Official Visit to Latvia, June 11, 1998
Speech by Mr. Halldór Ásgrímsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs
Ladies and gentlemen
In 1990 and 1991 Iceland was at the forefront of efforts to secure international recognition for the independence of the Baltic States, and indeed, in August 1991 Iceland became the first country to reaffirm its recognition of the independence of the three relatively distant countries. As the debate on Baltic independence developed, politicians from several of the larger countries wondered why this small island in the middle of the Atlantic took such an interest in the security and sovereignty of these three countries relatively far away. The answer was quite simple; the small size of the population and the vulnerability of the Baltic States. We all attach great importance to our self-determination, we share similar values and have in common that our countries are defenceless by national efforts alone. We are all in need of guarding our sovereignty against pressures from foreign powers and thus Iceland perhaps had more reason to speak out, on behalf of the Baltic States. In 1918 as Europe lay in ruins, the principle of self-determination became a hallmark of the new world order, facilitating the independence of the Baltic States and the sovereignty of Iceland. In the security field European states rejected military alliances and relied on their own national defence. Only after the Second World War did the folly of this system become abundantly clear. States had been unable individually to prevent or solve successfully the economic crisis of the late 1920's. Independent defence had similarly been useless in the face of Nazi, Soviet and Fascist aggression. Thus, when confronted with the continuing Soviet threat, the countries of Western Europe and North America decided to pool resources in order to stave off the danger of further aggression.
Iceland became a founding member of NATO in 1949. Our membership was not without contradictions, as Iceland, having no military forces, decided to participate in a military defence organisation. This decision was bitterly disputed within Iceland for decades, as many would have preferred the neutrality proclaimed in 1918 and reiterated when Iceland gained independence in 1944. We attached such importance to our neutrality that we refused to declare war on the Axis powers and thus were not among the founding members of the United Nations. However, the occupation of Iceland by British forces in May 1940 had demonstrated clearly the futility of neutrality. The international character of the co-operation within NATO, where the principle of one for all and all for one was put to practice, also served to reassure those who feared that security co-operation with powerful neighbours would infringe upon Icelandic sovereignty. NATO has, as an organisation, been based on full equality, where all 16 members have a seat at the table, although some contribute in greater numbers than others!
The success story of NATO's forty nine years is well known and I need not dwell upon that here today.
End of the Cold War: New Challenges
Following the end of the Cold War, we are all faced with dramatically
different challenges to our security. In the case of Iceland, those changes have not served to make us question our membership of the Alliance. The fundamental fact remains that our territory is indefensible without assistance from our Allies. Furthermore, different and lower scale threats to European security continue to emerge, but these have no less a potential to ignite the flames of serious conflict. As international co-operation grows and our relationship with other countries in Europe continues to deepen, security threats are not confined to one's own borders. On the contrary, conflict anywhere in Europe affects trade and investment, and results in a flow of refugees, just to mention a few examples. All the Euro-Atlantic institutions, as well as the United Nations, have sought to counter these threats, using their different capabilities. The European Union has shown ambition to take on a more significant role in foreign affairs than hitherto. However, the experience of the last few years seems to suggest that there is still a long way to go before individual EU Member States muster the political will to act in unison, and realize those aspirations. The United Nations did a good job in the beginning of the Bosnia conflict, but lightly armed peacekeepers under their command, with too broad a mandate to match their limited capabilities, proved unable to contain the conflict or even defend themselves.
The success of NATO's leading role in bringing peace to Bosnia is proof of the unique ability of the Alliance to undertake peace-support operations and engage in crisis management. But regardless of this success, we must not forget that NATO is not primarily a peacekeeping organisation, but a military Alliance, established and organized to provide for the defence of the Member States. Although the great threat of a massive attack has disappeared after the end of the Cold War, we nonetheless continue to be confronted with threats to our national security, which are more likely to be the result of regional instability, as we are experiencing today in the Balkans. Therefore the rationale behind the Alliance requires us to act in order to reduce the effects of ethnic tensions, nationalism and political extremism, which can have disastrous consequences. The baseline continues to be that NATO is not a political trouble-shooter as such, but a military Alliance that can have legitimate political interests in helping to solve regional crisis.
Lifeline over the Atlantic
The trans-Atlantic link, which embodies the commitment of our North-American Allies to the defence of European Member States, continues to be the cornerstone of the Alliance. North-American involvement in European security is indispensable, as you are aware of through the United States initiative on the Baltic Charter and further work on issues regarding Baltic security. The trans-Atlantic link is not a given fact of life, however. It is the result of a special relationship between the countries of North-America and Western Europe. Formed in time of need when an outside threat helped old rivals to put their past troubles behind and consolidated by the existence of common values and interests. Today we see ideological differences being overshadowed by increased global market competition. This trend does not only affect former adversaries but also current Allies, as we experience challenges to the traditional flow of trade and investments over the Atlantic. We must be mindful of the ever-present tendencies in the United States to disengage from Europe, which with hindsight contributed to the catastrophe of the Second World War. The advocates of similar sentiments today are increasingly sceptical towards American defence commitments to Europe and doubt the wisdom of further development of NATO through enlargement. We must assist our American friends in resisting these sentiments, by pointing out the fact that stability and security in Europe has traditionally been heavily dependant on American involvement in European security issues. The United States is in that respect also a European power. The United States and Canada have a clear national interest in stability and prosperity in Europe. In order to further strengthen the relationship we must seek to enhance trans-Atlantic economic and political relations in the wider context, to reinforce our common values and our common interest in security co-operation. Recent improvements in the trade relationship between the European Union and the United States are a positive sign in this respect and Iceland as a member of EFTA pins great hopes on the successful conclusion of the negotiations on free trade between the EFTA-states and Canada.
I would here like to state, since mentioning EFTA, that the Free Trade Agreements between the three Baltic States and EFTA take into account the most recent developments in the international trade regime. They entered into force on 1 October 1997 with Estonia, 1 June 1996 with Latvia and 1 January 1997 with Lithuania.
Developing Relationships: Constructive Engagement
As a political organisation, NATO has in the past few years, sought to strengthen political ties between Allies and Partners. The Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) is steadily becoming a venue for more substantial discussions and exchange of views on both regional problems as well as on European security as a whole. The Partnership for Peace Programme (PfP) is proving to be an ever more important vehicle for military co-operation, providing increased possibilities for aspiring members to prepare their military forces for membership. All the Baltic States have been constructive participants in this work. NATO has also opened a new chapter in its relations with the Ukraine; by the signature of the NATO-Ukraine Charter in Madrid last Summer and the establishment of the NATO-Ukraine Commission.
In this part of the world, NATO's relationship with Russia is of course of particular importance. Now at the first anniversary of the Permanent Joint Council (PJC), we can safely say that this joint venture has been a success. The meetings of the PJC have the potential to become an increasingly important venue for exchanging views on security issues and for mutual exchange of information on the activities of each of the parties. In addition the PJC is the driving force behind our joint practical co-operation activities. The Alliance recognises the Vienna negotiations as the primary vehicle for negotiations on convetional forces in Europe (CFE-issues) and on confidence and security building measures, while the PJC has proved to be an important addition to the international machinery in this field. We are all, however, mindful of the need to provide the maximum transparency possible and are aware of concerns by other Partners over the possible scope of deliberations within the PJC. It is, therefore, worth recalling that the Alliance has consistently refused to recognise any Russian veto on such issues as the enlargement process and takes the line that NATO and Russia should not discuss issues within the PJC, that directly concern the security of other Partners. I, for one, can say that Iceland will never accept that security issues, of specific concern to the Baltic States, will be diverted from multilateral fora and dealt within the PJC.
Approach towards Russia needs to be inclusive and one of constructive engagement. The developing dialogue between NATO and Russia in the security field is certainly an important part of this approach. At the same time, economic co-operation will continue to increase, as long as Russian economic policy follows the course of reforms. Much more effort is, needed, however, on the Russian side to reduce government spending and improve tax collection, for the government to achieve stability in the state budget and lay the foundation for self-sustainable growth in the long term. Hopefully, the new Russian Government will be able to undertake this task vigorously, while intensifying efforts to intergrate Russia into the multilateral trading system.
The smaller players on the international scene, like my country and the Baltic States, can play a valuable role in a policy of constructive engagement vis-à-vis Russia. We must continue to include Russia in the Baltic Sea co-operation at every level and be open for developing such regional co-operation even further. The CBSS already deals with co-operation in home affairs, environmental issues as well as democratic values and institutions, to name but a few examples. But in the longer term the Baltic States can play an important role, along with the Nordic countries, in increasing regional economic co-operation. As the Baltic States continue to successfully manage their economy, the disparity in economic prosperity between the Baltics and the neighbouring Russian border areas can become a source of regional instability. I believe we should together focus on this as one of our principal areas of co-operation in the near future, and use it to show the Russians that economic and security co-operation can actually serve to spread both prosperity and security. As we have always said, westward-looking Baltic nations, interacting with Russian neighbours from a position of confidence, will be beneficial to the Russian people as a whole.
Furthermore, we need to involve Russia in multilateral discussions on security challenges in the Baltic region. Recent Finnish/Swedish initiatives, as well as the United States/Baltic proposals for a Common Agenda for strengthening elements of Co-operative Security in the Baltic Region, can be beneficial to that work. I also believe we should consider the possibility of using the EAPC-framework for discussing appropriate aspects of Baltic security.
Our policy of constructive engagement must, however, recognise the dangers that economic uncertainty and political instability can create for the future development of Russian society. We have seen certain signs that elements within Russia are prepared to stir up nationalist feelings by reference to "Greater Russia" or the "near abroad". This suggests that Russia has some inherent right to interfere in the internal matters of formerly annexed countries. We should vigorously confront these sentiments and point out the danger of such an approach. We must also resist any Russian tendencies to regard the Baltic region as some kind of a self-proclaimed protectorate. Russia must respect the full sovereignty of the Baltic States and the way in which the three countries choose to build relations with likeminded countries in Europe and North America.
The recent difficulties you experienced in your relations with Russia are are worth mentioning here. I believe that the determination of the Latvian Government to take decisive action, in co-operation with the OSCE High Commissioner, was exemplary, and a text-book lesson in how successfully to defuse tension with neighbours. The courageous action taken by the Latvian authorities was further proof of Latvian commitment to a free and democratic society and respect for human rights and the rule of law. The inclusion of Latvia into the accession process in the European Union is a clear sign of recognition of Latvia's vocation. The support shown to Latvia by the international community in the last weeks and months is further testimony to that recognition. Now, however, it is up to the Latvian parliament to successfully bring this matter to a conclusion. I believe it is necessary for the Latvian parliamentary parties to set aside political short-term interests and act swiftly on this matter, as prolonged delays will only damage Latvian interests. Latvia will, in my view, by passing the draft laws currently before parliament respond to any legitimate concern and put an end to this issue. And let me assure you that as far as we are concerned, the final parliament approval will demonstrate that this case has been solved in a successful manner. The goalposts will not be moved.
Iceland supports the WTO membership of the three Baltic States and has voiced its opinion on the subject during the ongoing negotiations. Membership in the WTO is important for trade, economic development and indeed therefore the security of the Baltic States.
As the foreign minister of Iceland I have set out a policy of strong support for Baltic membership of NATO. I will certainly continue on that path. Iceland has also spoken out in favour of Baltic membership of the European Union, to the extent possible for a non-member state.
NATO Heads of State and Government underlined the Alliance's commitment to the "open-door policy" at their meeting in Madrid in July last year. The next summit meeting, to be held in Washington in April next year, will welcome the three new member states, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, into the Alliance and take stock of further developments in the enlargement process. It is too early to say what decisions we will reach at that juncture, but the continued effectiveness of the Alliance will remain our primary objective. Central and Eastern European countries aspire to NATO membership because of the capabilities of the Alliance and because of its ability to implement commitments to collective defence. In the run up to the Madrid Summit, I stressed this point and consequently argued for a measured process, in which the Alliance machinery would gain time to adapt to new members, and against including too many countries in the first wave. We must further keep in mind that currently the NATO Military Authorities are actively implementing a new and leaner Command Structure and that work will at the earliest be concluded just before the Washington Summit. I believe we will have to keep these considerations in mind in the run up to the Washington Summit and avoid any action that could weaken the Alliance's credibility, only for short-term political gain.
Within NATO Iceland has sought to emphasise that all applicant states should be judged on their own merits, regardless of geography or history. We have pointed to the determination of the people's of the Baltic states to rebuild their societies, based on individual liberty, the rule of law, respect for national minorities and free market ideals. We greatly value our membership of NATO and feel it has secured our independence and liberty for almost fifty years. Therefore we can very well understand our neighbours aspirations to achieve the same security that we have enjoyed, and we feel morally obliged to assist them in attaining that goal.
I believe today we have a historic opportunity to create the conditions for lasting security in the Baltic region, and hopefully we will make good use of the opportunities available to us to achieve that aim. It is tempting to take out the crystal ball and look towards the Baltic region in fifteen or twenty year's time. By that time we could see three prosperous Baltic states, reaping the benefits of sound economic policies and difficult political choices, but at the same time having used all opportunities to build economic ties to their neighbours, in order to increase regional stability. We could see the three countries as members of the EU and NATO, having taken every step available to allay reasonable concerns in meaningful dialogue with neighbours on mutual security issues, which also would involve European and North-American NATO Allies. We could see ever-closer co-operation between the Baltic States and the Nordic Countries, involving Russia in our work to much greater extent.
If this is a true vision, I fear not for the security of the Baltic States or for stability in the Baltic region as a whole. And neither should anyone else.