Iceland Defence Force
Speech by the Prime Minister of Iceland at
Iceland Defence Force
May 2nd. 2000
Admiral Architzel and other members of the Iceland Defense Force, Ladies and Gentlemen
It is a pleasure to be with you here tonight and have the opportunity to say a few words about NATO and the history and basis of the defence cooperation between Iceland and the United States from Iceland}s point of view.
Our defence relationship goes back nearly six decades to the Second World War which turned the North Atlantic into a vicious battleground of crucial importance for the outcome of the war. American and British bases in Iceland made an important contribution to victory in the Battle of the Atlantic. In July 1941, by concluding a Military Protection Agreement with the United States, Iceland had effectively joined the alliance which was then in the making between the Atlantic powers, the United States and Britain. By deploying forces to Iceland in the summer of 1941 to relieve British troops, the United States had become involved in World War II, although it was to be five months before they became direct participants after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.
The World War made clear that any great power conflict in the continent of Europe would reach far out into the Atlantic and threaten not only Iceland but also the security of the crucial lines of communication between North America and Europe. During the Cold War the build-up of Soviet forces and advances in military technology steadily increased the threat to western strategic interests in the Atlantic region. Moreover the threat now extended to a nuclear threat from Soviet planes and submarines in the North Atlantic against Western Europe and North America.
It was a measure of the growing strategic significance of the North Atlantic to the United States that at the end of the Second World War in 1945, and before the beginning of the Cold War, they requested facilities for military bases in Iceland for 99 years. Iceland turned down this request and in accordance with the 1941 Military Protection Agreement, the American forces left Iceland after the war ended.
The lessons from the war not only changed the United States' perceptions of its security but were also bound to have a profound influence on Icelandic policy early in the Cold War. This is reflected in the decision first to become a founding member of NATO and then, as east-west relations deteriorated further, to enter in 1951 into a Defense Agreement with the United States which established the Keflavík base. It was evident to Icelandic leaders that in time of crisis or war neutrality would provide no protection, given the strategic importance of the country and the inability of a small population to put up any meaningful defences. The 1951 Defense Agreement with the United States was made under the auspices of NATO and enabled American forces to use facilities in Iceland for the defence of the country, and thereby for the collective defence of the NATO area.
Membership of NATO and the making of the Defense Agreement were difficult decisions for a small neutral country and it was known that the policy would be strongly opposed by the political left. The opposition did turn out to be determined and it continued throughout the Cold War, making security policy the most divisive issue in Icelandic politics for decades. Mass demonstrations against NATO and the Keflavík base were frequent. On the day when the Althing voted for NATO membership, dramatic and unique events in Iceland's history took place as the prominent historian Þór Whitehead has described:
"On the day of the decision, thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the parliament building to demand a referendum on NATO membership. All available police and hundreds of volunteers had been mobilized, mainly by the well-organized Independence Party. The authorities feared that the Socialist Unity Party was about to stage some kind of a coup or to storm the house in order to disrupt the parliamentary vote. With a riot raging outside and a torrent of stones flying through the windows, the Althing adopted the proposal to join NATO... "
Despite vicious political attacks from the left, Icelandic leaders realised that Iceland had to have an assurance against threats to its freedom and security and do so in alliance with the western democracies with which it had shared interests and values as well as a common destiny.
NATO is unique. There is no example in history of any other military or defence alliance of free countries which has operated for so long and in such close harmony. But what matters most of all is the result. NATO has flawlessly succeeded in fulfilling its fundamental objective – the peace and security of its members. And in recent years the Alliance has been playing a key role, in partnership with a large group of countries and other organisations, in creating the principles for enduring peace throughout the continent.
The formula for this success is faith in the cause of democracy and peace, the conviction that democracy and peace are values which are worth expending large resources to secure, and the will to do so and make the sacrifices that prove effective.
Within NATO, the same interests are shared by the greatest military power of all and a nation with no armed forces of its own, yet which has the longest parliamentary tradition in the world. Bonds of friendship stretch across the Atlantic, the collective security of Europe and America, bonds that have remained firm and proved decisive for peace.
And last year on its fiftieth anniversary, NATO assumed the burden of defending a persecuted people on the Alliance's doorstep, in Kosovo, against a terror which no one else could respond to.
In spite of everything, the fact is that after the Cold War, democracy in Europe is on a firmer footing than before. Thus it is possible to establish a new security order in the continent based on the fundamental principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The Alliance's aim is to transform this vision into reality. In order to do so, it needs the courage to safeguard the premisses on which peace is based. The history of the twentieth century testifies to the price that is paid when such willingness is lacking, and indeed the very aim behind the establishment of NATO was to prevent history from repeating itself. Harry Truman, who was President of the United States at that time, said he was certain that had such an alliance been in existence in 1914 and 1939, it would have been possible to contain the forces which launched the two world wars. NATO's military action against the former Yugoslavia did not involve only Kosovo or the Balkans, but rather the question of the will to stop those who threaten the possibility of maintaining an effective security order in Europe. NATO's action in Kosovo demonstrated that the forces of totalitarianism and repression cannot expect to be given a free hand.
However, we must not be blinded by self-congratulation. We cannot avoid admitting that intervention is not always possible, even when there is just as much reason for doing so as in Kosovo. The United Nations would never have undertaken a mission into East Timor against the will of the Indonesian army. And NATO was and is unable to intervene in Chechnya for reasons that go without saying, even though the human rights infringements and brutality there are by no means any less than in Kosovo. The NATO countries maintained their solidarity during the Kosovo action, although it was fragile at times as is known. Iceland supports the willingness of the European Union to undertake more responsibility for security in Europe. This is a very noble aim. However, great caution needs to be shown in these endeavours so that we are not simply left with a weaker NATO and also with a European apparatus which is handicapped by lack of capabilities and the lack of any single nation in a decisive leadership role.
As NATO has changed and taken on new tasks during the 1990s, Iceland has been adapting its involvement in the Alliance's activities, among other things by sending doctors, nurses and police personnel to Bosnia and Kosovo to take part in peacekeeping operations. Iceland also hosted a civil defence exercise in 1997 under the auspices of NATO}s Partnership for Peace. Twenty states took part in the exercise, including Russia and the Baltic States. And, as you know, another exercise will be held this summer.
It is because of the strength of the transatlantic link in NATO between North America and Europe that the Alliance has played a key role for five decades, and it is precisely this link that makes membership so desirable in the eyes of Central and Eastern European countries. After the Cold War, conflicts in the Balkans, and indeed in the Middle East also, have been further proof of the enduring importance of the transatlantic link.
The geographic location of the Keflavík base continues to be of significance to the transatlantic link in terms of maintaining surveillance in the North Atlantic, and the security of the sea- and air lines of communication for reinforcement and resupply from North America to Europe and beyond.
Iceland is proud to have contributed to safeguarding the transatlantic link and to have been part of the great success story which NATO's fifty years have been. We remain deeply committed to doing our part in further charting a new course for the Alliance through which it can continue to bring its unique strengths and experience to bear for peace and security.
Ultimately everything depends on you, the people in the military, and I want to use this opportunity to thank you, the members of the Iceland Defense Force, on my behalf and that of the Government for the excellent job you are doing.
Ladies and gentlemen,
After the Cold War and in keeping with the new security situation a reduction in United States forces in Iceland was successfully negotiated. The Defence Agreement with the United States, which next year will see its fiftieth anniversary, remains the cornerstone of Iceland's security. When the force reductions were negotiated both sides reiterated the continued importance of the Keflavík base and the Defense Agreement for the security of Iceland and the United States and for NATO. This is therefore a balanced relationship which must, in order to endure, fully serve the security interests of both our countries and those of our allies, based on the fundamental obligations undertaken by Iceland and the United States fifty years ago.
The close friendship between Iceland and the United States extends beyond the issue of security. Our relations involve diverse and extensive commercial and cultural ties. Freedom, democracy and human rights are fundamental principles in both our nations' viewpoints towards the world and international issues.
It was a great pleasure and honour for me when First Lady Hillary Clinton accepted my invitation to her to address an international conference on women and democracy which the Government of Iceland hosted in Reykjavík last October. Mrs. Clinton is well known for her interest in human rights and womens rights issues and her contribution to the conference was invaluable, as was the participation of the United States Government in the preparations for it, as cosponsor.
This year the governments of Iceland and the United States are engaging in a wide range of gratifying cooperation to commemorate the millennium of Leifur Eiríksson's discovery of America. Celebrations to mark the occasion began in the United States last week with the opening of a Viking exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington. A large number of other events are also being organized in America to commemorate the anniversary such as programmes of music, cinema and drama, and this summer a replica Viking ship, the Íslendingur, will sail to ports in Canada and the United States.
Finally I want to say again how pleased I am to be with you and thank Admiral Architzel for his hospitality and for inviting me to address you here tonight.