Hoppa yfir valmynd
Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Defense and Security in a Changing World: Icelandic Viewpoints

Defense and Security in a Changing World: Icelandic Viewpoints
Lecture by H.E. Halldór Ásgrímsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs and External Trade,
UPI, Stockholm, November 25, 1998

Let me begin by saying how pleased and honoured I am to be here at the Swedish Foreign Policy Institute today.

The topic I have been asked to address is particularly timely and relevant.

Nearing the end of what must be regarded as the most violent hundred years on human record, we are all seeking, in one way or another, to chart a new course into the 21st century. Contrary to what might have been expected when the forces of economic globalisation were upon us only a few years ago, it now seems that issues of security and defense are again pushing themselves to the forefront.

Taking effective measures to ensure national defense and security is the most solemn obligation any government is called upon to undertake.

Many years ago, a certain Nordic Prime Minister paid a call on chairman Mao in Beijing and was asked how many his countrymen were. Five million answered the Prime Minister. Mao, who was hard of hearing, misunderstood and asked: Fifty million? Is that all? The Prime Minister then pointed out to there was still a zero too many. Five million! Exclaimed the chairman. In that case we better make sure that we do something to preserve you!

With a population one twentieth of the country in question, it might seem a reasonable question what Iceland has done or is doing to preserve itself. This will be my vantage point today, as I try to explain defense and security in a changing world from an Icelandic perspective.

Changing world

The end of the cold war is obviously the capital event that we all take as our point of departure. Yet, as we all know, the closing of this gloomy chapter in the history of international relations has not been an unqualified boom in every respect.

The stale stability that characterised most of the post world war period, has been replaced by dangers of a more diffuse and multi-directional nature. These include:

Eruptions of small-scale but in many instances highly destructive regional conflicts. Frequently, such conflicts have led to humanitarian disasters and mass migrations, threatening stability in neighbouring countries.

The forces of globalisation, whose reckless progression in some instances has caused severe economic dislocations, contend, in many parts of the world, with increasing political and ethnic fragmentation.

Terrorism and problems associated with international crime are of growing concern.

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, be they nuclear, chemical or biological, as well as the technology to deliver them is emerging as a major new threat to international peace and security.

Lastly, the rapid deterioration of the environment will have disastrous consequences for the sustainable use of natural resources in the absence of effective measures to reverse the trend.

These are only some examples of the changing world we live in. But they all have one thing in common: They can only be resolved through a coordinated effort of the international community and not by individual countries on their own.

Enduring interests

Iceland, like others, is therefore obliged to take a broad view of its abiding security and defense interests. Obviously, those can no longer be strictly confined to the defenses of Iceland}s sovereignty and territorial integrity as such.

Enduring interests include among other things safeguarding our economic foundation; the living marine resources around Iceland and in international waters.

Any threat to these, albeit from pollution or unregulated fishing, must be viewed with great concern. The same applies to sustainable development. It is vital to my country to be able to harvest the sea without fear of attacks or threats of blackmail by self-appointed vigilantes who more often than not have no real connection to the sea.

To protect its interests in this field, Iceland has chosen, wherever possible, to work through relevant international organisations, not least the United Nations. Traditionally, therefore we have regarded the international rule of law, including the Law of the Sea, as a major element of our foreign policy.

We live in an age where there is increasingly a need for regional and international organisations to pool their resources. Consequently, the developing new security architecture in Europe consists of a number of international organisations which each, on the basis of its speciality, has to work together with others in order to secure peace and stability in Europe. There is a need for the expertise of the OSCE, the U.N., NATO, the Council of Europe and others. No one organisation was for example able to solve the relevant issues in Bosnia on its own, and the same is now true in Kosovo. The willingness of NATO to take on new missions in the new and developing security environment has been crucial in making it possible for other organisations to function under extremely difficult circumstances.

Let me however say from a NATO perspective that we need to continue to emphasize that collective defense will remain the core function of the alliance.

Through its membership in NATO, Iceland has contributed to the collective defense of the alliance by providing sites for NATO installations and the stationing of NATO/US soldiers in the country - the only Nordic NATO member to do so. This has at times been highly controversial because we Icelanders have so recently become independent from a foreign domination. Today, however, the vast majority of my countrymen agree with the wisdom of those who were steadfast in their views on this issue.
The reasons for the policy which has prevailed since 1951 are partly explained by Iceland not having its own armed forces. There still is a requirement for alliance presence in this strategic location in the North Atlantic and this cannot be overlooked or discounted. Thus, the NATO naval air station at Keflavik and other NATO installations in Iceland have also contributed to the alliance's critical Trans-Atlantic link and to regional stability in the North Atlantic. This has given Iceland, especially during the cold war, a voice in the affairs of the alliance that might seem out of proportion to our size.

Our membership in NATO remains one of two pillars of our national defenses, the other being our bilateral defense agreement with the United States. In the year 2001 we intend to review with the United States the present force structure. The key focus on our side will be to maintain a credible defense force in Iceland in the foreseeable future.


In April next year, NATO will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in Washington D.C. This will not be a ceremonial event pure and simple. Instead, the alliance aims to agree on a revised strategic concept, admit the three new members and take further decisions on its open door policy.

Iceland participates in the ongoing examination and possible review of NATO's strategic concept with an emphasis on maintaining the letter and spirit of Article 5 of the North-Atlantic treaty. In the context of the strategic concept, Iceland regards the preservation of the Trans-Atlantic link as essential, which from the Icelandic perspective is manifested in the continuing importance of the bilateral 1951 defense agreement between Iceland and the United States.

The new and developing security environment in Europe has increased the possibility for Iceland to participate actively in the changes taking place. The government of Iceland has therefore decided to increase our active participation in NATO. At present Iceland participates in the SFOR operation in Bosnia- Herzegovina with a small medical team consisting of doctors and nurses under the command of the British forces stationed there. Additionally, our NATO-delegation in Brussels has been strengthened and an Icelandic representative has taken our seat in the military committee -- which is NATO}s highest military body -- for the first time in 49 years.

At the same time, we have several Icelandic police officers working with the International Police Force in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the very demanding environment that exist there. Also, it was recently agreed at cabinet level to send four observers to Kosovo with the OSCE Ground Verifcation Mission to support the international community in their attempt to secure a peacful resolution to the ongoing conflict.

All these activities, although modest in scale, illustrate our desire to engage more actively in peace support operations provided for by NATO or other international organisations in areas where regional conflicts threaten the peace and stability of Europe. Iceland has demonstrated that even the smaller nations of the alliance can make credible contributions to these efforts and we are doing so today in ways that would have been difficult to predict a few years ago.

It is our goal to increase Iceland's active participation in missions that enhance peace and security in Europe in a meaningful and responsible way.

The events in Bosnia-Herzegovina and most recently in Kosovo, have reflected negatively on Europe as a whole. Where the United Nations, the OSCE and the European Union failed to end full-scale warfare against largely unarmed civilian populations, NATO was called upon because of the powerful political and military contribution of the United States. Apparently, leading European countries lacked the political will and the capabilities to intervene independently in a manner likely to yield acceptable results.

This has, understandably, provoked renewed debates on the enhancement of the European Security and Defense Identity, ESDI, and on the role of the Western European Union in relation to NATO and the EU. These debates coincide with the entry into force of the Amsterdam treaty and the NATO summit in Washington D.C.

Iceland has actively supported and encouraged the development of the ESDI within NATO, partly through our associate membership of the WEU. Iceland realises that there will arise situations where it is appropriate and even necessary for European countries to undertake operations independently of their North-American allies. Accordingly, Iceland respects the aspirations of many European countries for endowing the EU with a military capability.

However, any changes to the pivotal role of the WEU between NATO and the EU, will have to take into account the embodiment of the crucial Trans-Atlantic link in NATO as well as the institutional ramifications posed by the different memberships of the three organisations.

At the Washington summit, NATO will continue its process of adaptation, by extending membership to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

At the Madrid summit, it was agreed to review the process of the enlargement of NATO in 1999. Iceland is committed to the open door policy and firmly supports the membership of the three Baltic states. It must be stressed that the enlargement of NATO is not an end in itself, but must conform to the basic task of maintaining a collective defense capability and should serve to enhance security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area as a whole. Aspirants are adapting to NATO standards to be better prepared for membership. But, membership is first and foremost a political question, not a technical one. It is too early to say what decisions we will reach in Washington in April next year. We have to stress our primary goal of continuing the effectiveness of NATO. The alliance machinery must have time to adapt to new members. We must also remember that NATO is actively implementing a new and leaner command structure. These and other considerations must be kept in mind in the months remaining before the Washington summit. However, I X_Repeat, that the question of accepting new members into NATO is primarily a political one.

The Baltic states and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe aspire to NATO membership because of the capabilities of the alliance and because of its ability to implement commitments to collective defense. 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 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 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.

Based on our own experience, we understand only too well the wishes of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to join the alliance. Iceland will continue to support their wishes within the alliance and work towards their NATO membership. During my recent visits to the three Baltic States, I had the opportunity to give lectures in each of their capitals and witnessed the rapid development towards fulfilment of the critera for NATO and EU memberships. Our meetings in the socalled "5 plus 3" meetings, that is between representatives of the five Nordic countries and the three Baltic States, are very valuable to us, as the Nordic countries deepen their co-operation with our newly free neighbours. I will as the foreign Minister of Iceland continue our strong support for Baltic membership in NATO. Iceland has also consequently spoken out in favour of Baltic membership of the EU, to the extent possible for a non-member state.

Both applicant countries and other European countries interested in relations with NATO meet in the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) and can participate in the Partnership for Peace (PfP). The establishment of the EAPC and the PfP has provided NATO with the substantive consultations and co-operation with partners and served to project stability to areas of strategic importance to the allies. Both the EAPC and PfP are still novelties and should be adjusted according to the experience gained in order to secure maximum benefits for allies and partners in the long term.

We remain committed to co-operation with Russia both bilaterally as well as within NATO. In this regard Iceland particularly welcomed the signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act and the establishment of the Permanent Joint Council. We hope for the continued strengthening of this co-operation. We also welcomed the signing of the NATO-Ukraine Charter and the establishment of the NATO-Ukraine Council. These bodies reflect the unique character of NATO's relations with these two countries and they serve a function complimentary to the EAPC.

Occationally views have been expressed which have either compared the relative merits of NATO on the one hand and the OSCE on the other hand, or speculated about a possible integration of the two organisations into a hierarchical European security architecture. Such comparison is of little use. NATO and the OSCE are very different bodies and are not competing for the same space. However, as is currently being demonstrated in Kosovo, there is considerable need and scope for co-operation between the two, on a case-by-case basis.


A few words, finally, on Icelandic-Swedish interaction in the area of security and defense. I need not here dwell on the intense Nordic co-operation in almost every field of human endeavour. This includes the regular meetings the five Nordic Foreign Ministers have and exchanges on international and security policies and co-ordination. Suffice it to say, that Nordic co-operation is one of the main pillars on which Iceland}s foreign policy rests.

Iceland has always respected the Swedish policy of neutrality. Although not formal allies in the context of defense, Iceland recognised the vital contribution made by Sweden towards maintaining stability in Northern-Europe during the cold war and towards international peace and security, for example, through substantial participation in peacekeeping. To borrow a metaphor from the boxing world: Sweden has punched far above its weight!

It is noteworthy, that in the concluding chapter of the review by the Swedish Defense Commission on Security Policy, we read that: "Developments in Bosnia demonstrate the necessity of NATO}s crisis management capability for European security and the need for American presence". This conclusion is also reflected in the active participation of Sweden in the work of the EAPC and in the commitment to PfP, which is reflected in the training of hundreds of officers and police at the international training centre of the Swedish Defense Forces at Almnäs.

Iceland looks forward to having more opportunities in Brussels and elsewhere to work even closer with Sweden in an effort to create a safer world.


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