50th anniversary of the Bilateral defence Agreement
Address by the Prime Minister of Iceland at a seminar
on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Bilateral Defence Agreement
between Iceland and the USA, May 4, 2001
Iceland and the United States of America enjoy a close and firm friendship, although our two countries differ in many ways, and not only in terms of the obvious difference in size and population and all the consequences this entails. We enjoy diverse relations, flourishing trade and excellent cultural contact, and both our nations view global and international issues on the principles of democracy and human rights. Our defence agreement and defence cooperation mean that Iceland has closer relations with the United States than with any other nation. A fifty-year defence agreement between two nations is certainly quite a unique historical occurrence. So there is good reason to commemorate this milestone and celebrate the long and fruitful cooperation between Iceland and the United States.
It was hoped that the Second World War would prove to be the last large-scale war. However, the Allies soon split into opposing camps and the outlook was ominous. It was obvious that if yet another major war broke out in Europe, it would soon spread to the North Atlantic. Iceland's security would be under threat due to the country's strategic importance. Recent historical events had proven for once and for all that a unilateral declaration of neutrality by a nation with no armed forces meant nothing.
Iceland's membership of NATO and the signing of the defence agreement with the United States were therefore logical steps in the evolution of Icelandic security policy in the face of the growing communist threat in the postwar years. But these were difficult decisions for a small nation which had earned its long-awaited independence just a few years earlier. And it was known that they would meet fierce opposition within Iceland and provoke a violent reaction against cooperation with Western states among Icelandic communists, who at this time leaned heavily towards Moscow. But the leaders of the democratic political parties stood firm at the crucial moment. They looked towards the experience of the war and were also convinced that if Iceland was forced to choose, it had to align itself with the alliance of democratic states, with which it had a common destiny and shared values. In effect, this choice would be the precondition for guaranteeing the nation's real independence during times of threat.
The day that parliament voted on membership of NATO, for the only time in Icelandic history a major riot broke out outside the parliament building, which was stormed with such force that the police would have been overpowered if pro-democratic groups had not joined their side. This was a close call. It marked the start of repeated protests of various kinds for the following decades, against NATO membership, the defence agreement with the USA and the base at Keflavík. Security policy thus became one of the major controversies in Icelandic politics. Certainly there were genuine patriots and nationalists among the opponents of defence cooperation and the Keflavík base. But as time went by, nationalism changed in step with Icelandic society and the world in general, so that the Keflavík base was no longer regarded as such a great threat to Iceland's culture and language. The fierce disputes about security policy during the Cold War era were therefore primarily engineered by a vocal and well organized minority, which did everything it could to sow suspicion about the actions of NATO countries, and in particular the United States, and enjoyed direct and indirect foreign support in doing so. But when it came to the test, a strong majority of Icelanders supported the defence policy.
The end of the Cold War uncovered the total failure of the communist system, and documented the policy of aggression by the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact and their subversion in the democratic countries. In Iceland, the victors were those who had been on their guard and supported NATO and defence cooperation with the USA. The others hastily hid their past. Disputes about security policy died down very much as a result.
Now, five decades after the defence agreement was signed between Iceland and the United States, NATO still plays a key role in building a new Europe on democratic principles and thereby ensuring security in the entire continent. One way the Alliance does this is through close cooperation with the former Warsaw Pact countries and enlargement towards the east. Membership of NATO is open only to those states that have firmly established democracy and enjoy peaceful relations with their neighbours.
But NATO is not a magic word or guarantee in its own right, to treat in any way we please. Ultimately everything rests on the transatlantic link with North America, which continues to be crucial for security and stability in Europe. I do not need to explain or prove this here to the present company. But recent examples are the Balkan conflict and the eagerness of Central and Eastern European countries to join NATO.
The Iron Curtain has gone , the wall has fallen and the Cold War has thereby vanished. Defence cooperation between Iceland and the United States now rests on the enduring security interests of both countries and those of our NATO allies. Naturally these interests are safeguarded now with considerably smaller capabilities than were needed to face up to the Cold War situation, and as well as Iceland's defence they involve monitoring and general security tasks in the North Atlantic. As before, the defence cooperation addresses the interests of both partners and also remains a factor in the transatlantic link and its credibility.
I would like to thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs for organizing this seminar and take this opportunity to thank the United States and their representatives here for a long and fruitful cooperation, and in particular I thank the Iceland Defence Force for the fine work it has done in the past and present.