Updated: 17-May-2002 NATO Speeches

Forum Europe,
17 May 2002

Keynote Speech
by NATO Secretary General, Lord Robertson

Defence and Security in an Uncertain World

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to give the keynote address at the launch of the "New Defence Agenda". This agenda aims to be a platform for discussion on European defence issues by bringing together political leaders, officials, industry executives and policy analysts. This is a commendable effort. Because what we refer to as "strategic community" is often everything but a community. I therefore welcome all initiatives designed to build bridges.

My speech this morning is about military capabilities, why they matter, and how we should go about acquiring them. This subject may come across as old-fashioned to some, yet it is a most timely subject. Because capabilities still matter.

In the Cold War, the relevance of military power was well understood. After the end of this unique period, however, there were hopes that, from now on, "soft" rather than "hard" power would determine our security - as if the rightness of our cause would translate into sound policy.

These illusions were swiftly shattered. We saw in Bosnia that economic sanctions or moral condemnation were of little value without the credible backing of military power. In Kosovo, we learned that same lesson once again: our military competence was essential in preventing a humanitarian tragedy.

Today, in Afghanistan, military capabilities are once again demonstrating their importance. Military prowess has not only crushed Al Qaida. It has also crushed the myth of invulnerability that surrounded Osama Bin Laden and his henchmen. A few months ago, in some quarters, the leaders of Al Qaida were icons of a self-declared "holy war". Today, they are either dead, captive, or on the run. And what we now see emerging is something quite different from what Al Qaida had been fighting for: a democratic Afghanistan, a country embracing political change, a nation that has been given a new lease of life.

These dramatic changes were not brought about by "soft power" or moral appeals. They were brought about by military force - applied in a determined and bold fashion, and embedded in what amounts to a political masterstroke: an almost global coalition against terror.

Don't get me wrong. There is also a vital role for the application of "soft power", for humanitarian assistance, economic re-construction, and the development of civilian institutions. In Afghanistan, the time for applying soft power has now come. But the fact remains that without serious military capabilities, we would have had no serious influence on the situation.

There can be no doubt, therefore, that effective military means will remain a precondition for our security. As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan once memorably put it: "You can do a lot with diplomacy, but much more with diplomacy backed by effective military force".

There can also be no doubt that military force is best applied in a coalition. If you have Allies, you can maximise your military impact, while sharing risks and costs. You also increase the political legitimacy of an operation. And the collective sharing of responsibility for an operation can make things easier if something goes wrong. With 19 member countries and 27 Partner countries, NATO is the world's largest permanent coalition. It remains the most effective way to organise our security.

I know of course that since September 11, some have questioned whether the United States needs or even wants to act together with its Allies. This debate is completely off the mark. Over a dozen NATO Allies are militarily engaged alongside the US in Afghanistan, either in the hunt for Al Qaida or bringing stability to Kabul. Their ability to work with the US and with each other is a product of one thing: decades of experience in NATO. This is the most powerful arguments against the sceptics. It makes perfectly clear that the US remains in favour of acting through coalitions.

To me, the real question is a different one. Not whether the US and its Allies want to work together. But whether they still can work together. This is the most important question with respect to the future of the transatlantic security relationship. Because if the US and its Allies could no longer act as a meaningful military coalition, it would not matter how many countries joined the Alliance. NATO would be marginalised as a serious organisation.

The United States is adopting new technologies and operational concepts more rapidly and on a larger scale than its Allies. The United States spends about 3% of its GNP on defence, and this figure is rising as a result of September 11. By contrast, NATO Europe spends only about 1,8%, and this figure is essentially static. Furthermore, only Turkey and the United Kingdom are spending the same proportion of their defence budgets on research, the development, and procurement as does the United States.

This gap is not simply a gap in numbers. It has real operational significance. Two examples illustrate it:

First, strategic airlift. Europe's shortcomings are clear. At this moment, only the UK has even a very limited strategic airlift capability. The arrival of the A400M will change this picture -- but only at the end of this decade. Until then, Europe will be forced to improvise: either to lease planes from other nations, or to rely on commercial contracts. The reality is, however, that there are few commercial assets available.

What does this mean for operations? An inability to move heavy vehicles and equipment of all kinds. In Afghanistan, it meant long delays in deploying the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. In particular, it meant a significant lack in transporting heavy equipment, from supply trucks through to armoured troop carriers, and chemical and biological detection vehicles. And let me be clear: these shortcomings do not just affect deployments in faraway places, such as Central Asia. They also affect the ability to deploy in the European theatre. Just think of what would happen if a major new Balkan crisis erupted while the US was engaged elsewhere.

A second example is precision-guided weapons. They are essential in modern combat - not only to hit the target, but also to minimise civilian casualties. They are increasingly needed because of international law and pressure by public opinion. Most nations do have precision-guided munitions, but only the US can employ them day or night, in good or bad weather.

What does this mean for operations? It means that the US is forced to carry the lion's share of air-to-ground missions and, hence, of the risks. Militarily as well as politically, this could become an untenable situation. It flies in the face of equitable burden-sharing. It can lead to European resentment. And if unresolved, it raises the spectre of hi-tech US forces taking the cutting edge role while the Europeans fight below in the mud, at the bleeding edge of operations.

This list of shortcomings could be extended almost ad infinitum. Surveillance, air-to-air refuelling, tactical missile defence -- on a wide range of issues there is a real gap between the US and its Allies, a gap both of quality of individual equipment and of respective ability to integrate equipment into a coherent system. If this trend continues, it will push us towards a "division of labour" which we should avoid at all cost: a division whereby the US provides the logistics, the smart bombs and the intelligence, and the lower-tech Allies provide the soldiers or wring their hands on the sidelines.

Such a division of labour would be politically unsustainable. We must ensure that the burdens, the costs, the risks, but also the responsibilities are shared equally.

What can be done to achieve this? What must be done? Some have put forward a deceptively simple answer: do nothing! If Europe cannot match the US in any case, they argue, why bother? Why even try to resist a trend that appears irresistible? Let NATO become a "more political" organisation instead. Let NATO continue as an institution that embraces Europe's East, let it continue to be a school for democratic security. But forget it as a serious military player. At most, Europe should focus on regional peacekeeping missions, while the United States should focus on high-intensity conflict. With such a division of labour, we'll be living happily ever after. Case made!

This school of thought - this "post-September-11-fatalism" school of thought - has got it terribly wrong. There is no future for NATO as a purely "political" alliance. NATO's uniqueness derives from its ability to translate political decisions quickly into military action. This is the NATO we want - and need. Because no other institution in our toolbox of transatlantic security can offer this unique combination. Neither the US nor its Allies - current and future Allies - want a "NATO lite". They want the real thing. And they can get it, provided they focus on realistic goals and pursue them energetically.

So, once again, what should be done? Here are three proposals.

First, we need to focus more on improving those capabilities which are most critical for the success of a transatlantic military coalition. The European Allies cannot hope to match the US system-for-system. But even the US is not militarily self-sufficient. It has its own shortcomings. The European and Canadian Allies should thus have a closer look at which capabilities they can offer to a common operation.

Such an approach, however, would require quite a serious change in the way we do business. For example, we need to look at critical shortfalls in terms of capabilities rather than projects. Rather than producing ever longer lists of European shortfalls we should aim for a much shorter list of key capabilities - and then pursue a more focussed approach in acquiring them. And, needless to add, these renewed efforts to acquire new capabilities should tie in with the EU's own initiatives in order to maximise the payoff for both institutions. When our Defence Ministers will meet in early June, we can expect some concrete proposals in this regard.

Second, we need to deepen and thus improve armaments cooperation, both across Europe and across the Atlantic. There have been many declaratory calls for this over the years, and in NATO we can claim quite a number of successes in transatlantic armaments cooperation, but we need now to change gear and set our sights higher.

Although interoperability is a key goal of NATO armaments cooperation, the fundamental mission of NATO's armaments community is the enhancement of defence capabilities. And it seems clear to me that increasingly, such enhancement is more likely to be achieved through common programmes, ideally by providing NATO owned and operated capabilities, such as NATO AWACS. To facilitate such common programmes, we need common agreement on operational requirements, and new and more efficient ways of managing projects collaboratively. And we need to coordinate acquisition purchases, because, as every consumer knows, products cost less when they can be bought in bulk.

Let me be clear. Progress in armaments cooperation is vital because if the capability gap across the Atlantic continues to widen, Washington will eventually be faced with a choice between unilateral action and no action at all, because the interoperability fostered in NATO on which all multinational operations depend will become impossible. To prevent such a situation, we simply must improve such transatlantic cooperation, both governmentally and industrially, at all levels.

In the recent past, I have been brutal with European audiences about the need to invest in capabilities and spend defence funds more wisely, but the United States has also a major role to play in facilitating European defence modernisation, and thus transatlantic armaments cooperation. On a number of occasions I have called on the United States to ease unnecessary restrictions on technology transfer and industrial cooperation, and specifically to liberalise its export policies. And I do so again today.

Let me say, however, that I am encouraged by recent developments in this sphere. US Assistant Secretary of State Lincoln Bloomfield is undertaking a comprehensive review of the US export control regime. In a recent letter to President Bush, 42 US Defence Company CEO's supported reform of export controls.

I am also encouraged by reports that the Administration is prepared to allow the export of the "Predator" Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to a NATO Ally. The campaign in Afghanistan has underlined the remarkable capabilities of UAV technology, access to which by the Europeans would undeniably help them in their efforts to close the capability gap and remain effective as a "high-end" warfighting partner to the United States.

Such a welcome move in US policy could also have significant implications for NATO's Alliance Ground Surveillance programme. Incorporation of UAV's, including some form of co-development with the US Global Hawk programme, into the planned NATO AGS architecture could well make the difference between whether we succeed or fail in meeting this crucial capability goal.

Third, we need to move ahead with the European Union's Security and Defence Policy. Fifty years ago, it was the United States that threatened an "agonizing reappraisal" of its policy vis-à-vis Europe should the Europeans fail to get their act together on a common defence. Fortunately for Europe, that threat was never carried out.

Today, it is Europe itself, the EU above all, which has to undertake such an "agonizing reappraisal" of its approach to defence. Because irrespective of declarations and new committees, Europe is still not seen as seriously addressing the transatlantic capabilities gap. Up to now, even the EU's much-heralded "Headline Goal" appears to be about numbers rather than new capabilities.

If the EU does not resist the perception that ESDP is producing more bureaucracy than capability, we will end with two gaps: a transatlantic capability gap, and a European credibility gap. This is hardly a recipe for healthy transatlantic relations in the 21st century.

To overcome this dilemma, some interesting suggestions have been put forward. For example, some have advocated an EU "White Paper". Such an exercise could force EU members to finally produce a common strategic vision. Others have suggested the introduction of "convergence criteria" for defence budgets, building on the success of such criteria in preparing the Monetary Union.

As interesting as these ideas are, however, I don't believe they will get us around the toughest question of all: whether there is sufficient political will to spend more and spend better on defence. Without the political will to face the financial implications of ESDP, the project will not move sufficiently quickly to make a difference.

It is here where the true litmus test for ESDP will ultimately lie: whether the European governments can convince their constituencies that support for Europe also means support for higher defence spending. I believe they can and they should especially after September 11. People all over Europe have understood that they need to invest more in their safety. The EU must capitalise on this new awareness.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A more coherent focus on key capabilities, re-vitalised arms cooperation, and a more serious commitment to European Security and Defence Policy: these are the three major steps that need to be taken in my view to ensure the vitality of the transatlantic security bond. None of these steps would lead to a total convergence of US and European defence capabilities. The US will remain second-to-none, and it will surge ahead in many areas. But while US and Allied capabilities would not necessarily be comparable in their overall strength, they would nonetheless be compatible, complementary and interoperable.

Can we achieve these ambitious goals? We certainly can. But not by scaremongering. Arguments for increases in budgets or for enhancing armaments cooperation will fall on deaf ears if the broader context is missing. We must supply this broader context. Earlier this week, at the NATO Foreign Ministers Meeting in Reykjavik, it was suggested that we need a wider public debate on NATO's roles and future missions. I wholeheartedly agree. Because only in a wider debate about the future security environment, about the role of military capabilities, and about the role of NATO, can we generate a new awareness of the requirements for our own security.

The Prague Summit in November will be the right moment for launching such a broader debate. It will be a key opportunity to convey our messages to our constituencies: that we may be faced with new and more dangerous challenges. That we need to be sufficiently insured against these challenges. That our main insurance policy is investing in military capabilities - both in NATO and in the EU. And that we must be prepared to pay the premium.

Thank you.

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