The Atlantic Alliance and European Security in the 1990s

Address by NATO Secretary General, Manfred Wörner <br />to the Bremer Tabaks Collegium

  • 17 May. 1990
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  • Last updated: 04 Nov. 2008 22:07

History does not always flow evenly like a stream. There are phases in which it moves more slowly, and phases in which Brussels rapidly; phases when the momentum of events quickens; indeed when those events even outpace one another. Today we are experiencing this acceleration of history. The shape of our European political landscape is being transformed decisively.Europe is in search of a new form for itself. We still cannot tell what this will ultimately be, but certain contours are nonetheless already visible.

As is always the case in such phases of historical transition, new and bold perspectives and possibilities are being created; yet in our path we also find new risks and dangers.

The Opportunity

The opportunity: it is to finally realize our vision of a free and united Europe based on a secure and lasting order of peace. In this respect it is not of cardinal importance what we call it: whether European Peace Order, or Common European Home or European Confederation. What is important is the substantive content of such an order: human rights and free choice for all its citizens, equality before the law, openness of borders, self-determination, democracy and the protection of minority rights. This is what we have to insist on. The current debate on a future security structure for Europe is focussed far too much on procedural and structural matters. It would be better if instead we emphasized the substance of such an order. It is already contained in the three baskets of the CSCE process which we need to reinforce and to translate into a set of legally binding undertakings.

First and foremost are the universal values on which our Atlantic Community has been based since its very inception. These values are now in the ascendant throughout the world, and hopefully this time for good. The aspiration for freedom, democracy and a market-oriented economic system rooted in freedom is the driving force of history these days. The historical mission that falls to our generation is to assist this dynamic process, to steer it towards our vision and to undergird it with the necessary degree of stability. It thus also defines the basic task of our Atlantic Alliance which is the foremost community of destiny and of joint consultation and endeavour that we have in the free world today.

The Risks

Yet the risks bound up with the transition of our European states system are unmistakable. There is the risk of instability in internal as well as external developments, with even the danger of collapse. There are enormous problems associated with the building of democracy and with economic restructuring in Central and Eastern Europe. There are old national and ethnic rivalries that we thought had been overcome; border and minority questions are again rearing their heads. Nobody knows what is going to happen tomorrow in the Soviet Union, against the background of a Soviet military might that remains formidable. And to these risks we must add also those coming from the Third World: the proliferation of ballistic missile technology, and of chemical and nuclear weapons. Eternal peace is still nothing more than a sweet dream. Old-fashioned power politics is still the order of the day. Thus the other part of our current mission is to master these dangers and to contain or even eliminate the risks.

If we are to fulfil both parts of our historical mission, then we absolutely must have a strong, constructive partnership between the two major Western organisations : the Atlantic Alliance and the European Community. In this phase of our history, we need more urgently than ever a sense of common purpose, stability and cooperation with the United States. Without the Atlantic Alliance there can be no cohesion and unity throughout the Free World, no transatlantic partnership, no security and stability. Without the European Community there can be no closer union of the European nations, no economic prosperity, and no creative dynamism.

NATO and the EC

The Atlantic Alliance and the European Community are not rivals. They are complementary. They work in unison. Where their areas of competence overlap, we need practical understandings but not new institutions. We can come to such practical understandings because our two organisations have many common members; we can also use unbureaucratic contacts between the European Commission and the NATO International Staff. The Atlantic Alliance has an interest in a stronger and more united Europe - going all the way to political union, including a European defence identity within the broader Atlantic framework. In fact today we need this more than ever as we face enormous tasks that make it imperative to combine, not fragment all the forces of the free West, including those of North America.

The Tasks

The most important tasks are:

  1. to support the countries of Central and Eastern Europe in their efforts to build democracy and successful economies. Without our help, they stand no chance;
  2. to assist Gorbachev and those forces working for reform as long as their reforms seek to promote democracy, freedom, pluralism and the market economy;
  3. to build a new security system for the whole of Europe;
  4. to firmly anchor a united Germany in this security system as well as in the structures of the West - the European Community and NATO;
  5. to extend the process of disarmament and to ensure its speedy progress;
  6. as in the past, to prevent war and to make the threat of military aggression pointless.

How could we possibly complete these tasks if we abandon the Atlantic Alliance or tolerate its dissolution? That would be a serious historical mistake. The Atlantic Alliance:

  • has led the United States away from isolationism and towards a lasting commitment to uphold peace and stability in Europe; it will continue to do this in the future;
  • keeps the military might of the Soviet superpower in Europe in check;
  • has transformed nuclear weapons into a peacekeeping instrument. As arms control can reduce but never disinvent the nuclear weapon, Europeans would be well-advised to retain the controlling structure that the Alliance represents.

Model of Security Management -from Peace-keeping to Peace-building

The Atlantic Alliance has become a unique model of the collective management of security among free countries. It has created a political as well as a military partnership among sovereign states. This is an essential reason for its success in fostering peace. Now we must progress from peace-keeping to peace-building.

This stabilizing framework of the Alliance has also contributed to protecting the neutral states of Europe, and the newly-democratizing nations of Central and Eastern Europe recognize that without NATO they would not have regained their independence and freedom - and indeed could not retain them.

Without the stabilizing framework of our Alliance, Europe could once again become vulnerable to the shifting alliances and power politics of the past. Security would be "renationalized". The lessons of European history are clear on the subject of states seeking alone for their security.

Our challenge is to extend security without diminishing it. Neither the European Community nor the CSCE process, either individually or jointly, can substitute for the Atlantic Alliance in preserving security and freedom for the whole of Europe. Only the Atlantic Alliance can bind the United States and Canada to Europe; only it can guarantee that change can unfold without fear of setbacks and reversals. Only it can coordinate the West's grand strategy for peace and the securing of democratic values in the new Europe and anchor a united Germany in the West under conditions of maximum security for both itself and its neighbours.

A European Security Structure

The primary task of the next decade will be to build a new European security structure, to include the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact nations. The Soviet Union will have an important role to play in the construction of such a system. If you consider the current predicament of the Soviet Union, which has practically no allies left, then you can understand its justified wish not to be forced out of Europe.

Such a European security structure will have the job of organizing a security partnership of the European states to overcome the rigid hostility of the Cold War years, and to progress from confrontation to cooperation. Two alternatives are currently being discussed : a structure of collective security in which the two alliances would be dissolved in favour of a cooperative security organization; or one that is built around existing structures - the Atlantic Alliance and the European Community - and which works like an overarching framework, binding them together and extending them.

Only this second alternative is a serious option for us, because, if history is anything to go by, a collective security system would only work if all the participating states had perfectly concordant interests. When one state has to guarantee the security of all the other states, it really is in no position to give any concrete guarantee to anyone in the event of a conflict. A collective security system depends on permanent goodwill on all sides. In essence it only operates until it is put to its first serious test - and then it breaks up into mutually antagonistic alliances and power blocs. The pre-war League of Nations is our best example of this. Thus we have to build the future European security architecture on existing structures and to further develop those forms of cooperation that are already available to us.

We have the following elements of such an architecture:

  1. The CSCE process
  2. This already offers us the embryon of a future security architecture. Under its aegis, the 35 participating nations can shape their relationship in a spirit of togetherness and concrete cooperation. We therefore have to develop the CSCE, bringing in new elements, such as the right to free elections - and also to institutionalize it. Then we can make good use of it as a forum for regular consultations over security, confidence-building, crisis prevention and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. We have to extend the process of arms control and take it further to the point when no European nation or collection of nations can any longer threaten another with military force, or hope to launch a successful military aggression.

  3. The European Community
  4. This is the most promising and attractive model of political integration with its goal of a political union and the prospect of associating other European nations. It even offers the prospect of a future European confederation.

  5. The Atlantic Alliance
  6. This gives us history's most successful model of an Alliance of sixteen free and sovereign states for the collective preservation of their security. This Alliance is united and determined; and it is capable of fulfilling its future tasks. The CSCE cannot fulfil these tasks, not now or in the future. It lacks the power to decide and implement sanctions. All of its 35 member states have the right of veto. The interests, social structures and value systems that make up the CSCE are still far too diverse for them to be able in the event of conflict to formulate or to impose a common security policy. This will be all the more difficult if one or more of them are engaged in the conflict in question. This does not in any way restrict the usefulness of CSCE as a medium for confidence building. But it cannot replace the Atlantic Alliance which will remain an essential pillar of the future European security architecture.

German Membership

The other primary task is to anchor a united Germany firmly into the institutional structures of the West, the EC and NATO.

Three basic considerations determine our Alliance policy:

  • Neutrality or non-alignment of the united Germany are not acceptable for us. They would destabilize Europe and take us back to the days of balance of power diplomacy, of alliances and counter-alliances.
  • The united Germany must not be subjected to any discriminatory special regimes. They would only produce resentment sooner or later. On this point too, history teaches us a sobering lesson.
  • We have to find solutions that respect the legitimate security interests of all the participants - including the Soviet Union. I emphasize: all participants; in other words not only the Soviet Union. That nation has a right to expect that German unification and Germany's membership of the Atlantic Alliance will not prejudice its security. But it is also clear that it cannot expect us to put NATO's existence on the line and thus give it something that it never succeeded in obtaining in the past, even at the height of its power. The West cannot respond to the erosion of the Warsaw Pact with the weakening or even dissolution of the Atlantic Alliance; the only response is to establish a security framework that embraces both alliances : in other words one that draws the Soviet Union into a cooperative Europe.

We are already in the process of examining our strategy and our Alliance tasks, and of adapting them to changed circumstances. Yet nobody can expect us to deprive NATO of its core security function and its ability to prevent war. Our strategy and our Alliance are exclusively defensive. They threaten no-one, neither today nor tomorrow. We will never be the first to use our weapons. We are prepared for radical disarmament, right down to the minimum level that we must retain to guarantee our security.

This will also be true of a united Germany in NATO. The very fact that we are ready not to deploy NATO troops beyond the territory of the Federal Republic gives the Soviet Union firm security guarantees. Moreover we could conceive of a transitional period during which a reduced number of Soviet forces could remain stationed in the present-day GDR. This will meet Soviet concerns about not changing the overall East-West strategic balance. Soviet politicians are wrong to claim that German membership of NATO will lead to instability. The opposite is true. Europe including the Soviet Union would gain stability. It would also gain a genuine partner in the West ready to cooperate.

We have left behind us the old friend/foe mind-set and the confrontational outlook. We do not need enemies nor threat perceptions. We do not look upon the Soviet Union as the enemy. We want that nation to become our partner in ensuring security. On the other hand, we expect the Soviet Union not to see us as a military pact directed against it or even threatening it. Instead we wish the Soviet Union to see our Alliance as an open and cooperative instrument of stability in an over-arching European security system. We are not proposing something to the Soviet Union which is against its interests. What we have to offer can only be to its advantage. I am confident that this insight will gradually gain ground in Moscow, especially as the other Warsaw Pact countries see things the same way as we do.

The Political Role

From what I have said, I think it is clear how crucial NATO's political role will be in the future. We do not have to invent such a political role for ourselves. From its very inception, the Atlantic Alliance was more than just a military pact, even if during the Cold War years the military aspects perforce overshadowed the political ones. It has always been a community of values and a community of destiny among free nations, and today more so than ever on both counts. Thus in today's changed circumstances the Alliance's new political tasks are a logical extension of this fundamental raison d'etre.

  1. As a community of destiny the Alliance has the task of coordinating the policies of its members:
    • to shape East-West relations;
    • to help construct a new democratic and peaceful European states system;
    • to guide and verify arms control.
  2. As a community of values:
  • to shape West-West relations; in other words, to maintain a vibrant transatlantic partnership;
  • to bring the various interests of its members into harmony and to identify the common denominator;
  • to tackle new security problems and to develop collective solutions;
  • in short: to shape the future course of peace.

Yet no matter how crucial the political character of the Atlantic Alliance now is, and no matter how important its political tasks, we must never forget one thing : its primary function is to maintain peace; only on that basis can we successfully deploy our efforts to build a more peaceful order.


Neither policies to promote detente, nor arms control nor diplomacy by themselves can prevent war. We cannot dispense with military efforts in the context of a coherent and credible defence posture. For this reason NATO will also remain a defensive Alliance. Even if there is now no danger of a direct attack by the Soviet Union, there are still considerable risks to our security. The situation in the Soviet Union itself is extremely unstable and we cannot base our security solely on the good intentions of a Soviet leader. People and intentions can change.

The Soviet Union still has enormous military capabilities; under any scenario it will still be the dominant European power on the Eurasian continent.

If we allow our defence to fall away and our Alliance to fall apart, the Soviet Union could be tempted in a crisis to use force against us, or at least to threaten us with force. Who would then respond?

Our defence efforts are thus indispensable for the foreseeable future to guarantee peace and to provide us with the necessary element for crisis management. War at the close of the twentieth century is so potentially catastrophic that we cannot take its prevention less seriously merely because it is now less likely.

Nevertheless the changed threat perception and the progress of arms control now enable us to adjust our defence efforts, our defence planning and strategy to today's different circumstances. We have already begun this work. A series of NATO ministerial meetings this spring and summer - culminating in a Summit early in July - will point the way ahead.

We will review our strategy and adjust it to the changed circumstances. We will significantly reduce types and numbers of our nuclear weapons, and we will gain the initiative also in the field of nuclear disarmament. In the future we will meet our task of war prevention and defence with fewer soldiers and weapons, with a lower level of readiness, less stationed troops and a higher dependence on force mobilization. We are going to modify the operational implementation of our strategic principle of forward defence. Electronic in-telligence and command and communications systems will become more important. So will multinational units. In the next set of arms control negotiations, we will try to engage the Soviet Union in the quest for a common definition of minimal deterrence. A minimum of nuclear weapons will, however, also be needed in the future to prevent war. A denuclearization of Germany or of Europe as a whole would only leave us vulnerable to nuclear blackmail and would make conventional war once again feasible. The complete elimination of nuclear weapons would not bring more, but less security.

One thing is of particular importance : that we maintain a coherent, integrated defence and defence planning structure, including German forces. It would not be a good thing if each Ally were to reduce according to its fancy, without prior consultation within the Alliance and with the other Allies.

From all I have said, it is clear that NATO is by no means obsolete. Quite the reverse. For each of its three roles, it is indispensable.

  1. In its role as a political alliance and community of values for the free world: as an instrument of change and peace-building.
  2. In its role as the transatlantic alliance: as the link and foundation that binds North America and Europe together in a community of destiny.
  3. In its role as a security alliance: as an instrument to preserve peace and as a framework of stability that is the precondition of positive change.

A Changing Alliance

At the same time, our Alliance is changing with the new times and through time. Already during the last two years it has begun to adjust to changed circumstances in the definition of its tasks, substance and policies. This adjustment will continue for some time yet. The centre of gravity of our Alliance is shifting:

  • from confrontation to cooperation,
  • from a military to a political Alliance,
  • from deterrence to protection against risks and the guarantee of stability,
  • from peace-keeping to peace-building,
  • from a US-led Alliance to a genuine partnership with the Europeans now playing an equal leadership role.

The forthcoming NATO Summit will consecrate this new sharing of leadership roles within the Alliance, and it will produce a broad-ranging strategy for the changing Europe of the nineties.

Europe's Alternatives

Europe has a basic choice: either it lapses back into the old power politics and balance of power diplomacy of past centuries or it moves ahead along the road leading to a new order of peace and freedom, whether this be based on multinational or supranational cooperation. Our choice is clear: we are going forward. Our Alliance together with the European Community is the most successful model of such multinational cooperation. It is and will remain our best guarantee for a future of security and freedom.