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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Small Nations - Grand Alliance / Iceland: The Trans-Atlantic Bridge

Small Nations - Grand Alliance
Iceland: The Trans-Atlantic Bridge

National Press Club Morning Newsmaker Program - Washington D.C., April 22, 1999
The Hon. Halldór Ásgrímsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs and External Trade of Iceland:



Mr. Chairman,
distinguished guests,
ladies and gentlemen


As the leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization assemble here in Washington this week to celebrate NATO's 50th year anniversary, NATO is engaged in armed conflict in Europe.

That grim truth should remind us that NATO was forged in the aftermath of the Holocaust and a world war, by the survivors of war - to prevent war. The twelve founding members of NATO had learnt the lessons of History the hard way. And for half a century this most successful defense Alliance in History kept the peace by collectively deterring war against member states. It was NATO's strength that preserved the peace and made prosperity possible, by turning the reconciliation of old foes into a practical necessity.

These simple truths should be kept in mind when we, at the NATO Summit, assess our options and chart our course, for the turbulent waters that lie ahead.

(1.)
The bonds that have united Iceland and the United States were also forged during the perilous times of the Second World War.
Many military historians are on record saying that the battle of The Atlantic was crucial for allied victory in the war. Had Hitler's generals and admirals gained control of Iceland - as they did in the case of our Nordic neighbours, Denmark and Norway - it would have gravely affected the conduct and outcome of the War.
If German U-boats had enjoyed safe harbour in Icelandic fjords, how would the great convoys have fared that supplied the Russians on the Eastern Front? And how would Roosevelt's great "Arsenal of Democracy" - the United Sates - have been able to ship men and machines safely across the Atlantic, to mount the decisive invasion of Normandy?

Hitler certainly had plans to occupy Iceland. He knew, that he who controls Iceland, controls the sea-lanes of communication across the North Atlantic. It was therefore of utmost importance for the allied war effort to secure bases in Iceland, which the U.S. Government secured by negotiations early on during the war, even before Pearl Harbour sealed U.S. entry into the War.

Since then it has been recognized that Iceland is the physical embodiment of the Trans-Atlantic relationship, which has been - and remains to this very day - the mainstay of the great democratic Alliance of Europe and America. That is Iceland's place in the World. And whatever changes in the World - and a lot has changed since the demise of the once mighty Soviet-Union - geography does not change.

Iceland lost more lives, trying to supply the British with food during their hour of need, than most of the belligerents, relative to the population (with the exception of Russia). It was this experience that taught us the hard way the futility of neutrality, since it was not respected; that for a small nation, without armed forces of her own, the only realistic option was to belong to a collective security alliance, based on a solidarity of interests and values.
It was this experience that led us to conclude a Defense-agreement with the United States in 1951. This treaty remains in force to this day. And whenever NATO has had, in emergencies, to move men and material across the Atlantic, to respond to alerts or to choke fires in trouble spots, the naval base and the airport facilities in Iceland, have proven their worth.

Since then and right up to this day, these historical decisions, taken during the war or the threat of war, have remained the cornerstone of our foreign - and security policy. They were admittedly hotly disputed domestically at the time. But looking to the future you don't disband the Fire-brigade, just because a single fire has been choked, especially when you know the embers are still smoldering.

(2)
The 50 year anniversary NATO Summit here in Washington this week was meant to be a well deserved celebration of a successful past, but has become instead an unavoidable test of our resolve in meeting the challenges of the future.

NATO is engaged in armed conflict in Europe. Hopefully this will turn out to be the last war of the 20th century, rather than the first war of the 21st century. We don't know yet. But again we are being asked if we have yet learnt the bitter lessons of the 20th century, the bloodiest in human memory.
The images of Mr. Milosevic's ruthless ethnic cleansing in Kosovo seem to belong to the not-so-distant past. The endless wagon-trains of desperate refugees, herded like cattle and driven from their homes into destitution, evoke painful memories of a past we had hoped would never return to haunt Europe. Following Sarajevo and Srebrenica, Kosovo has entered the long list of tragedies that bring shame and dishonour to the century.

Is NATO's decision to intervene correct? The answer is yes. Indifference in the face of atrocities would make us accessories to Milosevic's crimes of attempted genocide. Haven't we yet learnt the lessons of Auswitsch and Buchenwald?

The 20ieth century has left us with many powerful images of disasters and mistakes, that have cost a lot in human sacrifice. One of them is Mr. Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister at the time, on his return from Munich, waving a slip of paper with the signatures of Hitler and Mussolini, declaring "Peace in our time". - And being greeted by a multitude of Londoners, scared by the threat of War - only to reap a devastating World War a few months later.
Since that moment the World has known where the road from appeasement lies - to humiliation, disaster and a wider war in the end, which could have been averted by decisive action before it was too late. Dictators must be stopped before they gain time and power to turn regional skirmishes into a widespread conflagration. That is why NATO came into being.
If we had stood idly by, while acts of barbarism and brutality were committed unrestrained before our eyes, NATO would have been thoroughly discredited. Indifference in the face of attempted genocide is no longer an option. Henceforth we have but one choice: To prevail, either by enforcing unconditional surrender of the aggressor or by a negotiated settlement, enforced by an international peace-keeping force.
Like all nightmares, this one too will come to an end. But the task of creating the climate for reconciliation and reconstruction will require time, perseverance and sacrifice. Every one of us will be called upon to make contribution towards that goal.

(3)
At the end of the second World War Europe was physically in ruins, mentally exhausted and threatened by internal discord and external aggression. The swift rebuilding of Europe from the ruins of war is one of the great achievements of this century.
This is the time and the place to pay tribute to the great post-war leaders, president Truman, his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, General Marshall and many others not mentioned here, who by their wise and farsighted decisions laid the foundation of the unprecedented and uninterrupted stretch of peace and prosperity, we have since enjoyed on both sides of the Atlantic. America's role in winning the war and building the peace, not the least by the founding of NATO and by implementing the Marshall-plan, should never be forgotten by the descendants of those, who since then have reaped the benefits.

But these great achievements are not merely a cause for celebration. They are also lessons to be learnt and applied for the future. One of the lessons is this one: Although the second World War came to an end in Western-Europe in 1945, for Central and Eastern Europe, VE-day did not arrive until November 9, 1989 - the day the Berlin Wall - that hated symbol of the division of Europe - was finally being torn down.

A lot has happened since that fateful day 10 years ago. Subjugated nations have become free; the Warsaw-Pact is a thing of the past; and the once mighty Soviet Union does not exist any longer. But the legacy of war, colonial subjugation, toalitarian terror and economic and ecological mismanagement, has left deep scars that need time to be healed.

The common goal of at least 12 Central and East European nations is to be allowed to exercise their sovereign right to rejoin the European family of nations, through their common security structure in NATO and through economic integration within the European Union. They do not want to be left out once again in a "grey-zone", in a political and economic no-mansland or a political vacuum.

Just like West-Europeans in 1945, people in Central and Eastern Europe seek the security of belonging to NATO, which will enable them to concentrate on the task of rebuilding their economies and their prosperity. The reform-movement in Central and Eastern Europe gets its impetus from these set goals and from having to adhere to the standards and criteria set for earning the right to membership, be it of NATO, the EU or both.

This is a historic opportunity for realizing the dream of a "Europe whole and free". European integration within the EU and the enlargement of NATO, to cover much of Europe in an indivisible economic and security system, is the most significant and positive development in contemporary Europe designed to secure peace and prosperity in a new Millennium.

(4)
Old mindsets and concepts, belonging to a hopefully bygone era of the Colonial Age, such as "buffer states" or "spheres of influence" or "Near abroad" should not be allowed to thwart the hopes of a new generation of Europeans, who wish to build a new future, based on common values of the rule of law, democracy and human rights.

The example of the successful restoration of W-Europe after the War should serve us as an example for how the Western Alliance should proceed in assisting the ongoing reform process in the eastern half of Europe.
This development is certainly not directed against the national interest of Russia. No nation in this century has paid a higher price for instability and aggression than the Russian people. Russian leaders need to concentrate all their capabilities and energy to restore their great nation to economic health and prosperity. For this task they need peace and stability in the years ahead. A peaceful and prosperous Eastern Europe does not pose any threat to Russia. On the contrary. A prosperous and confident Europe can only make the task of rebuilding Russia an easier one.
At the Madrid Summit in 1997 NATO leaders proclaimed an "open door" policy, assuring the aspirant nations, that the "first admitted would not be the last". At Madrid it was reaffirmed that admission to the Alliance must be "performance based". The accepted criteria include political systems that adhere to democratic principles and are based on the rule of law; acceptance of market economies, free enterprise and free trade; civilian control of the military and proven willingness to resolve territorial and ethnic disputes peacefully - as well as an ability to undertake the military requirements of NATO.

At this Washington Summit we shall be welcoming the first three new members, since the end of the Cold War: Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. In the words of Secretary Albright, when she welcomed the new members at the Truman library in Missouri, "it is a homecoming - an irreversible affirmation of their belonging within the democratic community of the West". We welcome our new allies and congratulate them. And we are reassured by Secretary Albright's words that "they will not be the last".

We risk a certain loss of momentum in the integration process, unless it be encountered by a definite roadmap for the way ahead. Therefore we welcome the American proposal for a "Membership Action Plan", which would institute an intensified dialogue with aspirant states and a systematic review of the progress made, on an annual basis. This is the minimum required to reassure would-be member states, that the Alliance is serious about its open-door policy and would enhance the credibility of the process. This Summit should make it absolutely clear that this is an irreversible process: The door will remain open for all democratic, European states, that qualify for membership.

(5)
This Summit will not and can not resolve all the issues on the Alliance's agenda for the 21st century. Hard questions remain: At what point does NATO dilute itself, so that it no longer retains its effectiveness? What shall be the division of labour with other institutions, such as the E.U. or the OSCE? How to deal effectively with the dangers of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? How to establish criteria for humanitarian intervention? How do we effectively combat terrorism and global crime? Should the legal basis for NATO's "out-of-area" peace-making or peace-keeping missions be the evolving principles of humanitarian law, rather than a UN-Security Council mandate, giving Russia and China a veto over NATO action?
Some of these questions require well reasoned answers more urgently than others. But some of them are of such far-reaching scope, with major impact on the course of events far into the next century, that they merit in-depth thinking of wise men beyond this Summit.

(6)
Mr. Chairman,
The subject matter of my remarks at the NPC this morning is" Small Nations - Grand Alliance: Iceland - the Trans-Atlantic Bridge". I have already spoken at some length about the Grand Alliance and the Trans-Atlantic Bridge. In conclusion I would like to say a few words about the role of small nations within the Alliance.

Sometimes, being the Foreign Minister of a small nation with no military forces of her own, I am asked if Iceland is not really a "free rider" in this military Alliance - or what contributions we have to make to the Alliance as a whole.

I have already explained what sacrifice Iceland had to make during the Second World War, and by implication during the Cold War, enabling the Alliance to maintain, from a secure base, the security of the sea lanes of communication across the Atlantic - a matter of vital importance for sustaining American-European co-operation in times of crises.

In the Post-Cold-War era Iceland has actively participated in allied operations in peace-keeping and in humanitarian missions and relief work in war torn areas, such as Bosnia Herzegovina, by supplying trained personnel in areas such as hospital-services and law-enforcement. Iceland has also participated in exercises for rescue-operations and relief-work, caused by natural disasters and given development aid for reconstruction and basic services in areas ravaged by war, from the Balkans to Palestine.

But the example of Iceland also shows that small nations can have a meaningful role to play within the Alliance, in formulating policy, especially when the major powers are hindered by realpolitik or special interests to do what is right (but not necessarily expedient). Western support for the restoration of independence of the Baltic nations is a case in point. In 1989-91, when democratically elected governments had come to power, claiming recognition of their restored independence, after half a century of enforced annexation by the Soviet Empire, the major Western powers tended to lend a deaf ear to their just claims.
The US worried that overt support might undermine Gorbachov's position, endanger glasnost and perestroika or exclude (tacit) Soviet co-operation during the Gulf War. Germany felt that German reunification depended on Soviet goodwill and was not ready to do anything that might offend the Soviets.
Democratically elected representatives of the Baltic nations, during this critical period, were generally given a cold shoulder or had to knock on closed doors, in international organizations, lest the Soviets be offended.
Under those circumstances Iceland - and later Denmark and other small nations within NATO took up the Baltic cause and spoke up for them within NATO, the UN etc, while others remained silent. Our message was that under no circumstances could the West negotiate a settlement with the Soviets on the consequences of the Second World War in Central and Eastern Europe, without addressing the legitimate claims of the Baltic nations who, arguably, had suffered the most from under Nazi and Soviet Repression.
In August 1991, a few days after the aborted attempt at coup d}Etat in Moscow, Iceland became the first state to give full diplomatic recognition to the restored sovereignty of the Baltic nations, thus initiating a process that soon became irreversible. And when later Slovenia and Croatia had repelled military action, meant to keep them in the Yugoslav Federation by force, Iceland again took the initiative, ahead of others, in speaking up for their cause and according them recognition.
* * *
Sometimes the solidarity of small nations, especially if they act together, can make a difference - prodding the larger states, reluctantly, to move in the right direction.

The greatness of nations is not demonstrated by their size or power. It is demonstrated in how they use their power and influence. Small nations can often make a difference in influencing the family of nations to move forward in the spirit of rule of law, democracy and human rights.

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