Updated: 10-Nov-2003 NATO Speeches


7 Nov. 2003


by NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson at the Atlantic Treaty Association's 49th General Assembly

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have been looking forward to being here today – my final appearance as NATO Secretary General before the Atlantic Treaty Association’s General Assembly. That is because I value the important role of the ATA and its member organisations. Because I have good news to share with you on NATO’s continuing transformation. And of course, because to be able to do so here in Scotland is the icing on the cake.

The depth of experience in the Atlantic Treaty Association is one of the Alliance’s great supports. You are able to sort out the rhetoric from the reality, journalist licence from hard facts. You are ideally placed to argue the strength of underlying trends rather than short term events.

That ability is important because it is a sad fact of life that bad news is better copy than good news. Alliance in turmoil over Iraq gets more headlines than NATO prevents civil war in Macedonia.

It is, of course, true that last Spring’s deeply held disagreement over how to deal with Saddam Hussein was a difficult time for NATO, as it was for all international organisations.

Yet NATO still did its job despite the torrid political circumstances, reaching agreement on the deployment of reinforcements to Turkey in only 11 days.

Moreover, within months of a crisis which pundits said had irrevocably crippled the Alliance, all 19 NATO members agreed to take over the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and to help Poland and Spain establish a multinational stabilisation division in Iraq.

Going out of area for the first time is not the mark of an Alliance about to go out of business.

So what is my view of today’s long term reality? It is that those who argue that Europe and North America have separate destinies, conflicting interests or incompatible world views are taking a blinkered, short term approach to the transatlantic relationship on which NATO is based.

Our unique partnership was born in common philosophies of freedom and democracy. It was forged during half a century’s fight against tyranny. Now it stand as a beacon in a world confronted by extremism and instability. A beacon of democracy, toleration, plurality, openness and candour.

I am not suggesting that there are now no major policy differences within the Alliance. There are. There always have been. There always will be.

As my illustrious predecessor, Lord Carrington, was fond of saying, the Allies sing in harmony, not in unison.

That is one of NATO’s abiding strengths. We are an alliance of free, and free-thinking, democracies. And we reach all of our decisions by consensus, and on the basis of free and vigorous debate.

After four years of chairing these debates, I am more convinced than ever that this is the best, indeed the only, way for effective decision making on issues as fundamental as the security and defence of our people.

This is not snail-paced war by committee. Far from it. When NATO needs to act quickly, we have the political will and the machinery to do so. We demonstrated this in Macedonia, with the declaration of Article 5 on 12 September 2001, in supporting Turkey and now in Afghanistan.

Indeed, in my experience, where there are delays, it is decision-making processes in some capitals which create them and which need to be overhauled.

A second long term reality is that, as the slogan said on a T-shirt I was given at our last Ministerial meeting, “this ain’t your daddy’s NATO”.

Following on from last November’s watershed Summit in Prague, we are profoundly transforming NATO to meet the security requirements of this new century, with a further NATO Summit in Istanbul next Spring firmly in our sights.

Prague had four transformation themes, each of fundamental importance to NATO’s future: new missions, new capabilities, new partnership and new members.

The first theme of new missions demonstrated NATO’s determination to deal with threats to our security from wherever they may come. No other security strategy is credible in today’s interconnected and globalised world. It required us to ditch theological squabbles over out-of-area operations, and to develop new responses to new threats such as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Even more importantly, we are putting strategy into action. From our counter terrorist maritime patrols in the Mediterranean through our continuing presence in the Balkans to ISAF in Afghanistan, NATO is hard at work spreading security and safety in ways which no other organisation could hope to achieve.

We are, at the same time transforming our military posture. At Prague, NATO countries at last responded to my nagging on the vital importance of modern and relevant military capabilities. And, of course, to the realities of their own changed security needs.

Individual Allies are now working hard to meet specific modernisation objectives identified under our Prague Capabilities Commitment. We are implementing a new, leaner and more flexible command structure. A few weeks ago we launched the first elements of our new cutting edge NATO Response Force, which will be fully operational by 2006. And a range of initiatives has been set in train to better protect our populations and our forces against weapons of mass destruction.

Am I fully satisfied? Certainly not. Am I much happier about our capabilities now than I was before Prague? Very much so.

The third transformation theme is new partnerships. No matter how capable, NATO cannot meet today’s challenges on its own. We need reliable friends. We need partners.

That is why we are engaging the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and Partnership for Peace countries in the fight against terrorism, offering them opportunities for more individualised cooperation with NATO, and stimulating them to cooperate with neighbours to tackle problems that are specific to their region.

Together, the 46 countries around the EAPC table are the world’s largest permanent coalition.

In parallel, we have built truly ground-breaking partnerships with Ukraine and especially with Russia. The NATO-Russia Council, created in Rome in May 2002, smashed the last Cold War stereotypes and started a process of unique, practical cooperation on topics from terrorism to theatre missile defence.

A decade ago, the NRC alone would have justified the over-used term historic. But we are also building a strategic partnership with the European Union, to which I will return later. And we are putting new substance into NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue, an increasingly important platform for extending stability beyond the Euro-Atlantic area.

The final Prague transformation theme was, of course, enlargement. We are fully on track to take in the 7 new members next year. Their Ambassadors already sit around the North Atlantic Council table. I am personally very proud to have played a part in such a major step towards creating a Europe that is democratic, whole, and at peace; the culmination of the dream of so many people here today.

So, not your daddy’s NATO. But you would not expect me to say that the picture is entirely rosy. It is not. And ATA members need to know where the challenges really are.

The first challenge: we must get Afghanistan right. Because if we want to win the fight against terrorism, we have to succeed in Afghanistan.

Failure to do so would not just be a disaster for the Afghan people and a severe blow to the international fight against terrorism. It would also undermine NATO’s credibility, not just in Afghanistan but in each and every area of Alliance business.

NATO has never failed in its long history, so there is every reason to believe that we will succeed in Afghanistan too. But it is not going to be easy.

One very clear requirement is for us to broaden our presence beyond Kabul, and we now have a United Nations Security Council mandate that allows us to do so. Military planning is underway. But this means that we need more troops on the ground. And it is no secret that we are having difficulties in generating some of the right capabilities.

As I make my last round of visits to capitals, I am making it very clear that while I welcome their kind words and honours, what I really want is more helicopters in Kabul.

Which leads me to the second major challenge for NATO: to improve the usability of our forces – to make sure we have the capacity and the political will to put these extra boots on the ground. This is a particular problem for the 18 non-US Allies. Together, they have some 1.4 million regular soldiers under arms and another million or so reserves, but many argue that they are today overstretched with a total of only 55,000 troops currently deployed on multinational operations.

This is an extremely poor return on the investment taxpayers make in defence. Politically, it is close to a scandal for governments to take on new commitments such as Afghanistan, or the recent EU operation in the Congo, and then be unwilling to provide the troops and equipment needed to meet them.

The reasons given are many and various. Some countries have outdated legal and constitutional constraints on where they can deploy soldiers, especially conscripts. Other countries still to not have the capabilities needed to deploy troops abroad and supply them when they are there. Yet others say they cannot afford to do so. Or their governments are not prepared to argue the case for doing so with publics and parliaments.

None of these arguments is sustainable. I hope that ATA members will hold to account those governments which use them. Because if we do not improve the usability of our armed forces for today’s operations, our political ambitions – whether in the UN, EU, NATO or coalitions – will prove unachievable. And that would represent strategic failure for all of these organisaitons and for the multilateralism to which we all pay lip service.

I deliberately included the European Union in this organisational roll-call because the third big challenge that I see for NATO is to develop its strategic partnership with the EU.

I am no misty eyed Europhile. But I am a convinced pragmatic European in the same way that I am a convinced pragmatic Atlanticist. And I know that NATO and the EU can and must make this partnership a success.

NATO and the EU are used to working together on the ground in the Balkans – indeed, Javier Solana and I are together credited with averting the civil war in Macedonia. Earlier this year we built an excellent platform for institutionalising our relationship – the so called Berlin Plus arrangements which allow the EU to use expensive NATO assets instead of buying a duplicate set for themselves. We used these arrangements to allow the EU to mount its first military operation, again in Macedonia. In the future it is conceivable that we might do the same in Bosnia.

All of this makes sound common sense, and should help to achieve a more equitable and a more sustainable transatlantic relationship.

But we will fail to meet this challenge if we create a stronger EU by weakening NATO. Or if we sustain a vibrant transatlantic relationship yet Europe and the EU remain militarily weak. We will fail if we invest in unnecessary duplication, paper armies and paper headquarters instead of real capabilities.

The bottom line is that we need both organisations to be healthy and genuinely willing to work together if Europe and North America are to overcome the risks and threats of today and tomorrow as we did their predecessors from the Berlin airlift to Kosovo.

Last but by no means least, we face a major challenge for the Alliance as an organization, and for its individual member nations, in engaging with our publics. The security environment is changing so quickly that even experts have trouble keeping up.

The clear and present danger posed by terrorism or weapons of mass destruction is invisible until they strike, and is therefore easy to underestimate. Our men and women in uniform now operate in parts of the world that seem very far away to the average citizen. This makes it more critical than ever before to explain to our publics what we are doing, and why we are doing it. Because we do need their support if we are to succeed.

We also need public support for defence reform, because it costs money to develop capabilities that are usable and effective in today’s complex security environment. I have some experience in gaining and sustaining public support for defence, as a Member of Parliament, a Cabinet Minister, and as Secretary General. I am convinced that our publics will support defence spending only if they understand why it is necessary, and know that it is being done with a real focus on value for money.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The transformed 21st century NATO is a critically useful tool for the threats and challenges of a more complex and demanding world. I have found my role in the process of change the most rewarding of my political career. I am confident that my friend and successor, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, will carry on the good work.

But your role as Atlantic Treaty Organisations is equally vital. Because you help to maintain the public’s awareness of NATO, the transformation it is going through, and the activities it undertakes. When our Governments face spending choices, you help remind them and everyone else involved of the critical importance of defence. For that invaluable work I thank and congratulate you. And I encourage you to keep it up in future.

Thank you.

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