NATO’s Role in the 21st Century and the New Strategic Concept

Remarks by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at Vilnius University

  • 09 Oct. 2009
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  • Last updated 19-Oct-2009 11:33

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear Friends,

It is a great pleasure to be in Vilnius today. As Prime Minister of Denmark, I visited Lithuania on many occasions. But today, is the first time that I have the honour of visiting as NATO Secretary General. And I really appreciate this opportunity to share with you my vision for taking the Alliance forward.

I have always regarded NATO as very special. It is the only Alliance that brings together like-minded democracies from North America and Europe -- two continents united not just by common values but also by a common destiny. It is also an Alliance that has been enormously successful. It prevented the Cold War from getting hot. It brought ethnic cleansing to an end in the Balkans, and set that region on the path to peace and stability. And it has been instrumental in building a Europe that is whole, free, democratic and at peace.

In the Cold War, Lithuania and its Baltic neighbours were shut out from this Europe. You were among the “captive nations” whose identity was in danger of slowly being erased. But you always kept the flame of freedom and democracy alive. It is that same flame which NATO has always sought to nurture and protect. And so, when Lithuania joined NATO five years ago, together with, Estonia and Latvia, it was a real homecoming.

NATO membership gives Lithuania a seat at the table where key decisions are made to shape the strategic environment. It gives you Allies with whom to share the common burden of security. And of course, it gives you the ultimate security guarantee of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

As a member of NATO these past five years, Lithuania has shown a strong commitment to the defining principles and values of the Alliance – democracy, freedom, solidarity. Lithuania has helped to shape the political consensus which lies at the very heart of NATO. And last but not least, Lithuania has shown a strong awareness of the need to adapt NATO to the 21st century.

Our engagement in Afghanistan is the most visible demonstration of NATO’s adaptation to the new security environment. And here, as well, Lithuania has made a major contribution – by taking the lead of a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Ghor, and deploying Special Operations Forces to some of the most challenging parts of Afghanistan. Individually, and even more collectively, all three Baltic states are punching above their weight. And all the other Allies, and I personally, very much welcome this commitment. 

I am well aware that here in this country, just as in some other Alliance countries, there are those who ask if the cost of our engagement in Afghanistan is too high. But I firmly believe that the cost of inaction would be far higher. Leaving Afghanistan behind would once again turn the country into a training ground for Al Qaeda. The pressure on nuclear-armed Pakistan would be tremendous. Instability would spread throughout Central Asia. And it would only be a matter of time until we, here in Europe, would feel the consequences of all of this.

So we simply cannot afford to leave Afghanistan behind. But neither can we simply continue doing exactly what we are doing now. We need, in particular, to make a greater effort towards transition – to encourage and help the Afghans themselves to look after their own country. 

That means, from a security point of view, Afghans taking lead responsibility, province by province, with international forces in a supporting role. To achieve this, we all have to invest more in training and equipping the Afghan security forces. And we need other international actors to redouble their efforts to help with reconstruction and development. This is my first point, and it is in fact a very simple calculation: we have to do more in Afghanistan now, if we want to be able to do less later. 

My second point: Afghanistan is also an illustration of how NATO has to change, if is to remain effective. Afghanistan is only one symptom of a broader trend – which is that globalisation is increasingly defining our security.

Afghanistan shows that terrorism has mutated from a regional phenomenon into a global franchise. The relentless spread of technology and information brings the spectre of more countries and non-state actors gaining access to weapons of mass destruction. Cyber-attacks can seriously destabilise a country – as happened to Estonia two years ago. 

The scramble for energy is forcing us to think about how to protect our supply lines and critical infrastructure. And it is becoming increasingly clear that climate change – the most “global” of all challenges – will also have distinct implications for security. We risk seeing increasing instability caused by shortages of water; by food shortages; or by competition for resources that had, until now, been covered by ice. And we will also likely face more and more catastrophic storms; rising sea levels; pandemics; and the effects of mass migration as populations move to avoid these impending disasters. 

I am not suggesting that NATO would be the single solution to all these challenges. But it is equally clear that NATO cannot stand idly by. Indeed, I am determined that it will not. I intend to make sure that the Alliance’s unique assets and capabilities are used to help address these new, global challenges – in the most effective manner, and in a way that does not detract from our traditional tasks.

How should this be done? The answer is clear: by developing a new Strategic Concept for NATO. Work on this Concept has just begun. Former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright is leading a group of 12 experts that I have selected to come up with recommendations. One of the experts was jointly nominated by the three Baltic states: Ambassador Ronis from Latvia. He is an old NATO-hand, and he will be a valuable member of the team.

The development of a new Strategic Concept for NATO will be the most open, the most inclusive process in the history of NATO – or any other international organisation. And I was delighted to see last week, that your President has personally encouraged the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs to actively participate in this process. 

We are engaging the strategic community through a series of conferences and other activities. And we are using new media to ensure that the wider public can also stay informed and contribute. We have designed a special webpage for this purpose on the NATO website, which I encourage you all to visit. 

The work on our Strategic Concept has really only just started, and I would not want to prejudice the work of the expert group. But one thing is clear: as much as we have to be creative, we must also be realistic – not only with respect to resources or military ambitions, but above all with respect to NATO’s core task. That core task was, is, and will remain, the defence of our territory and our populations. I can assure you that our new Strategic Concept will ensure that it continues to be a key feature in the future.

Clearly, the meaning of defence is changing. Against many new threats, our defence must begin far away from home. That is why we must continue to transform. We have already done a great deal to enable our forces to deploy quickly to where we need them – be it outside the Alliance, or indeed within our treaty area. Because the essence of this Alliance is that all members are, and must feel, that they are safe and secure. Indeed – and this is my third point – Afghanistan is our main operational priority, but our core business, our political foundation, remains what it has always been: solidarity and collective defence

As we speak, German fighter pilots are guarding the airspace over your country and your Baltic neighbours. Earlier today I visited the air policing base here in Šiauliai. This is Alliance solidarity in action – the solidarity that lies at the heart of NATO.

But let me speak a bit bluntly when it comes to reassurance. I know that, here, and not just here, the subtext when we discuss reassurance is Russia. And of course, I understand why. 

But my view on this is clear. There will be no better way to ensure real, lasting reassurance that by improving the overall political relationship between NATO and Russia. Not by compromising on our core principles – we will not do that. But by working to put NATO-Russia relations on a new, more trusting footing. 

By assessing together what the real threats to security are – and I would hope Russia could finally admit that NATO is not one of them. By stepping up our political dialogue, including on demystifying our Strategic Concept and Russia’s national secrity strategy. And finally by creating a foundation of cooperation that matters enough to all 29 countries that it is too valuable to discard in moments of disagreements. 

I am pleased that the Russian reaction to my proposal has been positive. I intend to visit Moscow in the next few weeks to discuss concrete measures for taking this idea forward, and for discussing our relationship more broadly.

Let me be clear. A more mature NATO-Russia relationship will not mean that the Alliance sacrifice its core principles. Every state has the right to freely choose its security alignments. 

This is not negotiable. And no state has the right to a sphere of influence. This is not negotiable either. So it is clear that we will continue to have our differences with Russia. But we must not let these differences hold our entire relationship hostage. We need a new beginning in NATO-Russia relations. Which I think will be of clear benefit to this country and this region, as much as anywhere.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear Friends,

60 years ago, North America and Western Europe launched an ambitious project: an Atlantic community of nations, a security community that would tie two continents permanently together. It was a bold move, and it was far from uncontested at the time. But, as President Truman put it on the eve of the signing of the Washington Treaty, "great problems call for great decisions".

No single sentence better encapsulates the essence of this Alliance. As I embark on my mandate as Secretary General, and as the Alliance prepares to face up to new challenges, I am committed to ensuring that the Alliance will be just as successful in the future as it was in the past. And this now requires another great decision: the decision to redefine NATO for the 21st century. This time, we are fortunate to have Lithuania and its Baltic neighbours with us as we embark on that grand project and prepare our new Strategic Concept – a concept for continued success for NATO.

Thank you.