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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Opening of the North Atlantic Council Meeting in Reykjavík

Address of the Foreign Minister of Iceland, H.E. Mr. Halldor Asgrimsson at the opening of the North Atlantic Council Meeting in Reykjavík
14 May 2002

Secretary-General, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to welcome all of you here on the occasion of the Reykjavík-meeting of Alliance Foreign Ministers.

Iceland, a country bordering on the Arctic Circle, might seem an odd venue for taking on the issues that preoccupy our Alliance these days. The Icelandic-Canadian explorer, Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, once regretted that most people seemed to have an image of the North as a lifeless waste of eternal silence, a place where (and I quote) "the stars look down with cruel glitter, and the depressing effect of winter darkness upon the spirit of man is heavy beyond words" (unquote). Such misconceptions, Stefánsson thought, were only one case of the general principle that man finds it easier to change the face of nature than to change his own mind.

Those of you, at least, who made the trip last night will have been reassured that Iceland has by now broken off the hold of winter darkness. I can only wish that the generous amounts of daylight you may be exposed to in the course of the week will not be found unsettling. Allow me also to express the hope that you may find Reykjavík in early summer to be a conducive environment, if not for actually changing your minds, then at least for examining the issues on our agenda with a very open mind.

In fact, the North Atlantic Council has twice found Reykjavík a hospitable environment for doing precisely that. In 1968, six months after the Harmel Report on the future tasks of the Alliance, Foreign Ministers met here and issued the so-called "Reykjavík signal" to initiate talks on Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR), replaced by the CFE negotiations almost twenty years later.

Around this time, in 1987, Ministers came together in our capital a second time and decided among other things to consider the further development of a comprehensive concept of arms control and disarmament. In a far-sighted move, the Ministers also expressed their belief that close international co-operation was an essential means of uprooting terrorism.

As we meet in Reykjavík for the first time in a post-cold war setting, our Alliance is similarly confronted with significant challenges. Let me briefly touch on some of them:

At the Prague Summit, six months from now, an invitation will be extended to new prospective members to join our Alliance. The right of each country to decide for itself what arrangements to make for its security and defence is one that must be respected. Enlargement of the Alliance should not be seen as a threat to anyone. Enlargement will, however, be an important means of taking forward one of our long-standing Alliance objectives: to expand the area of stability and peace in Europe. At the same time, it will be an opportunity for us, the member states, to revitalize the organization by reforming the way we work.

Relations with Partners will remain a key part of our efforts to enhance the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area, even in the eventuality that Alliance member states become more numerous than Partners. We have a continuing obligation to support democracy and seek to integrate new democracies that share our ways of thinking. Whether or not our Partners seek to join the Membership Action Plan, we therefore need to sustain a robust relationship with our EAPC Partners, also in the aftermath of Prague.

We are taking a historic step in seeking to transform the NATO-Russia relationship. Since the 1997 Founding Act, we have built together a solid, if modest, record of achievement. The time has now come for Russia and NATO to put aside the obstacles that up to now have prevented them from developing the full potential of the relationship. A framework for a new NATO-Russia relationship, to be approved here in Reykjavík and adopted at Rome in a few days time, offers a rare opportunity to do so, an opportunity that neither side can afford to miss. As a neighbour and a long-time partner in a variety of joint undertakings in the Northern region, Iceland looks forward to constructive, expanding co-operation with Russia in a new forum of twenty.

In recent years, Euro-Atlantic stability has also benefited from the distinctive relationship we have developed with Ukraine. As we adapt and enhance our working relations with Partners to meet the requirements of a changing security environment, we must also make sure to upgrade appropriately our co-operation with this strategically important partner.

The heavy workload of our Alliance over the past nine months makes it easy to forget that this is only the second meeting of Alliance Foreign Ministers since the fateful events of 11th September. Ever since that day, the nineteen have stood together in the fight against international terror. In this context the role played by our partners must also be commended. As one of the most visible symbols of Alliance support, the patrolling of the skies of the United States by AWACS aircraft involving 13 Allied countries, comes to an end tomorrow, we remain steadfast in our determination to deal with the terrorist menace. As far back as thirty-four years ago, the Harmel Report recognized that (and I quote) "the North Atlantic Treaty area cannot be treated in isolation from the rest of the world" (unquote). But at that time our Alliance had not been confronted with a requirement to develop the means necessary to tackle such threats from afar. As we as an Alliance chart the way ahead, we must commit ourselves to providing the capabilities needed to deal with the new threats, including the threat of terrorism.

We all know that the fight against terror will never be the whole of the Alliance}s roles and missions. At the moment, to take but one example, NATO is leading three successful peace support operations in the Balkans, holding the key to peace and stability in the region and beyond. While continuing to adapt our capability to take on more such missions, we must also demonstrate that NATO, while working closely with other organizations, remains responsive to the concerns of ordinary people about their security.

Furthermore, as we reposition our Alliance to take on these and other tasks at the dawn of a new century, steps must be taken to ensure mutual support and necessary harmony between our organization and the European Union. At a time when both organizations are confronted with many new requirements in the area of defence and security, this demand is now more urgent than ever.

There can be no doubt that we have set ourselves an ambitious agenda, requiring both imagination and firmness of will. We may not be called upon to complete that agenda in Reykjavík today. But as a wise man once said, work well begun is half done. How we, the Foreign Ministers, frame and give perspective to the questions that need to be answered by the Summit in Prague will be of utmost importance in setting the future course for our organization.

Clearly many of those questions touch the bedrock of our Alliance, the transatlantic link. As your host, I am certainly delighted to be able, under the circumstances, to offer you a venue in the North Atlantic where, on a good day in early summer, you can expect to have the best of views in the direction of both our North American and European Allies.

It is essential that we maintain our cohesion and unity. As we look to the future, we need to be mindful that it is our common values and the ideals we share as free, democratic nations that make it possible for us to make a difference. To date, there is no alternative to our Alliance. And that has not changed. Our vision for the future role of the Alliance, under discussion at our meeting here today, must be stated clearly so that there will be no doubt that the Alliance remains the organization that keeps us united in our endeavours to secure peace and stability.


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