Updated: 03-Nov-2003 NATO Speeches


3 Nov. 2003

The Role of NATO in the 21st Century

Speech by NATO Secretary General, Lord Robertson
at the “Welt am Sonntag Forum”

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am glad to be here at Welt am Sonntag Forum -- in a city, and in a building, which symbolise the determination to overcome the division of this nation, and of our continent.

Last year, here in this same forum, I stressed that when it comes to defence, Governments should not be afraid to do the right thing, even if it might appear unpopular.

I argued that public opinion is important for any politician, but that it cannot be an alibi for inaction where action is required nor, of course, for action where inaction is more appropriate.

And I used the history of the Federal Republic of Germany as an encouraging example of how changes in security policy can be effected -- often against the initial views of the public and find widespread acceptance afterwards.

Not just this city, but Germany as a whole, has changed dramatically these last few years.

And one of the areas where change has been very apparent, and very welcome, is in Germany's approach to the new security challenges of this 21 st century where it has demonstrated a strong sense of responsibility, and a clear preparedness to lead by example.

In the Germany of the past, the very deployment of larger numbers of soldiers as peace-keepers was highly controversial for any government to even contemplate. The readiness of a new generation of political leaders to lead, and to actively convince the public, has changed that.

Today, Germany is the driving force to extend the NATO-led international effort to stabilise Afghanistan beyond Kabul. This is a strong display of German leadership and it is very welcome.

Germany has changed, and so has NATO. As it said on a T-shirt I received recently at the Defence Ministerial meeting in Colorado Springs: This ain't your daddy's NATO! NATO is no longer the alliance waiting for the dreadful day when tank armies roll across Europe.

Today, NATO is a problem solver. It must go where the trouble is. In today's world, if we don't go to the trouble, the trouble will come to you.

Of course, military power cannot set all wrongs right. The use of force must remain a last resort. But we have seen in Bosnia that the use of economic sanctions or moral condemnation was of little use without the credible backing of military power.

In Kosovo, NATO's military strength was essential in preventing a man-made humanitarian tragedy. If our soldiers had not gone to Afghanistan, the Taleban would still hold sway, granting refuge and assistance to al-Qaeda.

And I am sure we would have seen al-Qaeda in the offensive, not in the defensive, with all that would have meant for our safety, in Europe and America.

Some observers have taken the debate we had earlier this year over Iraq as a sign that NATO's credibility, and coherence, has been compromised. They argue that the new security environment is pushing Allies apart rather than closer together.

They are making a profound mistake.

NATO is not the Warsaw Pact. It builds consensus through real debate. And, paradoxically, it is through the rows that Allies have every now and then that they remind themselves - and learn again - how much they depend on each other.

We have overcome such problems in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. I'm sure you remember the painful debate on medium range nuclear weapons in the Eighties, the famous Nachruestungsdebatte? If you can survive that you can survive anything.

Through debate, a new transatlantic consensus has emerged: a consensus on today's new threats, the responses needed to meet them, and the capabilities required to do so successfully.

Today, no one doubts that terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction and failed states have replaced the Cold War.

Today, everyone agrees that these new challenges cannot be met by NATO alone, but only by a much broader coalition that includes our Partner countries.

And today, everyone agrees that Cold War legacy forces are a waste of money, and that we need forces that are far more mobile and flexible than those of the past.

NATO has come a long way, not just in defining that new consensus, but in implementing it. From our anti-terrorist naval patrols in the Mediterranean to the stabilisation force in Afghanistan, from our Partnership Action Plan against Terrorism to measures to protect ourselves against chemical and biological attack.

From slimming down our Command Structure to creating the new NATO Response Force and a brand new Supreme Allied Command to drive transformation, this Alliance has fully embraced the need to evolve and adapt in line with the new strategic environment.

Ladies and gentlemen,

From what I have been saying until now, those who don't know me may conclude that I am leaving office fully content because all is well. Not exactly, I'm afraid. There still are major challenges ahead of NATO and its Member states, and I want to outline them for you.

The first challenge is the continuing modernisation of our military capabilities. The mantra that has been my trademark for four years is Capabilities, capabilities, capabilities.

We have made important progress in developing our capabilities. Just a few days ago, the first elements of the new NATO Response Force were set up. European NATO members, including Germany, are working hard to improve their defence capabilities in critical areas . And we are implementing a radical overhaul of our military command structure to make it leaner and more flexible.

Again, good progress, but not enough. NATO's new mission in Afghanistan has highlighted a serious shortfall our lack of useable forces.

It may sound absurd, but it's true: Europe and Canada have 1.4 million regular soldiers under arms, and another million or so reserves. But they only have 55,000 deployed in the field, and still maintain that they are overstretched.

I put it bluntly, the overwhelming part of the 1.4 million soldiers are useless for the kind of missions we are mounting today. In other words, the non-US NATO countries have lots of soldiers, but far too few of them can be deployed.

The reasons are many and various. Some countries have legal or constitutional constraints on where they are able to deploy their forces, especially if they are conscripts. Other countries do not have the capabilities required to deploy them abroad and supply them where they are.

Others again say they cannot afford to do so. Or their Governments lack the political leadership to argue the case for doing so with Parliaments and publics.

The harsh unavoidable truth is that if our Governments are to continue to take on political commitments to do more militarily, in Afghanistan or in Africa or anywhere else, then they must improve the usability of their armed forces.

If they do not, our political ambitions will remain empty promises.

That would be a disaster for the people in Afghanistan, or elsewhere where the international community is or might need to become involved. It would also be a disaster for NATO's credibility, for the EU and the UN, and for the very concept of multinationalism.

We have no more enemy to defend our territory against in big land battles. We no longer need to stop attackers advancing through the Fulda gap. Peter Struck is right: We must defend our security on the Hindukush.

And therefore, we must dramatically modernise our armed forces. We must make them able to deploy to places like Afghanistan in much larger numbers, if the political situation makes that necessary. Such a restructuring will take some time, and therefore we must start now, and act vigorously. We have no choice.

As I said to another German paper two weeks ago, conscription is a sensitive issue, and there is good reason for this sensitivity in particular here in Germany. I simply say this: most other Allies have decided to professionalise their armies to make them more deployable and more effective.

I think with Minister Struck's recent plans, Germany is moving in the right direction, as well.

Overcoming outdated defence structures is one major part of enhancing deployability. Another is effective decision-making. In the Cold War, we assumed that crises would take a long time to build up. In the Balkans, too, things evolved relatively slowly, leaving us time maybe too much time for debate.

But 9/11 has demonstrated with brutal clarity that the scenarios of the past have passed their sell-by date. The new threats can strike from anywhere, and with little warning. We need to react much quicker than we ever previously had to contemplate.

Make no mistake about it. NATO can take decisions quickly. For example, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, it took the North Atlantic Council less than six hours to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. In the end, however, it is not the Organization that takes the decisions. It is the Governments and the Parliaments.

This points to the real challenge before us: to reconcile the need for faster decision-making with the imperative of democratic control.

Germany is among the countries where such a debate has begun, and I very much welcome the responsible approach all participants take on this issue.

Predictably, any debate about speeding up decision-making invites criticism that Governments want to infringe on the rights of Parliament -- that parliamentary control of defence policy could be undermined.

As a former member of the House of Commons, and as a current member of the House of Lords, I cherish the role of Parliaments. I have no intention of putting myself out of a job.

But parliamentarians, too, must acknowledge that times have changed. Democratic control is vital, essential, non-negotiable. But it must also be effective democratic control.

Parliaments must be able to act -- and react -- fast enough to allow forces to be used in the right way and at the right time. This is a huge challenge -- but one we simply must meet if our procedures are not to undermine our ability to defend ourselves, our values, and our interests.

The final challenge I would like to reflect upon here today is the establishment of a real strategic partnership with the European Union. Next year ten nations will join the EU. This will mean that the number of countries who are members of both NATO and the EU will increase even further -- to 19.

And yet, despite this large overlap in membership, and despite significant progress in our relationship, both institutions remain further apart than is good for them -- or for European security.

The EU seems nervous about being overshadowed by what NATO is , whereas NATO seems nervous about competition from what the EU might become . This kind of thinking has produced a relationship but not the marriage envisaged at the Nice European summit.

As a convinced European from the beginnings of my political career, and someone who has always argued for a stronger European role in security, I find this continuing ambivalence in our relationship particularly disappointing.

What must be done? Let me first tell you what should not be done: We should not continue the pointless debates over "old" versus "new" Europe, or on the EU becoming a "counterweight" to the United States. Not should we engage in the unnecessary duplication of capabilities. Or in competition between paper armies or headquarters.

What we really need is a NATO-EU relationship which embraces the future, not the past. We have the blueprint the so-called Berlin Plus arrangements that we agreed earlier this year. They give the EU guaranteed access to NATO assets when NATO itself does not want to undertake a particular operation.

This is a great deal a grand bargain. It allows Europe to do more without the costly duplication of capabilities in which we have all already invested, in NATO.

It also provides transparency between the nations in each organisation.

The next step is to broaden our cooperation in all areas where our interests coincide, and where we can complement each other. There are many such areas: combating terrorism, managing crises, and - above all - improving military capabilities.

Not so long ago, NATO and the EU together prevented a civil war in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (1). Javier Solana and I didn't need a fancy wiring diagram. We just knew what had to be done.

This was a glimpse of the cooperative future to which we can and should aspire. A future in which both institutions work together rather than try to upstage one another. Let there be no mistake: in the volatile 21 st century security environment neither NATO nor the EU will run out of work.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The new security environment is just unfolding. We are still in the midst of absorbing its full implications. But even if we do not yet know each and every detail, we know perfectly well what we need to do to be prepared:

We need to modernise our military capabilities. We need to enhance the "deployability" of our forces. We need to speed up decision-taking. And we also know that we need to get the NATO-EU relationship right.

We need to get on with these projects, without getting distracted by pointless self indulgent and unproductive debates. In the future, as in the past, credibility remains our most precious asset, and there are many people in this new dangerous world who rely for their safety and security on our leadership.

It would be a tragedy of monumental proportions if we let them down.

  1. Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.

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