by NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at the GMF Brussels Forum "The Future of NATO" in Brussels, Belgium

  • 22 Mar. 2009
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  • Last updated: 25 Mar. 2009 11:44

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear Friends,

It must be a law of nature:  The closer we move towards a NATO Summit, the more we get overwhelmed with organisational nitty-gritty.  Do we have the right conference venue?  Are the seating arrangements politically correct?  Are our security precautions sufficient?  After more than five years as NATO Secretary General, I know only too well how this kind of stuff can threaten to occupy our minds.

Thankfully, there is a reliable antidote to such pre-Summit tunnel vision, and it is called the German Marshal Fund.  The GMF always focuses on the bigger picture, and Craig Kennedy and Ron Asmus and their team have done so once again today.  They have asked me to offer some reflections on NATO’s future, and I am more than happy to oblige.  Because I consider it crucial that we look beyond the next few weeks – beyond the Strasbourg/Kehl Summit – and examine NATO’s longer-term development.  And, let me add, it is also necessary that we do so in an honest, open, and self-critical manner.

Why should I emphasise this?  I emphasise this because I believe NATO has arrived at a crucial juncture.  On the one hand, the Alliance’s relevance is more widely accepted than ever before.  Just remember NATO’s 50th anniversary in 1999.  That Summit took place against the backdrop of a controversial air operation in the Balkans.  At its 40th anniversary, in 1989, it even looked as if NATO could break apart over differences of how to respond to the Gorbachev challenge.  By contrast, today no one seriously argues that NATO’s days are numbered.  Two new members are on the verge of joining NATO, and France is about to take its full place again in our integrated military structure. 

All that is very good news.  But it is not the whole story.  Because NATO’s growing appeal also raises its very own challenges.  NATO is expected to help set Afghanistan on the right course.  It is expected to reconcile the continuing desire of several nations to join the Alliance with the need for a solid NATO-Russia relationship.  And it is expected to find a convincing answer to new and unconventional threats.  This makes for a pretty full plate.  And, predictably, some observers have warned of a growing mismatch between mounting political and military commitments on the one hand, and dwindling resources and political will on the other.

So what are we to make of all this?  Should we simply accept that NATO’s future is being the jack-of-all-trades and master of none – and thereby take the risk of strategic failure?  Or should we pull the emergency brake and limit our agenda to a few essential tasks – at the risk of ignoring the tremendous potential we could bring to the real world? 

Clearly, the time has come to take a hard look at NATO’s future evolution.  I would like to do so, first by identifying the key drivers of this evolution, and then sketching out what we must do in order to steer this evolution in the right direction.

In my view, the future of NATO will be determined by three key factors:

First, the evolution of the global security environment – in other words: what are the challenges that we need to confront in the years ahead and how do they affect us?

The second factor is the sense of common purpose among the Allies – in other words, do we share a common perception of the threats and of the responses and, if so, can we muster the political will to act?

The third factor relates to NATO as an institution – can the organisation generate sufficient political influence and military means in order to perform what we expect from it?

Let me briefly address these three factors.

The first is the evolution of our security environment.  This evolution does not proceed entirely independently from NATO.  Indeed, if we use the Alliance wisely, we can shape our environment to a considerable degree – as we have been able to do in post-Cold War Europe. 

But I think it is fair to say that in an age marked by globalisation, our ability to shape our environment will diminish.  Just compare our Afghanistan mission to our Balkan engagement.  Bringing peace to the Balkans was not just easier in military terms.  We could also offer attractive political and economic incentives, such as NATO and EU membership.  In other words, we could offer a compelling package to bring Southeast Europe back into the European mainstream.  In Afghanistan, and in other future contingencies, we have far less clout.

And that is not all.  Many challenges will not lend themselves to purely military solutions.  Some challenges may be regional in nature and may not affect all Allies in quite the same way.  And while some challenges may require instant, perhaps even preventive action, others will require long-term, costly and risky engagement far away from our own borders. 

In a nutshell, our future security environment can divide us just as easily as it can unite us.  In the Cold War, the threat we faced was both visible and measurable, and our responses where largely institutionalised.  But this can no longer be the model that guides our thinking or planning.  In the past,  solidarity was automatic.  Today, when we go beyond the NATO’s core business of collective defence, solidarity needs to be generated case-by-case, and then carefully sustained.

So what do we do about it?    This, in essence, brings me to the second factor that will shape the future of NATO: the degree to which we can shape common purpose among the Allies for the challenges we face in the 21st century.  We need to come to a new understanding about the meaning of shared security.  It is not enough to invoke imagery of a community of values, or point to NATO’s past achievements.  Images of NATO as a knight in shining armour will only distract us from the serious task of shaping consensus on what we should do together today -- and how.

For decades, NATO has been described as a “transatlantic bargain”.  This was and remains an apt description.  NATO enlists North America for the defence of Europe; it gives North American democracies a say in the evolution of European security; it provides the US with likeminded partners to face global challenges; and it gives Europe a voice in Washington. 

We all know that this bargain was never uncontested.  In the Cold War, Americans would sometimes complain that the bargain worked to their disadvantage, as they were effectively subsidizing European defence.  And Europeans would occasionally complain that the bargain was unfair to them, since it did not provide them with sufficient influence over US policies.

Yet the “transatlantic bargain” worked.  It worked, because everyone knew that transatlantic cohesion was essential to cope with the challenges at hand.  It worked, because everyone understood the logic of give and take.  In short, it worked because each nation could easily see the advantages that the bargain offered for its own security.

This notion of a transatlantic bargain remains eminently sound.  However, in a far more complex security environment, that bargain needs to be extended to cover a wider range of concerns and interests – from territorial defence, through regional stability, all the way to cyber defence, energy security, and the consequences of climate change. 

Adapting the transatlantic bargain, as Ron Asmus recently reminded us, also means something else.  It means balancing our policy of engagement with Russia with strategic reassurance for our Allies that their security needs are being met.  Very frankly, we have a very broad range of views in NATO when it comes to Russia, from the very cautious to the very forward-leaning.  However, one thing is certainly true, the more  reassurance NATO provides for its members, the more confident they will be to engage with Russia on a wide range of issues.  The more the perception of threat is gone, the more the possibilities for a true partnership will open up.

Afghanistan has been the forcing mechanism for us to broaden our concept of what a common approach to security means today.  Some might call it a trial by fire.  Now, let me be clear, it would be naïve to believe that 26 – soon 28 – different countries, with different strategic cultures, constitutions, and parliaments, would engage in Afghanistan in perfect lockstep.  It would also be counterproductive to try to make that happen.  We must allow for a certain degree of flexibility, or else NATO would become a straitjacket and lose the support of its members.

Yet flexibility must not come at the expense of coherence or effectiveness.  We must not create the impression that Afghanistan can be neatly divided into regional compartments.   Afghanistan is won or lost as a whole.  Nor should we cling to the illusion that peacekeeping and combat can be neatly separated, or that they represent different moral categories.  Realities on the ground tell a different story.  A transatlantic bargain for an Alliance that is engaged in operations must be based on these operational realities.  It must be based on a clear appreciation that nations may choose different approaches, but that they all work towards the same end.

That is especially pertinent now, as we approach what’s called the “Big Tent” meeting in The Hague, on the 31st of this month, and then the NATO Summit. 

There will be a lot of talk of strategy with regard to Afghanistan, including a more regional approach, more forces in the South of the country, stepped up civilian efforts and a greater coordination between all the elements of the effort, civilian and military.  I support all these ideas.  They make sense.  But we will have to ensure that we deliver on what we agree, which means coordinated action and more resources.  

Which brings us to the third and last factor that will shape NATO’s future: its performance as an organisation.  Safeguarding our security requires more than a common assessment of the challenges, and the political will to act together.  It also requires an institutional tool to translate a shared vision into common action.

Here, too, NATO cannot afford to stand still.  The new security environment requires the Organization to evolve.  In business terms, NATO must provide a faster and more comprehensive service for its customers than ever before.

Much has already been achieved.  The number of committees has been cut, the command structure is being streamlined, and partner countries are associated with our work in ways that were unthinkable just a few years ago.  We have set up an Allied Command Transformation to create a focal point for new concepts.  And we have reached out to other international organisations and NGOs. 

Still, we must do even more.  We need to take a hard look at the way we plan and generate forces; at the manner in which we fund our operations; and at the promise of acquiring more commonly owned assets.  We also need to look at ways to streamline our decision-making; to better integrate the different strands of NATO’s work; and to use our resources more efficiently.

We also need to further expand NATO’s role as a forum for political debate.  Given the growing diversity of the challenges before us, our responses will not be automatic.  They will have to be generated through informed debate. 

This means that we must be willing to discuss critical subjects such as nuclear proliferation, energy security or the security implications of climate change early and openly.  Even if current operations will continue to occupy most of our time, it is no longer appropriate to look at NATO merely as an instrument for force generation.  This organisation must give us more – and it can give us more.

Coming to grips with a new, diverse security environment, generating a new transatlantic bargain, and adapting NATO to be better able to implement that bargain – all this constitutes a truly Herculean task.  It is not something that you achieve in a few weeks, let alone in a one-and-a-half-day Summit.  Still, our meeting in Strasbourg and Kehl can be a big step in the right direction. 

The political constellation is favourable.  There is a new US Administration that is determined to take a fresh approach.  There is a European willingness to respond positively to this new US approach.  The return of France to NATO’s integrated military structure will strengthen the Alliance and help reduce the ambivalence in the NATO-EU relationship.  And the temporary freeze in the NATO-Russia relationship is thawing.

We must translate all this into political momentum – and we will.  The Summit will endorse a short but powerful “Declaration on Alliance Security”.  This document will reiterate NATO’s fundamentals as a strong transatlantic community where security is indivisible. 

But even more importantly, I expect the Summit to give the green light to start work on a new Strategic Concept.  This process will engage all Allies in a major intellectual exercise about all aspects of NATO, and in particular the meaning of solidarity in our new security environment.  And if we do it right, this can be a catalyst not only for NATO’s own evolution, but also for the broader network of institutions that we so urgently need.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As I said at the beginning, NATO is at a critical juncture.  We have never been in greater demand, yet we have never been confronted with bigger challenges.  This explains why we cannot, and do not, consider our 60th anniversary Summit next month only as commemorative event.  On the contrary, that Summit is very much about the future of this Alliance. 

If one considers the tremendous journey that NATO has travelled since its creation, one cannot be but optimistic about its future.  From a mere piece of paper the Alliance has turned into one of the world’s premier international organisations.  From just 12 member states we went to 26 – and soon 28.  And from a purely “eurocentric” Alliance NATO has evolved into a security provider that is engaged on several continents, working with a wide range of other nations and institutions.

A pretty impressive track record, if you ask me.  A strong testimony of our collective ability to meet any kind of challenge.  And, above all, a very good reason to look to NATO’s future with confidence.

Thank you.