Updated: 09-May-2001 NATO Speeches

The Hague,
The Netherlands
9 May 2001

"Perspectives on Democratic Civil-Military Relations and Reform"

Speech by NATO Secretary General, Lord Robertson
at the Centre for European Security Studies Conference
"Taking Stock on Civil-Military Relations"

Minister de Grave,
Dames en Heren,

It is a great pleasure to be here today. Indeed, as a Scot, I feel very much at home here, as Scotland is directly -- or at least indirectly -- responsible for the foundation of this beautiful city.

Some of you may be surprised to learn this, but it is true. In the 13th Century, Floris V was the Count of Holland. When he was a teenager, Floris sold his inherited rights to the Scottish Crown, and with the money he built the Castle around which this city was formed -- the Ridderzaal, as it is called today. An early example of the legendary Scottish generosity.

Of course, I am also happy to be here today because I feel that this is a very important, and very timely conference. I would like to congratulate the Centre for European Security Studies and their co-hosts from Canada and Switzerland for organising this conference. Civil-military relations have evolved, over the past decade, at dizzying speed. It is certainly worth taking a moment to pause, see how far we have come, and look forward to how these relations should evolve in future.

And let me stress that I have a very personal interest in making sure we get this evolution right. As NATO Secretary General, and before that as UK Secretary of Defence, I have spent much of my professional life at the sharp, pointy end of civil-military relations. I know, from experience, that we have made progress -- but we have a lot of improvements still to make, if civil-military relations are to deliver on their potential.

Two areas of civil-military relations, in particular, have evolved dramatically over the past decade. The long-term, political evolution is the ongoing transformation taking place in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to adopt new structures, practices and culture in civil-military relations. The short term, operational transformation is the dramatic change in civil-military relations taking place in peacekeeping operations, including of course in the Balkans. Both of these processes must succeed, if we are to have lasting peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.

Let me, if I may, offer you some of my thoughts on both of these major evolutions -- on how far we've come, and on the progress still to be made.

The transformation in civil-military relations in Central and Eastern Europe over the past decade has been nothing short of remarkable. Indeed, it is easy these days to forget how these relations were during the Cold War.

When there was a tight relationship -- even a symbiosis -- between the ruling party and the military. When there were no truly democratic Parliaments with the power to exercise any control over defence policy, or military spending. When Generals were put in charge of defence ministries as a matter of course. And when the military was too often used as a instrument of external or internal oppression, rather than being recognised as an essential and trusted element of a healthy civil society.

But almost the day after the Warsaw Pact collapsed, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe began to transform their civil-military relations -- to ensure that there would be proper democratic control over the military, and also to ensure that the military found a new, sustainable and respected role within the new democracies.

And from the same moment, NATO began to offer assistance to these countries in their reform efforts.

Why would NATO encourage this transition? The logic is, of course, very clear. First and foremost, a democratically controlled military is an essential element of any democracy, and we believe in democracy. Furthermore, as history has shown, a military that is fully part of a true democracy is less likely to be radicalized, less likely to be detached from the people, and less likely to be used for aggressive purposes. Strong motivations indeed to enhance democratic control, for all concerned.

Reform has advantages for the military as well. Indeed, far from tying its hands, democratic control of defence is useful for the military. Just like any organization, the military benefits from external scrutiny and oversight, because oversight helps prevent waste, and outside suggestions can spark innovation and improvements.

A transparent military is more efficient and more effective, over the long term, than one which operates in social seclusion and above the law. And it is in the interest of all of us that Partner countries have effective, professional and legitimate armed forces to contribute to meeting the security challenges we all face in the post-Cold War world.

It is for all of these reasons that NATO has worked so closely with its Partners to assist them in enhancing democratic control. That is why NATO's Partnership for Peace placed democratic control over the military as a high priority from the very beginning, and why it has remained a focus in our Partnership Work Programs.

Does that mean that the Alliance is offering some kind of uniform model, to be followed rigidly by Partner countries? Of course not. Indeed, NATO itself cannot provide a model, simply because each Ally follows its own unique cultural, political and military traditions.

However, NATO countries do have long experience in building and maintaining democratic societies, with the military as a full, legitimate and trusted part therein. And that experience has made it clear that while there is no single model, there are common denominators which are essential for proper civil-military relations in a democracy. Let me mention just a few.

There must be a constitutional and legislative structure which clearly defines responsibilities and checks and balances among state institutions. Accountable civilians must have key roles in preparing the defence budget, strategic planning, force structure development, arms acquisition, deployments, and military promotions. Parliament must have real, substantive oversight over security policy and defence spending.

There must be sufficient transparency of defence decision-making to allow for effective public scrutiny.

In all of these areas, Partner countries have made serious efforts to reform -- and NATO has provided its assistance, wherever possible. The results, in general, are very good. Central and Eastern European countries have made enormous progress in building new, more democratic civil-military relations. Constitutions and laws have been changed.

Parliaments have been given the power to oversee defence spending. Generals have been replaced as Defence Ministers by civilians. And slowly but surely, civilian confidence in the military is being restored, as citizens understand that the military is under democratic control -- that the army is accountable to the Government, and the government is accountable to the people.

These are major changes -- and they are changes for the better. They help promote peaceful relations within, and between Central and Eastern European countries. And they help all the countries of the Euro-Atlantic area move closer together, as modern, democratic countries sharing common values, and with effective armed forces to accomplish our common goals.

Does that mean that nothing remains to be done? Of course not. The pace and extent of reform is certainly not even across all the new democracies. Some countries could certainly make further improvements to their legislative frameworks; others to their procedures for defence policy development and procurement. Still others must make more efforts to promote trust and understanding of the military in their populations.

Let me mention one area where more effort must be made virtually across Central and Eastern Europe. That is the development of more civilian expertise in defence. Government ministers and Parliamentarians must understand the legitimate requirements of the military, if they are to give them the tools and support they need.

The military must, in turn, trust that their leadership understands their concerns. And there must also be a healthy expertise outside Government, in the media, in think tanks and universities, to give an impartial outside perspective on defence matters. Simply put, a healthy democracy requires a healthy, informed debate on defence, just as much as it needs an informed debate on education or health care, or any other issue of public policy.

The Alliance and its member countries run a large number of activities to develop civilian expertise in security. NATO offers a range of seminars and conferences, visit programmes, and fellowships. Students from Partner countries are studying not only defence issues, but also financial control and public administration. And NATO countries are working with Partners to support think tanks and research institutes across Central and Eastern Europe, to help expand the international civil-military community of defence experts.

There too, we are seeing concrete progress. And I believe that the enhancement of civilian expertise represents another vital step forward in the development of new civil-military relations within Central and Eastern European countries. Relations that are quickly becoming, not a hindrance to democracy, but an essential element of democracy. That will truly be a vital contribution to the long-term peace and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area.

But even as we work to build long-term stability, we must also address immediate crises. Bosnia and Kosovo have brought that lesson home very clearly indeed. And our efforts to bring peace to the Balkans have also showed us that in actual operations too, civil-military relations are changing quickly.

We all remember the way it was during the Cold War, and indeed before. Wars were expected to be between states. The job of armies was to fight and win wars. The job of the politicans was to tell the army when to fight, and when to stop. NGOs didn't know or trust the military -- and the feeling was mutual. That, in a nutshell, was pretty much the extent of civil-military relations in crisis situations.

In the post-Cold War context, of course, that relationship has changed fundamentally. Today, peace support operations very often take place in shattered countries, where there is no secure environment, and no self-sustaining society. In those circumstances, militaries and civilians have no choice but to work together, intimately, every day, if either is to succeed.

The relationship is very simple. In areas such as Kosovo and Bosnia -- or indeed Sierra Leone, or East Timor -- entire societies must be recreated. Schools and roads and hospitals must be remade. War crimes must be investigated. Governments must be recreated. Police forces and judges and lawyers must be trained. Economies must be restarted.

All of these efforts require civilian expertise. They are not principally jobs for soldiers. But the civilians need a secure environment in which to do their work, and they depend on the militaries to provide that secure environment. For its part, the military depends on the civilians just as much.

The military cannot go home until there is a self-sustaining peace -- and there can be no self-sustaining peace until the civilians have created the necessary political and economic conditions. In other words, in today's peacekeeping operations, military and civilians need each other -- whether they like it or not.

Increasingly, of course, they do like it. In the early days of the international community's involvement in Bosnia, there was plenty of mutual suspicion and misunderstanding between the military and civilian sides of the efforts to help Bosnia stand on its own two feet.

But if one looks at SFOR or KFOR today, daily civil-military cooperation is business as usual. The military commander and the Head of the UN Mission in Kosovo meet regularly, coordinate all activities, and liaise with all the NGOs on the ground for good measure. All in all, a sea change.

And the relationship is not just perfunctory, or rhetorical. On the contrary: military personnel provide regular, direct assistance to civilian authorities, where possible and appropriate -- be it for the return of refugees and displaced persons, the restoration of law and order, rebuilding infrastructure, or organising elections.

Of course, Civil-Military Cooperation or CIMIC, as the military calls it, does not replace civil implementation -- rather, it supports civil efforts. But CIMIC has quickly become absolutely essential. As Admiral Leighton Smith, Commander IFOR said in April 1996, "Five months ago, we had never heard of CIMIC, we had no idea what you did. Now, we can't live without you".

But if we have made improvements, that doesn't mean that that there is not more progress to be made here too. Operational CIMIC must be further enhanced and improved. We must ensure that CIMIC doctrine is as standardized as possible, across the Euro-Atlantic area, to ensure that we have the smoothest possible cooperation in multi-national operations. We must ensure that civilians and military work together, and train together, in peacetime, to be better prepared to meet the next crisis.

And we must work as hard as possible to break down residual cultural barriers and misunderstandings between militaries and civilian groups in operations -- because more than ever, we are all on the same team, and the team cannot win unless we all work together.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

That is a statement that bears repeating: "we are all on the same team, and the team cannot win unless we all work together". That principle is what lies behind the dramatic transformation that we have seen in civil-military relations over the past decade.

Today, all of the countries of the Euro-Atlantic area are on the same team -- sharing a common vision of how a democracy should work, and the role that the military should play within that democracy. At the same time, we are all working together, in the field, to uphold that vision where it has been challenged most directly -- and true civil-military cooperation is the key to our success in these missions as well.

Is there still progress to be made? Of course. These are complex relationships, requiring constant attention and constant improvements. But we are light years ahead of where we were even a decade ago -- and we are moving in the right direction. And this conference is another important step forward.

Thank you.

Go to Homepage Go to Index