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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

The SACLANT Symposium

The SACLANT Symposium, 5-7 September 2000
Address by Mr. Halldór Ásgrímsson, Minister of Foreign Affairs,


Secretary-General, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to this Symposium, co-hosted by the Government of Iceland and SACLANT. Allow me also to congratulate General Kernan on his taking command in Norfolk yesterday. I am particularly glad, General, that you should start your first full day on the job in Iceland, a country that has enjoyed so many years of close and fruitful cooperation with SACLANT in the past. Knowing that military experts have sometimes referred to our country as "an unsinkable aircraft carrier", I have no doubt that NATO}s supreme maritime commander will feel both reassured and at home here.

The joint sponsorship by SACLANT of this Symposium underlines an old truth: the transatlantic link has been the backbone of NATO}s security, which in turn has served peace and stability in Europe as a whole, for more than half a century. But in the last decade sweeping changes have taken place in our security environment, bringing in their wake new risks and opportunities. How well have we adapted to these changes? To what extent are conventional truths that have guided our practices in the past going to hold up tomorrow? Those are clearly among the questions that we, NATO and partner countries alike, need to ask ourselves at the dawn of the new millennium. They also happen to be questions that make the theme of our Symposium so relevant. Since it is a theme too important to be left to politicians and diplomats alone, I am particularly grateful that so many highly qualified people of different backgrounds have decided to honour us with their presence this week.

The topic I have been invited to focus on today, the transatlantic link, is one that strikes a special cord with Icelanders in this anniversary year. There is obviously a certain risk involved in asking an Icelander to tackle this subject, for chances are that he will want to begin the story in the year one thousand, this being the year when Leif the Lucky became the first European to set foot on North American soil. Should anyone suspect my reasons for raising this point, let me quickly add that Leif}s voyage was a strike for not only Iceland, but also for Europe. The specific mentioning in the Sagas of a German member of Leif}s crew, able to bear witness to the quality of North American vine, bears out that fact. If the Icelanders did well to keep the find secret for five hundred years, it would seem that our continental neighbours are entitled to some of the credit also.

But the Sagas, it turns out, are full of surprises. It appears that our forefathers not only played a role in leading Europe to North America. Less well known perhaps, they also left a trail from North America to Europe, as the first white man to be born in Vinland returned to Iceland to become the father of a long line of descendants. Be that as it may, I hope you will agree that Icelanders can offer a unique meeting place for both Europeans and North Americans to discuss the future of the transatlantic relationship.

Leaving aside the overtones that the notion may carry for my own countrymen, the transatlantic link constitutes, of course, at a deeper and more universal level, a special bond which brings together Europe and North America in a partnership of destiny. Let me distinguish at least two aspects of that bond, the one political, the other strategic.

Politically speaking, the transatlantic link embodies the commitment of all NATO member states to safeguarding the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. Legally speaking, the commitment to collectively defending that legacy may be confined to the Alliance member states. But the ideals themselves are certainly not so restricted. Through various initiatives, including the Partnership for Peace, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, the NATO-Ukraine Commission and last but not least the Membership Action Plan, partners have lately associated themselves with the common goal of promoting peace and stability in the wider Euro-Atlantic area. A large number of countries thus have a stake in a sound and successful transatlantic link.

If the political aspect refers to the pursuit of shared ideals, the strategic aspect of the transatlantic link highlights the means required to realise those ideals. This is first of all a question of the capabilities needed to undertake both in the near and the long term the full range of Alliance missions. The ability to deploy and sustain necessary forces and infrastructure and to ensure their survival is obviously among the key requirements in this regard. To meet its objectives for collective defence, the Alliance will also depend in the foreseeable future on the North Atlantic sea- and airlines of communication for reinforcement, resupply and long-range force projection.

The ability of NATO to deploy and sustain forces in the field has recently been put to the test in the Balkans. Although the lessons of Kosovo are still being drawn, let me reiterate two main points regarding NATO operations in the area last year. On the one hand the operations revealed certain imbalances and weaknesses in the Alliance}s force posture which the member countries are taking steps to correct, through, inter alia, the Defence Capabilities Initiative. In the aftermath of Kosovo there is also a greater appreciation of the need to deepen our working relationship with partners, without whose active support our Alliance could not have achieved its objectives. Both lessons should eventually serve to bring about a more effective and a more equitable transatlantic partnership in the future.

However we define the concept, someone may still be tempted to ask whether a strong transatlantic link will continue to be called for indefinitely to safeguard Euro-Atlantic security. As mentioned earlier, our security environment has undergone a radical transformation. Most of the states that emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union are now our active partners and three former members of the Warsaw Pact have joined our ranks. Troubles in the Balkans, deriving in large part from Europe}s last remaining communist dictatorship, may not be a forerunner of other regional conflicts. Last but not least, the European Union has lately initiated plans to establish an autonomous military capability for purposes of conflict prevention and crisis management.

Security, as you know, has many faces. I would like to underline the importance of the non military aspect of this link - securing a safe trading route between the two continents, North-America and Europe. The enormous trans-atlantic trade is a driving force in today's world economy. We need to be prepared and be able to safeguard this link against any future threats, also threats of a different nature the Alliance has been prepared to counter in the past, such as international organised crime and terrorism. Thus Iceland will continue to play a valuable role in serving and contributing a safe route, on sea as in air, between the two continents it bridges. It is important when we speak of security not to overlook the underlying economic factors, which, in my view, complement and reinforce the military aspect of the trans-atlantic link.

This adds to explaining, in a changing security environment, the enduring nature of the transatlantic link as the cornerstone of Euro-Atlantic security. Allow me to make a couple of further points.

To begin with, it would be a mistake to view the transatlantic link mainly as a function of the ability of any one country or group of countries to threaten our security. The right to organise regional defence is protected by the United Nations Charter. Through, among other things, the transatlantic link, the Alliance member countries have chosen the most effective means of fulfilling that right.

Therefore, as one form of practical cooperation in the area of security and defence, the transatlantic link is not aimed at any other country. Responses by individual NATO countries to the tragic Russian submarine disaster a few weeks ago, are only the most recent example, showing that there is no contradiction between a preference for a particular structure of defence and collaborating closely with other countries, that are not a part of that structure. Allow me to use this opportunity, to again extend the heartfelt sympathy of the Icelandic people to the families of the bereaved, a sentiment that I am sure is shared by all present.

Turning next to the example of the Balkans, it would seem that the operations in Bosnia and Kosovo will make demands on resources of NATO and partners for many years to come. But quite apart from the cost and the effort required by these operations, it is clear that a strong transatlantic relationship would be needed not only to intervene in similar situations, if they were to arise, but in order to discourage possible future trouble-makers.

This brings me to the possible impact of the European Union}s recent initiative in the area of security and defence. Debate on the need for European countries to assume greater responsibility in this area is not new, dating back at least to the nineteen sixties. But developments within the European Union in the last two years mark a new departure. For the first time, the members of the European Union decided at Helsinki to set up an autonomous military capability, starting with a force of up to 60.000 persons by the year 2003. This was followed by a pledge in Feira to provide up to 5.000 police officers for international missions.

The European Union aims, in the first instance, to concentrate its efforts on conflict prevention and crisis management. These efforts of the European Union can contribute much to the strength and vitality of the Alliance. They are, indeed, a source of strength where new strength was most needed.

One of the great lessons of the Balkan conflict in recent years has, of course, been on the need for Europe to contribute more to its own defence and security. The implementation of the Headline Goal of the European Union will be a major step in this direction. Iceland is prepared to play its full part in this process and will soon announce a national contribution to possible crisis management operations to be launched by, among others, the European Union.

In response to the demands of European integration, however, this strengthening of Europe}s role in its own security and defence is taking place both within and outside of the trans-atlantic framework. Iceland's special position in this regard as a European nation within the Alliance, but outside the European Union, makes us particularly conscious of the need for the most careful management of any risks there may be inherent in this development. The Common Security and Defence Policy of the European Union is institutionally separate, and autonomous, from the Alliance, however closely linked it is to NATO's own European Security and Defence Identity.

This provides us with a new and important challenge, a challenge we can only meet with the deepest commitment to our common goals. First steps have now been taken to allow NATO and the European Union to pursue meaningful dialogue on how best to organise their future relations, including the participation of the six European non-EU members, an issue of particular importance to us in Iceland. Much is at stake, but our shared commitment to goals that are of utmost importance to all of us, and the great reservoir of mutual trust and good will that has been built up over the years of our enormously successful Alliance, should give us confidence in our ability to derive new strengths, and renewed vitality and solidarity from this challenge.

The North Atlantic Alliance has rightly been called the most successful international alliance in history. Over the past ten years we have been able to quickly adapt our alliance to realties of a rapidly changing security environment. We have done this by preserving our cohesion through keeping faith with the goals that unite us. There is no doubt in my mind that we will continue to successfully adapt our trans-atlantic alliance to new challenges and thus preserve peace, stability and prosperity in the Euro-Atlantic area.

Coming to the end of my remarks, I would like to thank SACLANT, his staff and mine, for the good work and effort they have put into organising this symposium and hope that all of you will find the discussions to follow both useful and interesting.

The Icelandic-Canadian explorer, Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, who in some ways carried on where Leif the Lucky left off in North America, once observed that "every geographic discoverer must plead guilty to making the world poorer in romance .... in exact proportion as he makes it richer in knowledge". Welcoming you today, let me hope that this time around your visit to Northern latitudes will enable you to mix learning with enjoyment - if not romance.


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