption that if we trade with a country (like Russia) and are mutually economically dependent, we will never go to war with that country.

And the assumption that if we make a country rich (like China), the country will become democratic.

Neither assumption has proven to be true.

And our international rules-based order is under immense pressure.

So we Dutch cannot stand idly by, hoping we will never experience war again.

Machiavelli says in Dell' arte della guerra that if you observe the enemy's plans and strategic objectives well, and put a lot of effort into training your armed forces, you are in less danger and have more hope of victory.

In other words, you can only win a war if you prepare properly.

And to that I would add: you can even prevent war if you prepare properly.

This is more difficult for democracies than for autocracies.

To prevent war, you need deterrence.

Deterrence consists of military capabilities plus the political willingness to deploy those capabilities.

In an autocracy, deploying military capabilities requires only the decision of one leader... and an armed force or a group of mercenaries to implement that decision.

In a democracy, the deployment of military capabilities requires broad societal and political support for the fact that it is necessary and legitimate.

And so it should be.

But that means we cannot start thinking about a conflict only when it presents itself, as with crisis management operations and missions.

Collective defence requires us to think about different scenarios together in advance.

It requires us to set direction and stay the course.

The French political philosopher Raymond Aron warned just before the Second World War that democracies believe too much in the power of compromise and have forgotten that there are also countries and leaders who want to achieve their goals through brute force.

I myself still believe in the power of compromise.

But when the opponent is aiming at you with the cannon of a tank, you need more than a cup of coffee, two chairs and good intentions.


Ladies and Gentlemen,


Collective defence is about thinking ahead.

And that doesn't just apply to deploying military capabilities.

Anyone who thinks we can get through this era with only additional investments in Defence... will unfortunately be deceived.

Collective defence is about being aware of all your vulnerabilities.

We have to realise that the enemy will use anything to bring us to our knees.

Energy, food and migration are being weaponised by Russia.

What if our wind farms are bombed?

How have we set up our infrastructure in Europe?

Is it not very naive to think that China will not use its influence over our infrastructure, through the purchase of ports, railways, highways and communication networks, to support Russia too?

On whom have we made ourselves dependent for our raw materials?

These are all uncomfortable questions that we prefer to avoid.

But true resilience means that national security must be factored into every major decision in our country.

Resilience is something that requires a whole society approach.

This includes the business community.

I have made the case several times in the past year for a fundamentally different approach to our defence industry.

The shortage of production capacity creates major risks to our national security.

Defence budgets within NATO have been increasing for eight years in a row.

But production capacity has not grown proportionally.

As a consequence, prices have gone up (sometimes by 300 per cent) and delivery times have moved considerably to the right.

I understand the desire for a long-term demand signal and the importance of stakeholder value....

But if the commercial interest always wins out over the collective interest... we end up knocking away the very ground on which our economic activities are built.

If production capacity does not increase dramatically in the coming year, we will not only be taking irresponsible risks with our own security, but we will also be unable to ensure that Ukraine wins this war.


Ladies and Gentlemen,


I have undoubtedly said things in the last few minutes that some of you disagree with.

I am not saying that I have all the answers, but I am convinced that these are issues we should debate and plan for.

What I ask of you is that we dare to have the conversation about difficult topics.

Discussions about security are still far too binary: you’re either crazy or you’re right.

But between crazy and right lies a world of nuance.

Four years ago on this very spot, then-ambassador Pete Hoekstra argued against Nordstream II.

And because we are all in our own information silo and truth bubble, his cautions were not taken seriously enough.

When I was Chief of Defence, I once hypothetically talked about reactivating conscription.

After all, what do we do if we have too few professional soldiers to win the war?

Do we then give up?  Or do we create extra tiers of people who can defend our country?

How resilient is the Dutch population when it comes down to it?

How much stock have we built up to absorb shocks?

You don't have to agree with me.

But let's exchange arguments. Think in scenarios. Weigh up risks. And then make choices.

It is time that we see the world for what it is.

Not for what we would like it to be.

War is back, whether we like it or not.

If you want effective deterrence... then you have to make decisions.


Ladies and Gentlemen,


If I ask you: what does NATO stand for?

Then you say: Article 5: One for all, all for one.

This is correct.

And I am proud of the fact that every day at NATO headquarters we can reach agreements with 30 countries by consensus on so many issues.

The solidarity in this 'Alliance against Autocracy' is unique in the world.

There are soldiers from Norway willing to die for the Netherlands.

Soldiers from Belgium willing to die for Bulgaria.

Soldiers from Portugal willing to die for Poland.

But remember: before Article 5 comes Article 3.

And in that article, all Allies promised to be able to defend themselves first.

We have lost sight of that article far too much.

We started to think of NATO as an emergency hotline.

We thought we could neglect national security and national resilience, because when it came down to it... there would always be someone else who would come to our rescue.

But NATO is not a hotline, it is what we make of it.

Quite literally, as the slogan goes: we are NATO.  

And that means that in this new era of collective defence, every member state MUST first and foremost be able to defend itself.

And any promise to NATO that we break... poses a direct risk to the security of all Allies.

And for those of you who are thinking: isn't this all getting way too expensive?

Then let me assure you: if we do not get our resilience and our deterrence right...

If we do not pull out all the stops to ensure that Russia loses this war...

Then not only Russia, but also China, and all other autocratic leaders around the world will learn a chilling lesson: that you can break international agreements with brute force.

Then our international legal order will be destroyed.

Then global uncertainty and instability will increase even further.

And the costs to national security will be phenomenally higher.

This new era of collective defence is all about the collective.

To fight for the we, in a world of me. 

It is a lesson much older than medieval Machiavelli:

Preserving peace means... preparing for war.