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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Iceland and Security in the North-Atlantic

Iceland and Security in the North-Atlantic, Past, Present and Future

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Halldór Ásgrímsson, on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Defense Agreement between Iceland and the United States

Security and defence issues at times bear an unmistakable resemblance to modern-day insurance, where people take out insurance for themselves and their assets against unforeseen disasters. In a similar manner, states attempt to arrange their security and defence so as to ensure their independence and sovereignty to the extent possible against external encroachment. As the Romans used to say, in a well-known proverb, "Si vis pacem, para bellum", that is to say "if you wish to preserve the peace, prepare for war". In a contemporary context, this means, in effect, that all countries need to maintain credible defences.

It goes without saying that the evaluation of security and defence needs is dictated by circumstances at any given time. Numerous factors come into play, particularly political and economic circumstances ?internal and external?, geographic position and advances in warfare.

Looking back on Icelandic history from the perspective of security and defence brings various aspects into relief, such as the fragmentary nature of the countriy}s defences for most of our past. But other factors ?in fact closely related? such as the geographical position of the country, have been influential in the past and still are.

For centuries, Iceland was a remote place, well off the trodden path. Wars on continental Europe therefore had little impact in this country. For their defence, Icelanders relied to a large extent on their distance from the continent until the early 20th century. The fact that the the First World War did not reach the shores of the country was an influential factor in the policy of eternal neutrality adopted when Iceland became a sovereign nation in 1918.

But security in the shelter of distance was soon to become a thing of the past, displaced by advances in military technology. By the time that World War II broke out, new developments, particularly the rise of air power, had completely changed Iceland's situation. The realisation of this fact was an influential factor in the British decision to occupy Iceland in May of 1940. The British occupying forces were subsequently relieved by US forces under the Military Protection Agreement of 1941.

The strategic importance of Iceland was clearly brought to light in the course of the Second World War, and no one doubts that the country played an important role in the security of the North-Atlantic during the Cold War.

NATO membership in 1949 and the 1951 Defence Agreement with the United States provided the foundation for Iceland}s foreign policy to the present day. At that time, only a few years had passed since the foundation of the Icelandic Republic. International affairs were fraught with uncertainty, and the spectre of the Cold War was gradually taking shape. It is scarcely surprising that there should be internal disagreement on what policy the young Icelandic Republic should adopt in foreign affairs.

When we look back, it becomes clear to us just how successful the foundation and development of NATO really was. In the same way, Iceland's membership of NATO and subsequently the Defence Agreement with the United States have proven to be fortunate decisions. This policy was a subject of controversy in Icelandic society for decades, and strongly influenced the political debate in the country, and, indeed, the entire political spectrum. The end of the Cold War has brought about a transformation in this respect. The vast majority of the nation is now clearly satisfied with the current arrangement of our security and defence and wants no change. In the course of the daily political discourse in this country criticism of these pillars of our foreign policy is rare.

The Defence Agreement with the United States was concluded against the backdrop of the Cold War and the Korean War. Another influential factor was the fact that Iceland and the United States had been engaged in fruitful co-operation since the time of the Military Protection Agreement in 1941 and subsequently the Keflavik Agreement in 1946. The foundation for the Agreement centres on the mutual security interests of Iceland, the United States and NATO in the North-Atlantic. The Agreement owes its existence in past, the present as well as the future on these shared interests.

The Defence Agreement laid the foundation for half a century of unusually extensive and close relations between Iceland and the United States. For its part, the Icelandic Government has from the outset been very pleased with the way in which the Defence Agreement has been implemented and with the co-operation with the United States. Obviously, in the course of the 50 years since the conclusion of the Agreement, numerous issues have come up which have tested the ability of both parties to find mutually acceptable solutions. So far we have been successful, and it is my belief that we will continue to be successful.

The activities of the Defence Force have developed on the basis of the prevailing perception of external circumstances at each time. The relations of the Defence Force with NATO have also developed, and for some time now, other NATO countries have had a permanent presence in Keflavik. The Netherlands have had a maritime patrol aircraft and crew stationed in this country since the eighties. In addition, liaison officers from Denmark, Norway and Canada are stationed withe the Defence Force. In recent years, the regular participation by NATO partner states in exercises conducted in this country has been increasing.

The end of the Cold War brought with it fundamental changes in international affairs. The political environment of security and defence has undergone a transformation. Concurrently with these changes, most of the countries in our region have reduced their defence spending relative to the past. Having observed the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Kosovo and the current skirmishing in Macedonia, it is quite clear that there is a need for continued close co-operation on security and defence in Europe. It is equally clear that the only organisation with the required capability, military or political, to take on the most difficult tasks is NATO.

The new security and defence environment calls for new and changed responses by states and security organisations. The organisations concerned with security to which Iceland belongs have sought to adapt to the changed environment and to develop new ways of addressing the current risks. This is particularly true of NATO.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, which comprises a total of 46 states. Security co-operation with European states outside NATO is a means for the Alliance to address the changed environment and to respond to calls for new ways of meeting present threats to security and stability. Another such instrument is the Partnership for Peace, a bilateral military co-operation between the Alliance and Central and Eastern European countries stretching all the way to the Caucasus and Central Asia, established in 1994 and currently comprising 26 states.

The Icelandic government has firmly supported the enlargement of NATO as a means of expanding and increasing stability and security in Europe. Through enlargement to 19 member states and through membership talks with nine Central and Eastern European countries, the Alliance is meeting the concerns of the states in the region which are currently not a part of any defence alliance. One nation's vulnerability threatens not only its own security but also that of its neighbours. This is why the enlargement of NATO is necessary. The Membership Action Plan approved at the Washington summit lays down the steps that aspiring nations need to take in order to qualify as full members. These include requirements regarding the treatment and rights of minority groups within the states, human rights, and good neighbourly relations. Thus, the enlargement process of NATO has already contributed to stability and lasting peace in the region. The further enlargement of NATO will be addressed at a summit meeting scheduled for the autumn of 2002 in Prague. The meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Reykjavik next spring will be an important step in the preparation for the Summit. As before, the Icelandic government will emphasise the inclusion of the Baltic States in the next round of enlargement.

I would also like to stress the importance of the transatlantic link to the existence of NATO and to security in Europe. As before, our allies, the United States and Europe, have common security and defence interests. For this reason it is in the interests of all the member states of NATO to maintain a strong transatlantic link at the same time that the European States take on greater responsibility and improve their capability to deal with threats in their neighbourhood.

The interest of the European States in taking on greater responsibility for their defence is not new; it is as old as the concept of a European Union. The idea has been more sound than substance until recently, and it is still to early to tell what the actual role of the common Security and Defence Policy of the European Union will be. The Icelandic government supports this trend. Like our allies, we stress the fact that the importance of the transatlantic link must not be undermined, and NATO must continue to play the leading role in the security of the Continent, as it has done for over 50 years. The Alliance has shown that in spite of profound changes, no other organisation has been capable of taking on its tasks with any credibility.

The actions of the Alliance on the Balkan Peninsula, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo illustrate that it can be necessary for NATO to intervene in events outside their borders in order to preserve stability and thereby their own security. It goes without saying that Iceland must contribute like other member states, and Icelandic nurses, police officers and other professionals have been working in these areas and performing well. The Icelandic government has now made the decision to increase dramatically its contribution to crisis management and peace-keeping and through the establishment of the Iceland Crisis Response Unit.

The establishment of the Unit reflects the new focus and policymaking in the direction of more active participation by Iceland in international security affairs. It reflects our willingness to take on greater responsibilities in the area of security and defence in the light of new circumstances. We do not have armed forces to send into the field and engage in peacekeeping work, but this does not prevent our participation, since an increasing number of civilians has been involved in international peacekeeping in the recent past. Iceland possesses a number of competent professionals who are eligible for peacekeeping tasks.

We have also aimed for more active participation by Iceland in other matters of security and defence over the last decade, for example with increased co-operation between the Icelandic Coast Guard and the Defence Force in various areas. The operation of the Radar Agency, to give another example, is the responsibility of Iceland. Co-operation and participation in military exercises and civil defence exercises under the auspices of the Partnership for Peace has also been increased. Also, participation in the NATO Military Committee began as early as the eighties.

The new circumstances have naturally raised questions regarding the continued defence co-operation between Iceland and the United States. Is there still need for such co-operation? The Icelandic government has naturally had to face the new reality in this respect as in other respects. A panel appointed after the end of the Cold War and returned a report in 1993, arrived at the conclusion that it was necessary for the government to ensure the continuation of an adequate defence capability in Iceland. Of course much has changed since then, but not the fundamentals. The conclusion of the panel is just as relevant now as it was then. None of the European states have eliminated their defence capabilities despite the new circumstances, and events on the continent have confirmed the need to maintain them. In the same way, I believe it is necessary in Iceland to maintain a minimum defence capability.

Following consultations between Iceland and the United States, Agreed Minutes were signed in 1994 and 1996 involving adaptation to the new circumstances with a substantial reduction in the US force levels, by approximately one third. I believe that we now have in this country the minimum capability necessary for defences of the country. The Government sees no reason to, and has no plans, to request any changes. We believe that a credible defence capability is necessary, and we will continue to base our security and defence policy on that belief.

On behalf of the Government I would like to express to the United States the gratitude of the Icelandic government for the good co-operation based on the Defence Agreement from the outset. I would also like to address all those who have been responsible for the day-to-day implementation of the Agreement on behalf of the United States and Iceland. On the U.S. side, the brunt of this work has been borne by the Commanders and staff of the Defence Force and the U.S. Embassy in this country. And let us not forget the close relations with SACLANT or the work performed in Washington and Brussels in the interests of the defence co-operation. I would also like to thank the employees of the Foreign Ministry and other ministries and institutions as well as the number of people who have served on committees appointed in the context of the defence co-operation.

The profound changes that have taken place in the field of security have had a great impact in Iceland, as they have elsewhere. But there is one thing that will not change. We share interests and values with our friends and partners in North-America and Europe. The Defence Agreement with the United States and the Membership of NATO bear witness to these shared interests. We intend to be active participants under new circumstances, and with that in mind we have altered our focus and developed new policies in close co-operation with our friends and allies. This co-operation has been to our good fortune and on that secure foundation we will build the security of the Icelandic nation for the future.


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