NATO Deputy Secretary General Remarks | The Hague, 8 April 2016

NATO at 67

What (complex) agenda for NATO’s Warsaw Summit?

Remarks by NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow to The Netherlands Atlantic Association and Netherlands Atlantic Youth, The Hague
8 April 2016

(As prepared)

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It’s a pleasure to be here today. NATO benefits enormously from the work of the Atlantic Treaty Association – both in stimulating debate about the Alliance and the challenges we face, and in helping to inform our citizens about what NATO is, and what it does. The national chapters of the ATA, like today’s hosts – the Netherlands Atlantic Association and its younger sidekick, The Netherlands Atlantic Youth – are essential channels for dialogue, without which the Alliance would be less understood and less effective.

That’s particularly important today, at a time when public surveys here in the Netherlands show a softening in public support for what we do. The Atlantic Association’s own poll points to an eight percent decrease in those who think NATO is important for Dutch security – down from 76% a year earlier, to 68% today. A third of young people simply have no opinion on the issue.

That matters because NATO is as important to our collective security now as it has ever been. Our common security, stability and prosperity may not be guaranteed by NATO alone – but they would all be at much greater risk without it.

That’s why, today, I want to outline the threats the Alliance faces, and how we are responding. I also want to look forward to July’s NATO Summit in Warsaw; to explore how we hope to cooperate more closely with partners such as the European Union; and to address the important issue of defence spending.

For 67 years, the Alliance has stood firm in the face of many threats. Thanks to NATO, Europe has enjoyed the longest period of peace in the continent’s history – and we have helped to extend that same peace across Central and Eastern Europe.

But the Alliance’s job is far from done. Today, NATO faces a more complex array of challenges and threats than it has since at least the end of the Cold War – and arguably, ever.  For the first time in its history, Allies face major threats from two strategic directions at the same time.  Preeminent among these threats are the provocative actions of a more aggressive and assertive Russia – which continues to display little regard for international law – and the highly complex challenge of an unstable Middle East and North Africa, right on NATO’s doorstep.

The good news is that we are alert to those threats and are taking steps to respond.  We are, in particular, implementing the Readiness Action Plan agreed at our last Summit in Wales in 2014 as our initial response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.  We are tripling the size of the NATO Response Force to over 40,000 troops, with a Spearhead Force able to deploy within 48 hours. And we are grateful that The Netherlands, together with Germany and Norway, played a leading role in this very high readiness force last year.

We are improving our resilience to hybrid warfare and cyber attack.  And we are stepping up political and military cooperation with partners like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, who are the targets of Russian pressure aimed at undermining their sovereignty and territorial integrity.  Because we know that, if our neighbours are unstable and the victims of abuse, then we will be less secure.

It’s worth remembering that the picture was very different up until two years ago.  For more than two decades following the end of the Cold War, NATO and Russia worked together as partners with a view to moving beyond Cold War divisions and forging an integrated European security system.  We established a unique institutional framework for political dialogue and practical cooperation, the NATO-Russia Council.  While we didn’t always agree, we managed to cooperate to mutual benefit on the Western Balkans, Afghanistan, counter-terrorism, and many other subjects.  And we were looking forward to even closer ties, including potentially game-changing joint initiatives such as cooperative missile defence.

All this practical cooperation became impossible when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and sought to destabilise eastern Ukraine by orchestrating and sponsoring an armed insurgency, and by directly introducing Russian troops and equipment.  Russia’s behaviour in and towards Ukraine represented a step-change – the first alteration of European borders by force since the Second World War, and a new low in the post-Cold War settlement we had perhaps started to take for granted.

Russia has effectively torn up the international rule book, violating the principles it helped to enshrine in the Helsinki Final Act and in numerous post-Cold War agreements, including the Paris OSCE Charter and the NATO-Russia Founding Act.  And it justifies all this with a false historical narrative that seeks to blame NATO for allegedly seeking to weaken Russia and deprive of its rightful place in the world.  This, unfortunately, plays well with domestic audiences, thanks to the aggressive state propaganda machine.  But the reality is that the Russian leadership needs to portray NATO as an adversary in order to justify its increasingly repressive policies at home, and to divert attention from falling living standards.

In Ukraine and elsewhere — including in several NATO member countries — we have seen Russia conducting ‘hybrid’ warfare – a combination of disinformation, subversion, economic blackmail and cyber attacks, all backed up by conventional military power.  Russian combat forces are increasingly well-funded, agile and well-equipped, and able to mobilize on a large scale with little or no warning.  Russia has also assembled considerable anti-ship and anti-aircraft capability – its so-called ‘Anti-Access and Area Denial’ potential – which could hinder any NATO reinforcement of our Eastern flank, if it were required.

Finally, Russia has also stepped up its nuclear posture and used nuclear rhetoric in irresponsible ways, and it has withdrawn from or circumvented a whole array of obligations under arms control and transparency agreements.

It is difficult to interpret the sum of these actions as anything other than an attempt to turn the clock back to the days of blocs and spheres of influence, to a time when Moscow ruled by intimidation and threat.  Clearly, that is something NATO cannot accept.

We do not seek military confrontation, nor do we seek any kind of new Cold War.  But we cannot simply roll over and allow Russia to flagrantly disregard the principles on which the European security system was founded.  To do so would betray our values, and it would only embolden Russia to go even further in pressuring its neighbours.  And it would be an inherently unstable basis for our relations with Moscow in any event, since the people in countries like Ukraine and Georgia have a vote; as events have shown, they will not accept the notion that they are permanently consigned to what Russia still sees as its sphere of “privileged interests.”

Our response has two key elements: to bolster our defence and deterrence; and on the basis of military strength, to seek to engage in dialogue with Russia with a view to communicating our resolve, rebuilding military transparency, and reducing the risk of conflict – in short, to help manage a competitive relationship.

That combination of strength and dialogue is the best way, I believe, to bring Russia back into compliance with the Helsinki principles and with international law. For Russia to demonstrate its genuine willingness to do that, it must first fully implement its obligations under the Minsk accords and do its part to bring peace to Ukraine.  Until it does so, NATO cannot return to any kind of ‘business as usual’. Our principles simply won’t allow it.

To effectively deter Russian aggression against NATO countries, especially considering their Anti-Access and Area Denial capabilities, we need to go beyond the measures we agreed at Wales, beyond the ability to provide rapid reinforcements.  That is why NATO Defence Ministers, in their meeting in February, agreed in principle to increase our forward presence on the territory of the eastern members of the Alliance.  At our next Summit in Warsaw, in July, NATO leaders will agree on the specifics – the scale, scope, and composition of the enhanced forward presence.

The forces will be deployed on a rotational basis and be multinational in character, so that any invading force or ‘Little Green Men’ would know that, if they dared to violate NATO’s borders, they would face a robust and combat-capable force made up of troops from across the Alliance, Americans, Europeans and host-nation forces, and that the costs of any attempted aggression would be disproportionately high.

US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s announcement of a quadrupling of America’s European Reassurance Initiative to $3.4 billion in 2017 will help in establishing this enhanced forward presence.  It will mean more troops, more exercises and more forward-positioned equipment and infrastructure in countries like Poland and the Baltic States.  It is a clear sign of the United States’ ongoing commitment to European security, and will hopefully encourage European allies – including the Netherlands – to do their part.

At Warsaw, we will not only consider the long-term implications of Russia’s foreign and defence policy for NATO; we will also take steps to address the grave situation along our southern borders.

Following the failure of the Arab Spring, parts of the Middle East and North Africa have been engulfed by violence and chaos.  Once secure states have become fragile, and once fragile states have failed.  In Syria the world has witnessed the deepening of a civil war, caused by President Assad’s decision to wage war against his own people – a conflict that has now lasted five years and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.  It has created fertile ground for the rise of ISIL, with its aim of building a caliphate based on violence and a twisted version of Islam.  And the civil war has displaced millions of Syrian civilians, leading to the largest migrant and refugee crisis since World War II.  Last year saw close to a million people risk their lives to reach European shores – the equivalent of more than the entire population of Amsterdam.

NATO is not the first responder to terrorist threats, but we are not standing idly by in the hope that things will improve on their own.  All 28 NATO allies are already involved in the US-led Coalition to Counter ISIL. And while the Alliance itself is not involved directly in that fight, we are contributing in other ways.

The Alliance is working closely with partners in the region to help them to bolster their own security. We are running defence capacity building initiatives with Iraq and Jordan – and training Iraqi officers, for example, in tackling Improvised Explosive Devices, military planning, demining, military medicine and cyber defence.  We are helping Tunisia strengthen its counter-terrorism capabilities and improve its special operations forces.  And we stand ready to assist Libya in building its defence institutions if requested by the new government of national accord.

All these efforts are important, but I believe NATO can do much, much more to improve the security situation in the Middle East and North Africa – and so enhance our own security – by working more closely with our partners in the region, including organizations like the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the African Union.  This was high on the agenda when Secretary General Stoltenberg visited Washington earlier this week.  And I hope that expanding our defense capacity building programs and other mechanisms for “projecting stability” along our southern borders will be high on the agenda of our Summit in Warsaw as well.

As we respond to new challenges to our East and South, I also see considerable scope for closer cooperation between NATO and the European Union. NATO and the EU have a great deal in common – starting with 22 common members.  90% of the EU’s population is under NATO’s protection.  Most importantly, we stand for the same values:  an inviolable commitment to freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

From NATO’s perspective, we see an urgent need to work more closely with the EU in areas such as hybrid warfare, cyber defence, and civil preparedness and resilience.  Work is underway to strengthen our cooperation in these and other areas.  And we are grateful to the Dutch Government for its efforts to bring NATO and the EU closer together while the Netherlands holds the EU Presidency this year.

Our response to the new security challenges cannot rely on rhetoric alone. And we cannot simply rely upon the perpetual largess of the United States.  If we are to maintain our own defence while also projecting stability outside our borders, it will require more resources, and especially more investment in defence.  That was the thinking which inspired the Allies to make an important pledge at our Wales Summit in 2014: to stop the cuts in our defence budgets and gradually increase defence spending to the NATO goal of two percent of GDP by the end of the decade.

For more than twenty years following the Cold War, as Europe became safer and more stable, defence spending by NATO Allies fell dramatically. Clearly, we cannot allow that trend to continue.  By the end of last year, just a year after the pledge, overall, the cuts had almost ceased. In 2015, sixteen European Allies spent more in real terms than they had the year before. Including the Netherlands.

The Netherlands was one of the twelve founding members of the Alliance back in 1949, and its contribution has been steadfast ever since. The Dutch armed forces have shown themselves to be highly effective. They are among the most advanced and high-quality forces in the world – and have made important contributions to NATO operations in Afghanistan and the Balkans. The Netherlands continues to contribute at least 5% of its armed forces to NATO operations, a figure that compares favourably with some other Allies.

At the same time, your investment in high-end capabilities such as the F35 aircraft, Patriot missiles and your Submarine service, are all extremely important. The initiative with Germany to create a joint Dutch-German Corps is very welcome, and represents an important component of NATO’s high-readiness forces.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Declining spending on the armed forces has meant that there is a real danger of those forces being spread too thin. Spending as a share of GDP may have increased marginally last year – to 1.16%. But that is still far below the 2% guideline. According to NATO’s own calculations, by 2020, defence spending here will only be a meagre 1.08%.

I’m encouraged by the Dutch Government’s approach to this issue.  And I welcome the debate in this country on so-called multi-year defence budgets – the idea of negotiating and agreeing medium-term, cross-party consensus on defence planning and spending, resulting in far greater clarity and certainty.  But there is more to be done.

As I mentioned earlier, earlier this year, my country, the United States, announced that it will next year quadruple its funding of the European Reassurance Initiative to $3.4 billion.  That is a very important signal about the US commitment to the security of this continent.  It’s a signal to Russia, of course, but also a signal to the other NATO Allies, and an encouragement – I hope – for them to do more for their own security.

Ladies and Gentlemen:  As an Alliance, NATO faces unprecedented challenges, in different forms and from different directions.

We are adapting to the new security environment in a number of ways.  We are strengthening our collective defence to be able to meet any threat against any Ally.  And we are reaching out to countries around us – to help them to become stronger, more resilient, and better able to address security risks and threats in their own region.

The Netherlands plays an essential role in that effort. Whatever challenges we face, we are united in our determination to overcome them – something we have done again and again in our 67-year history.

Full speech available on NATO webpage.

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Senior Program Officer for European and International Affairs. He is responsible for managing the relations with the NATO SPS division. He is lead author and editor of the book "The Protection of Critical Energy Infrastructure Against Emerging Security Challenges” published by NATO. Alessandro has been selected by the IASSP (Istituto di Alti Studi Strategici e Politici per la Leadership in Milan) for the programme Indipendent Ph.D in Governance and Political culture. Prior, he worked at the EU Commission at DG Regio & Urban Policy and he was a Consultant at Capgemini working on the SAP-SRM Project for the European Space Agency (ESA). Futhermore, He collaborated with the Department of European Planning and Governance from Roma Capitale. He has graduated cum laude in Political Science and European Studies and holds a Post-Graduate Master in Geo-politics and Global Security.