Updated: 25-Feb-2003 NATO Speeches

Institute Washington, D.C.

20 Feb. 2003

Building a Transatlantic Consensus

NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson's Remarks

Last week was undeniably a bad week for NATO. We were in the international spotlight and seen to be in disarray.

But this week has been a good one. On Sunday evening, NATO decided to begin planning to help defend Turkey. Yesterday, we agreed that deployments should go ahead: AWACS early warning aircraft from the NATO fleet which helped protect American cities after 9/11; Patriot anti-missile systems; and chemical and biological defence units. The first aircraft will soon be on their way.

In accentuating the positive, I am not closing my eyes to the media barrage back and forth across the Atlantic, nor to the mood of public opinion. I am not denying very real policy differences between some NATO capitals about how to disarm Iraq. Nor am I downplaying the difficulty we experienced in NATO in reaching consensus. Far from it.

All of this has been damaging to the Alliance, both here and in Europe. I read the US press and I know when we are taking hits.

But this is damage above, not below, the waterline. Because the Alliance, now coming through a crisis which could have been profoundly damaging, is in much better shape than the pundits would allow.

This is a transatlantic forum. Let me share with you how the transatlantic forum, the Atlantic Alliance, worked its way through its most recent challenge.

In NATO we have been discussing since December how the Alliance should respond to the growing risk of Iraqi military action against Turkey. The past has shown us how dangerous and unpredictable Saddam Hussein can be.

These discussions have neither prejudiced, nor been prejudiced by, parallel negotiations in the United Nations Security Council. Both organisations have their own separate responsibilities. But we have of course followed closely the debate on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441 and its implementation.

In early February, NATO for the first time began substantive negotiations on proposals to begin planning for how it might provide military support to Turkey to deter and defend against Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. The North Atlantic Council met inconclusively on Thursday 6 February, after which I decided to give capitals a chance to consider the proposals calmly over the weekend.

Some Allies could not agree to the package as it then stood, so they “broke silence”. That is what countries do in NATO when they want to discuss difficult issues.

In parallel, Turkey decided that the potential Iraqi threat was sufficient to warrant consultation under Article 4 of the Washington Treaty, which activates mandatory consultations when a NATO member believes it is threatened.

So during the course of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday last week, we held intensive discussions around the Council table in Brussels and between capitals to see if we could reach agreement among all 19 Allies on how best to proceed. This was hard-nosed multilateral diplomacy, with little quarter asked or given.

Unfortunately, we could not agree. Everyone was clear that Turkey would be defended if attacked. Everyone accepted that consultations under Article 4 were justified. But we could not reach consensus on the timetable for military planning. There was a disagreement. Not about whether to plan but when to plan.

Sixteen nations said go ahead. Three said that would give the wrong signal on the eve of the Blix Report.

Discussions continued among nations throughout Thursday and Friday. Overall, I talked to seven Prime Ministers, five Foreign Ministers and six Defence Ministers – some several times – to try to bridge the gap.

Finally, we had to accept that consensus among all 19 NATO members was impossible, not for capricious reasons but because of substantive differences of policy.

That is not unusual in NATO or any other international forum. Nonetheless, I did not disguise my concern about the implications if the deadlock continued, or if the disagreement proved to be more than a question of timing – not about when but about whether.

Indeed, I wrote to the Alliance’s Presidents and Prime Ministers to make sure they knew that the cohesion and credibility of NATO would be at risk if we failed to meet our Treaty obligations.

In the end, nations refused to allow this to happen. They displayed the will to work together to bridge the gaps between them. And we were fortunate that the Alliance has long established machinery which allows us to take another route to consensus, at 18, through Ambassadors sitting in NATO’s Defence Planning Committee.

This is the body which, without self-excluded France, runs NATO’s Integrated Military Structure, the military mechanism through which support to Turkey would in practice be provided.

Despite pressure from some – European – nations, I delayed putting the issue to the Defence Planning Committee until I was sure that wider agreement, including France, was impossible. That point was reached, late last Saturday evening. I am delighted to say that final consensus on planning was then achieved within little more than 24 hours.

It was not a pleasant 24 hours, with NATO Ambassadors in session for at least half that time and telephones burning red hot. But only 24 hours nonetheless.

So the fact is that NATO reached agreement on one of the most contentious decisions in its history within 11 days and after six meetings.

That should be the story. Not that we had to meet frequently and sometimes for long sessions. This happens all the time. It happened over Bosnia, Kosovo and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Multilateral diplomacy is essential, and it is rewarding but it is tough. That is why diplomats and Secretaries General lose their good looks.

No, the story is that although there are deep and honest disagreements over the means of disarming Saddam – not the aim but the means – at the United Nations and in the European Union, NATO was able to fulfil its obligations to an ally, and to do so in less time than in similar circumstances in 1991. We are, once again, acting while others are still talking.

You will recall that during the Gulf War, Turkey also felt threatened by Saddam. Then too it asked NATO for help, from the Alliance’s quick reaction fighter squadrons. That proved to be NATO’s first ever operational deployment. And despite the difficult political context, NATO took the decision to act in 16 days, in time to deploy Belgian and German fighters to help deter an Iraqi attack.

Today the political context is if anything more complex and difficult. And we are told that NATO cohesion has lessened as the Cold War recedes. Yet we were still able to reach consensus even more quickly, in time to provide Turkey with the support and reassurance all Allies recognise that it needs.

Perhaps we could and should have done even better. Historians will decide. They should, however, ask themselves whether decisions on military operations are taken more quickly in individual capitals. As a former Defence Minister, I don’t think so. As a veteran observer of the American system, I still don’t think so.

That is why I say this is a better result for NATO than it might appear. Despite differences about Iraq, within Europe and across the Atlantic, despite mass protests and impending elections, the Alliance is united politically and the United States, Germany, Belgium and 15 other countries have all signed up to meet their military obligations.

I am paid to be an optimist and an advocate for NATO. The past two weeks have not therefore been easy. But as a devout Atlanticist and a convinced European, I believe that the decision reached late last Sunday evening was what NATO is all about.

We are not the Warsaw Pact. My illustrious predecessor, Lord Carrington, was fond of saying that unlike the Soviet bloc, NATO sang in harmony, not in unison. No one country, or group of countries, on either side of the Atlantic, has the right or the ability to ride roughshod over the transatlantic family.

It is because of this democratic diversity, the same democratic diversity that makes the United States such a powerful force for good, that NATO works, in good times and bad.

What, then, are the implications of NATO’s bad week in February?

First, I am not convinced that we are living through one of the Alliance’s make or break crises. Does the story I have described really equate to Suez, Vietnam, the INF deployments or the early days of Bosnia?

Again, I don’t think so. All Allies, including France, strongly support the need to defend Turkey. The Integrated Military Structure has worked as it was designed to do. All Allies agree on the aim of disarming Saddam and said so at NATO’s Prague Summit in November in a robust and unambiguous statement.

There was a danger that an issue of timing would become an issue of substance. We – Europeans and Americans alike – avoided it.

There was a risk that disagreement could have escalated into the use of a permanent veto. We refused to let that happen.

There was a possibility that NATO’s reputation might have been permanently damaged. But we succeeded, and it is our success which will be remembered. Nothing succeeds like success.

In the end, this was not, and is not, remotely the kind of issue to break an alliance as strong and enduring as NATO.

Second, I am certain that what we have gone through was not, and should not be portrayed as, a transatlantic crisis. This was not America versus Europe. There is a wide spectrum of positions in Europe, as there is in North America. And the pressure I came under in the past two weeks to take one position or another, and to call or cancel meetings, cannot be defined by artificial lines drawn down the Atlantic Ocean.

There is much more to the transatlantic relationship. Much more binding Europe and America than dividing them. We have too much in common for our partnership to fall victim to a problem of timing.

Third, nothing I have seen or heard in the past few weeks has undermined my conviction that the transatlantic consensus forged at the Prague Summit in November has reinforced NATO’s role at the heart of its members’ 21st century security and defence needs.

The current round of “whither NATO” speculation is not the first in NATO’s history. It is not even the first round of the new century. Only a year ago, critics were arguing that September 11 portended the Alliance’s decline or even demise.

Once again, these gloomy predictions did not come true.

At Reykjavik in May 2002, we put an end to a decade’s wrangling over the theology of out of area operations and agreed that NATO must confront threats to our security from wherever they may come. In the same month, near Rome, we created the truly historic NATO-Russia Council to bring down the final curtain on the Cold War.

Six months later, at the Prague Summit, NATO set course on a fundamental process of modernisation and transformation.

We launched the biggest round of enlargement in the Alliance’s history. We set NATO at the centre of collective military planning and preparation to meet future terrorist attacks. We committed nations to rapidly transform their armed forces and narrow the damaging transatlantic capabilities gap. We made radical, deep reforms to NATO’s political structures.

Shortly after Prague, we set the seal on an extraordinary year when NATO and the EU resolved the last political obstacles to a European Security and Defence Policy that reinforces rather than competes with the Alliance. In addition, we began to provide support to Germany and the Netherlands enabling them last Monday to take over command of the International Stability and Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

The result was that in place of marginalisation, NATO was confirmed as a uniquely flexible vehicle for transatlantic consultation and multinational cooperation, the world’s largest permanent coalition and the world’s most effective military organisation.

I do not pretend that what we achieved at Prague has not taken a knock in the past few weeks. It will take more than a few speeches like this to rebuild completely the confidence and cohesion we saw at the Summit.

But the fundamentals are unchanged. Even in the midst of profound political differences about a subject as important as how to deal with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, NATO worked.

Washington Treaty obligations will be respected. Turkey will be defended. All Allies are pledged to that. And now the decision to move from planning to implementation has been taken, without great fuss or publicity, yesterday in the hours before I left Brussels.

This was not a success by, for or against any NATO country. It was a success for NATO and for the transatlantic partnership.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is easy to wax lyrical about what binds the transatlantic family together. Shared values, traditions, democracy, interests. That is what this Institute is all about.

Ultimately, however, the practical manifestations of these bonds are what really matter. When it comes to the crunch, everything else is just rhetoric.

NATO is the embodiment of practical transatlantic friendship and cooperation. It puts into action the political statements and declarations of intent.

Not, of course, in every case. But the coalitions of the willing on which some would have us rely only work militarily when they are based firmly on NATO’s cooperative foundations.

Without the Alliance, with all its irritations and idiosyncrasies, coalitions would be difficult to build, harder to sustain and much less effective on the ground. That is one reason why I am so pleased that this has been a better week for the Alliance.

Working with Allies is never easy. Churchill’s heart-felt conclusion that the only thing worse than working with allies is working without them has, I am sure, resonated strongly here in past weeks.

I wish I could make the process of alliance work smoothly all the time. It usually does. But the measure of success for any organisation is not how well it does when things are going well but how it responds when things get rough.

Despite what we share, there will always be differences within Europe and across the Atlantic. This is one of our enduring strengths. We can disagree while remaining firm friends and interlocked Allies.

So the bad news for Atlanticists is that NATO has been confronted with real and difficult problems in the last few weeks. The good news is that it was strong enough, and flexible enough, to solve these problems before they reached crisis point.

My job, and our collective duty, is to learn the lessons and make sure that they reinforce our common transatlantic culture of trust, cooperation and mutual support, and redouble the Alliance’s ability to meet its responsibilities in today’s difficult and dangerous world.

Seventeen months ago, on September 12, 2001, NATO stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States when it was under attack. This week, we stand by another Ally under threat. That is what this great transatlantic Alliance is all about.

Go to Homepage Go to Index