Closing Remarks

by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow at the Chicago Young Atlanticists’ Summit

  • 23 May. 2012
  • |
  • Last updated: 23 May. 2012 14:58

Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear friends,

Our Chicago Summit has just come to a close, and we have achieved a lot to improve our collective security.

I don’t want to give you a dry run-down of what’s been agreed. You’ve probably heard most of that anyway. What I want to do is to share with you my take on NATO’s evolution – as a US diplomat who has been involved in NATO issues for well over two decades: where the Alliance started out; how has it changed; and what meaning the Chicago Summit will have for NATO’s ongoing evolution.

I am encouraged to see that some of you look old enough to remember the Cold War. That makes me feel a bit better about my age. But if you are under 25, and it looks like quite a few of you are, then the Cold War probably has little concrete meaning for you. It might as well be the age of the dinosaurs.

I am here to tell you today that I am one of those dinosaurs. The Cold War did happen. I was there. It was an era when the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction was very real. And like the dinosaurs, humanity was one major crisis away from going extinct.

In fact, one of the first things I can remember as a child was during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. My parents started watching the Evening News with Walter Cronkite during dinner. The fear that the crisis could lead to a nuclear holocaust was very real – even to the young boy that I was at the time.

A few years later, I was in high school when the Soviet Union invaded what was then Czechoslovakia and crushed the Prague Spring. That event inspired me to learn more about global security issues. I studied the Russian language in High School and then went on to study International Relations and Russian Studies in college and graduate school. I went on trips to Eastern Europe and to the Soviet Union. And after I graduated, I joined the Foreign Service as a specialist on arms control and Soviet affairs.

I had been a diplomat for twelve years when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. It’s hard for a young generation to imagine the euphoria of those times. A whole new world of freedom and tolerance suddenly seemed possible. It even inspired some to talk about the ‘end of history,’ when a liberal global order would lead to a paradise of free trade, free ideas, and free peoples.

I think we were generally a bit less optimistic in the diplomatic community. But it was very clear to us that, as the geopolitical environment changed, our assumptions about the world would need to change. And our policies would need to change too – to adapt to a new strategic reality.

I came to work at NATO for the first time as a diplomat in the US Mission back in 1991, as the DCM. It was right at the start of the amazing transformation that the Alliance has gone through over the past two decades. And it has been fascinating to be part of that transformation, and to help move it forward.

During the 1990s, the Alliance turned from a static organisation aimed at keeping the Warsaw Pact at bay into a real agent of change – and a key driver behind the consolidation of an undivided Europe.

We did so by reaching out and engaging former enemies in partnership and cooperation: by opening our door to new members – and keeping it open; by rallying a unique, multinational coalition of nations to return stability to Bosnia-Herzegovina; and by taking firm action at the end of the decade to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

“9/11” marked the beginning of yet another phase in NATO’s evolution. In the face of international terrorism, failing states and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, NATO’s self-image as a “Eurocentric” Alliance was obsolete. We had to be prepared to tackle problems at their source – and to project stability well beyond our own borders. And that is what we have been doing over the past decade.

The Alliance’s spectrum of missions and operations has broadened significantly. It now ranges from combat operations, through maritime patrolling to prevent piracy, to the training of partner security forces, and humanitarian relief. And sustaining this broad agenda has raised a number of challenges.

Our engagement in Afghanistan shows that our assignments can be extremely demanding militarily, and therefore also politically. Allies now face the specter of suffering casualties in long-term missions very far away from home, against a shadowy enemy, which is a major challenge for democratic societies.

We have also seen that today’s missions and operations demand very different military capabilities than the heavy, static armies of the past -- strategic transport, precision-guided munitions, ground surveillance assets. These capabilities are all very expensive – and hard to afford at a time of economic austerity.

We have seen that the ultimate success of our missions now depends as much on political and economic factors as on military preponderance, and that, more than ever before, NATO needs to calibrate its military contribution with other, civilian actors in a comprehensive approach.

And we have seen, finally, that security has become a real team effort, requiring teamwork among the Allies, but also teamwork with other nations too, wherever they may be located on the map. This is because global challenges demand global answers – and the broadest possible international cooperation.

A year and a half ago, at our previous NATO Summit in Lisbon, we agreed a new Strategic Concept to guide us through the next decade. Our Summit here in Chicago has been a further, decisive step in the Alliance’s evolution – from an organisation aimed primarily at defending our populations and territory, into a real security organisation that is capable of protecting and promoting our security in a world of “globalized insecurity”.

You have all seen the headlines. Here in Chicago, we reaffirmed our commitment to the stability of Afghanistan – not only now, but beyond the end of NATO’s current combat mission in 2014 – because it is crucial to the security of our own nations. And we dedicated ourselves to developing new military capabilities for the year 2020 and beyond – by setting clear priorities, by specialising, and working more closely together.

But at this biggest Summit in NATO’s history, we also made clear our strong determination to continue to invest in NATO’s partnerships. Our Alliance is at the heart of a network of nations that stretches from Casablanca to Canberra, and from Stockholm to Seoul – a vast network of security partnerships that will be vital in finding common solutions to common challenges, because in this new century, security very clearly has to be cooperative security.

Ladies and gentlemen,

During my career, I have often changed my assumptions about the world. Thirty years ago, I was taking trips to Moscow to voice our opposition to the Soviet Union’s nuclear arms build-up and destabilizing policies from Poland to Nicaragua, Angola and Ethiopia. But just a couple of weeks ago, I took a different sort of trip to Moscow – to explain why our developing NATO missile defence system poses no threat to Russia, and should become the basis for an unprecedented security partnership between NATO and Russia. This was a different kind of mission that reflects a new geopolitical reality. Before, we dealt as adversaries. Now, we want our relationship with Russia to develop into a true, strategic partnership in meeting common threats to all of our nations.

This 21st century is your century. You are the leaders of tomorrow. Your generation will produce the politicians, the thinkers and the do-ers to meet the challenges of the future.

How you approach those challenges is up to you. I have no doubt that you will do so with an open mind, and a genuine preparedness to change your own assumptions. But I am also confident that your generation, like my own, will view NATO as a tremendous achievement, and a precious asset.

I wish you all the very best of luck in your careers. Thanks for joining us here in Chicago.