by the US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates at the meeting of NATO Defence Ministers
(As prepared for delivery)
Good afternoon. As you know, this is my final NATO ministerial - and I really do mean that this time. I have always placed particular importance on these sessions because the transatlantic security relationship - and the key role this alliance has played in protecting this continent - has been the central interest of my professional life, beginning 45 years ago this summer. Tomorrow, I will have the opportunity in a speech here in Brussels to reflect on the state of that security relationship and to offer some thoughts on its future course.
The session that just ended focused on NATO's most important mission - our effort underway in Afghanistan. Having arrived in Brussels directly from my 12th and last visit to Afghanistan as Secretary of Defense, I shared my view that we are making substantial military progress on the ground. I also reiterated my belief that these gains could be threatened if we do not proceed with the transition to Afghan security lead in a deliberate, organized, and coordinated manner. Even as the United States begins to draw down next month, I assured my fellow ministers that there will be no rush to the exits on our part - and we expect the same from our allies.
Another focus of this ministerial was the effort underway in Libya. We affirmed the recent agreement to extend the NATO mission for another 90 days, as NATO strikes are becoming more and more effective at degrading the Qadhafi regime's military capability. Although we will keep up this operations tempo for as long as necessary, I did call for several alliance members to contribute military capabilities so that the burdens are more evenly shared and thus more easily sustained over time. We also discussed potential supporting roles for NATO in post-conflict Libya, although no one envisions that NATO will be in the lead.
Let me turn to the sessions focused on NATO's relationship with Russia. I was pleased that the NATO-Russia Council Defense Ministers met after a three-year hiatus, reflecting the commitment to strategic partnership at Lisbon announced by our heads of state and government. One of the key issues in the NATO-Russia relationship is missile defense, and in a separate bilateral meeting with Russian Minister of Defense Serdyukov, we reviewed the active efforts of our defense teams to lay the practical groundwork for cooperation on missile defense in Europe. While I had hoped we would be ready to move ahead on this subject in the NATO-Russia Council, it is clear that we will need more time. The Department of Defense remains committed to working with the Russian Ministry of Defense in support of our Presidents' instructions at Deauville, and it was encouraging to hear the strong consensus support at the NATO-Russia Council for practical cooperation on missile defense directed against threats from outside Europe, such as Iran, and not against each other.
The existence of this consensus, and the practical cooperation with Russia on a range of defense issues, is a testament to how far this alliance has come since I entered government. NATO is far from the static defense alliance that used to be massed on the Fulda Gap. And even though operations in Afghanistan and Libya have exposed some challenges and shortcomings in the alliance, which I will discuss in greater depth tomorrow, I also believe there is a growing recognition that other allies need to take on more of the burden and acquire greater military capabilities.
As I conclude this final ministerial, I am deeply heartened by the progress made last night on one of my key priorities here in Brussels - NATO reform. I started talking about overhauling the NATO Command Structure three years ago, and have been pushing these reforms ever since. Under the leadership of the Secretary General, and with the support of my fellow ministers, we have laid the groundwork for the most fundamental structural changes the alliance has ever seen. Although there is still hard work ahead to implement these changes, the tough political decisions have been made. But when they are finally realized - hopefully sooner rather than later - we will have modernized and streamlined NATO to address 21st century challenges.
Finally, I told my colleagues that it has been an honor and a privilege to work so closely with them and the Secretary General. I concluded by saying "I leave confident that this nearly 65 year old alliance will endure and prosper - the oldest, most powerful and most collaborative joint endeavor of democratic peoples and governments in all of human history."