Updated: 11-Apr-2002 NATO Speeches

At the Council on Foreign Relations
Washington, DC,
10 April 2002

"NATO on the Road to Prague"

Speech by NATO Secretary General, Lord Robertson

Photos by Kaveh Sardari

I am very pleased to back here in Washington: the city where NATO was born 53 years ago this month, where its founding principles and enduring vision were first enshrined, and where in 1999 the capstone was placed on a decade of post-Cold War change. If the Atlantic Alliance has a spiritual home, this is surely it.

What better place could there be then to set out how NATO is once again adapting itself to a third set of challenges? First, the frozen certainties of the Cold War threat to Europe. Then the diverse risks to security and stability in the post-Cold war Euro-Atlantic area. And now, the fight against terrorism, the threat from weapons of mass destruction and the opportunities of building a real and lasting relationship with Russia.

My aim today is two fold: to reinforce some truths about NATO that can sometimes be forgotten by even the most partisan Atlanticists; and to dispel some myths that could, if left unchallenged, gnaw away at opinion on both sides of the ocean. In doing so, I will set out my vision of what NATO is for in the 21st century.

The core of that vision is deceptively simple. NATO embodies the transatlantic link between North America and Europe, the most successful alliance in history. As President Truman said when the Washington Treaty was signed, NATO safeguards the peace and prosperity of our community of nations.

If anything, September 11th has reinforced that purpose. During its first half-century, NATO sometimes appeared something of a one-way street, with the United States exporting security and deterrence to a potentially vulnerable or unstable Europe.

No longer. We are all targets now. And we surely do not need to be convinced that NATO's core business, of defending the homelands of its members from attack, is as important now as at any time since 1949.

In this unpredictable and interconnected world, we all need alliances and partnerships to ensure our defense and security. This Administration's exercise in coalition building after September 11th was a masterful example of active diplomacy. Do not forget, however, that in assembling the coalition against terrorism, the United States could build on the largest permanent coalition in the world in NATO.

Secretary Powell did not need to ring each of NATO's 19 member capitals to start the process that led, on September 12th, to the declaration that the attack on the United States was an attack on all NATO countries. All he needed to do was to ring me.

Photos by Kaveh Sardari

Nor did he need to ring each of the 27 other countries who are part of NATO's Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, countries as important to the coalition as Russia and the

Central Asian republics. Once NATO was engaged, the Partnership Council produced an equally robust declaration of support within a day.

You cannot build this level of support and partnership overnight. In diplomacy as in life, friendship must be worked at. And NATO is a unique vehicle for doing so, with staunch friends from Vancouver to Vladivostock.

Nor was invocation of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty simply a political statement. It has become fashionable to acknowledge NATO's value in mobilising international support while decrying its practical contribution in responding to the terrorist threat.

Like most followers of fashion, these critics should get out more often into the real world. They should look up into the sky over American cities where NATO early warning aircraft have been helping to prevent a repetition of September 11. They should look at the Balkans where NATO forces have been smashing Al-Qaida terrorist cells. They should read the reports of a unique meeting in Rome earlier this year where NATO and Russian officers started a process of cooperation in developing the military contribution to the war on terrorism.

Perhaps most importantly, the critics should look at Afghanistan where Canadian and Norwegian forces are searching for Al-Qaida fighters alongside their American comrades. Where French fighter aircraft are flying dangerous low-level missions. Where British tanker aircraft are refuelling US Navy bombers because US Air Force tankers are incompatible and cannot do so. Where 14 NATO countries are contributing troops on the ground to bring stability to Kabul.

NATO has not led the operations in Afghanistan. But it is no coincidence that America's military partners in Afghanistan are overwhelmingly its NATO allies. Without NATO, these coalition contributions would have been impossible. As in the Gulf War, this coalition can only work together effectively because of decades of practical cooperation in NATO, building interoperability and common operating procedures.

The Duke of Wellington famously said that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton School. By the same token, Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom were won on the training grounds of NATO.

And the fact that NATO has not been in the lead in Afghanistan should not be taken to mean that it will not lead in other military operations in the future. To paint this single mission, successful as it has been, as the sole model for subsequent deployments would be as misguided as to have argued in the 1990s that Desert Storm or Kosovo should be the unique templates for the future.

If the post-Cold War world has a lesson, it is that threats, risks and challenges are diverse and often unpredictable. Our response must be inherently flexible to cope. And NATO is a key element in ensuring this flexibility.

On that theme, let me slay one final myth. Some commentators base their critique of NATO's alleged irrelevance on a fundamental misreading of the Alliance's role in the Balkans. In particular, they portray the 1999 campaign in Kosovo as an example of how not to run a military operation. "War by committee" is the commonest jibe. NATO's multinational decision-making process is said to have slowed down and blunted the air campaign.

This interpretation of the Kosovo campaign is quite simply wrong. Of course, there were wrinkles in the early days. I cannot think of a military operation of any kind where that was not the case. But they were ironed out quickly and thereafter military decisions were taken rapidly and smoothly.

The man who should know best, General Wesley Clark, the American commander of the NATO operation, said last February that his problems "were less a function of war by committee than a result of divisions within the US government."

Kosovo was not the model for all operations. But neither did it invalidate NATO's capacity for conducting complex military missions. Quite the contrary. NATO's campaign was an extraordinary success. It achieved its aim of reversing Milosevic's ethnic cleansing and averted a human catastrophe in eleven weeks with little loss of life and no allied battle casualties.

Milosevic is now on trial in The Hague and Yugoslav membership of NATO's Partnership for Peace is on the agenda in democratic Belgrade.

Nor is NATO a one trick pony in the Balkans. Last year, two small NATO operations - one to collect arms, the other to protect international monitors - helped avert a civil war in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

That crisis had the potential to ignite a tinder-box of instability across the Balkans and beyond. The cost in lives and human misery, and in all likelihood the costs of a much larger international intervention, were saved by early NATO action. Without NATO's engagement, the US could have faced a broader Balkan war in parallel in with September 11.

So the first part of my argument is that the mythmakers have got it wrong: NATO is as central to security today as at any time in its history. It has never been the only show in town. But NATO is the most important multinational organisation in its field. If it didn't exist, after September 11 we would undoubtedly be looking to invent it.

I recognise, however, that no organisation can afford to rest on it laurels. Even if the need for NATO remains as great as ever, the challenges it faces are undoubtedly very different. The Alliance's constituents, in Washington, elsewhere in the United States and indeed, in every NATO country need therefore to know that NATO is adapting to meet today's new risks as effectively as it fulfilled its traditional agenda.

Our November summit in Prague is the focus for this process of the change. NATO's governments should be judged by what they endorse at that meeting. The signs are good, but there is much to do.

First, we must learn the lessons of September 11. No one anticipated those monstrous acts of terrorism. Our job now is to do everything possible to prevent future so-called asymmetric attacks by terrorist or terrorist states. Armed forces are only one weapon in our armory. But they can play an important part in raising the shadow of terror.

By invoking Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, NATO gave a warning to terrorists that they had crossed an unacceptable threshold. We must now back up that warning by ensuring that our forces have the evident capability to strike at these terrorists and their sponsors. And we must stop those who are proliferating the weapons of mass destruction that pose the most serious risk.

Prevention is always better than cure. But prevention can never be guaranteed. So we also need to maximise the contribution that our forces can make to protecting themselves and our civilian populations.

There is no silver bullet to deal with the terrorist. What is needed is a coherent spectrum of capabilities that together give us options to deter, strike or defeat, depending on the circumstances. That is what NATO is good at. We have unparalleled mechanisms for coordinating military planning and bringing these plans to fruition.

During the Cold War, we had to respond to a massive and evolving single threat on Europe's doorstep. Following the Cold War, we had to transform our forces to undertake smaller but equally demanding operations further from home.

Now we need to give new emphasis to such capabilities as special forces, ground surveillance, chemical and biological defense, missile defense, precision-guided munitions, strategic air transport and air-to-air refueling.

For those of us used to heavy metal armies, it is an unfamiliar shopping list. But in NATO, this latest military revolution is already well under way.

Last night, President Bush and I discussed at length the common threats facing Europe and North America. We agreed that weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery ? in the hands of either rogue states or terrorists ? are among the most serious threats in today's security environment.

NATO allies recognise these threats and are prepared to engage constructively with the United States to address them. And President Bush assured me of his intention to tackle these issues in cooperation with America's permanent allies in NATO.

Anticipating your questions, let me just say that I won't speculate on particular hypothetical scenarios in the case of Iraq.

However, I will say that the Alliance will continue to serve as a forum for consultations on these issues ? as it did recently when Deputy Secretary of State Armitage met the North Atlantic Council to discuss Iraq and as it does regularly when Allied proliferation experts meet to consider the WMD threat.

The process of military adaptation will come together in a package at the Prague Summit. It will also include modernisation of NATO's command and decision-making machinery to ensure that we can deal effectively and flexibly with the most demanding asymmetric threats.

And it will go beyond NATO's member to draw in the 27 partner countries who are already working alongside us in the Balkans and in the fight against terrorism.

Key to this is NATO's rapidly transforming relationship with Russia. September 11 proved an extraordinary catalyst. For the first time since 1945, it focused attention here, in Europe and in Moscow on what we have in common. And it led, not to a temporary thaw, but to a real sea change in attitudes on both sides.

We are not sacrificing NATO's coherence or effectiveness. Nor are we turning a blind eye to those issues where we still have real disagreements with Russia.

The initiative currently under negotiation in Brussels and Moscow is a pragmatic recognition that genuine cooperation on terrorism and, I hope, a range of other issues is to our mutual benefit. President Putin has told me that he hopes our work will change the world for the better. That would indeed be an unexpected but worthy epitaph to the victims of New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

I am confident that we will be working effectively with the Russians in a new institutional format well before Prague. I am equally confident that this relationship will neither derail nor be derailed by the Alliance's second round of enlargement, which will be decided at the Summit.

NATO will enlarge and be stronger for it. What I cannot say yet - and will not speak about until we meet in Prague - is exactly how many new members we will accept and which of the nine candidates countries will receive invitations.

Enlargement sends a clear message to NATO's critics. We have a new agenda. But we also remain committed to achieving our prior objectives.

For me, an especially high priority is the continuing modernisation of NATO's military capabilities. This underpins everything that NATO does. So I have been particularly brutal with European audiences about the need to invest and spend more effectively.

Political statements on their own cut no ice with terrorists or dictators. If Europe is to punch its weight as an ally of the United States - and in its own interests where Washington is not engaged - it must complete the modernisation of its armed forces. And do so quickly. That will be a critical goal at Prague.

But let me make two points that Americans need to keep in mind where assessing the performance of their European allies.

First, remember that most European countries are having to develop modern, useable, deployable armed forces from scratch. During the Cold War they needed large conscript armies to deter the Soviet Union. These armies are no longer needed today. And unlike the United States, most European countries had no tradition of operating beyond their borders. Indeed countries like Germany were positively discouraged from doing so.

European commitment in the Balkans and now in Afghanistan reflect a major shift in thinking and capability. They need to do much better. But give them credit for what they have already achieved.

Second, please recall that it is in US interest to close the capability gap. If the gap continues to grow, Washington will eventually be faced with a choice between unilateral action and no action. Because the interoperability fostered in NATO on which all multinational military operations depend will become impossible.

What country would be prepared to commit its soldiers to operations in Afghanistan, whether against Al-Qaida or to help bring stability to Kabul, if they could not communicate with US bomber aircraft or their headquarters?

So the United States must also work to close the capabilities gap. Interoperability with NATO must be a key factor in procuring communications equipment. Transatlantic defense industrial cooperation must be encouraged and enhanced to improve interoperability at all levels, while we work together to prevent technology leakage. And all European efforts to improve their capabilities, whether in NATO or under EU auspices, should be welcomed as a material contribution to improved burden-sharing.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dean Acheson said in 1946, the year when both President Bush and I entered this world, that "the really successful international organisations are those that recognise and express underlying realities". And he was right.

In facing long-term, strategic challenges, there can be no substitute for long-term, strategic partners. Partners you can trust. Partners who trust you. That is the underlying reality which the North Atlantic Alliance has always been about.

Today, NATO remains what, in 1949, President Truman said it would be: an organisation which brings together the most successful democracies in the world, to discuss security challenges, to coordinate their positions on solving them, and to organise their military capabilities to accomplish common missions to protect their common interests.

The Prague Summit will be an important moment for the transatlantic relationship. It will be a time when leaders from North America and Europe reaffirm their commitment to an

Alliance that continues to preserve the peace and security of its members after 53 strong years.

It will confirm NATO's role as an unique tool for building consensus, both amongst Allies and with new partners. It will hone NATO's capacity to deliver modern, effective multinational coalitions where they are needed, under a NATO flag or otherwise.

And it will reinforce NATO's unique capacity to promote peace and security right across the Euro-Atlantic area.

In confirming these "underlying realities", the Prague Summit will prove Dean Acheson's wisdom, and Harry Truman's vision, by ensuring NATO's continuing success at preserving the safety of future generations.

Thank you.

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