Speech by NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer
It may come as a surprise to some that the NATO Secretary General is addressing this topic. It shouldn’t. NATO’s engagement in the broader Middle East region is not new. It has been part and parcel of NATO’s transformation since the mid-1990s.
This transformation is based on a fundamental change in perspective for NATO – that providing security in this new strategic environment means reaching out. In the post-Cold War world, the new NATO needs to set up a network of partnerships. This network has to include countries across Europe, through the Caucasus, and into Central Asia -- but it also has to include countries in the Mediterranean and the Middle Eastern region, given the pivotal importance of this region, for Allies of course, but also for the entire international community.
The Alliance started to reach out to its Southern neighbours ten years ago. The initial goal of our Mediterranean Dialogue was to achieve better mutual understanding, and to dispel misconceptions about NATO’s aims and policies.
This was initially a relatively quiet and low-key affair. The Mediterranean Dialogue did not have the visibility of other NATO initiatives, such as the Partnership for Peace programme. But it did help to change perceptions of NATO – to correct the outdated image of a Cold War organisation and to help our Dialogue partners understand, and appreciate, today’s Alliance as a security provider that can help us all to deal with common challenges.
I must confess, it also helped us, in NATO, to better understand the Mediterranean and Middle East region. As you might expect, our expertise, built up over many decades, was more focused on other parts of the world.
Over time, these contacts have had a practical benefit as well. The Mediterranean Dialogue has helped our partners to the south to understand and support some of NATO’s new operational commitments in the broader region. Our anti-terrorist naval operation in the Mediterranean, for example, has long been appreciated by our southern neighbours – and we are now even exploring how interested Mediterranean Dialogue partners could participate in it. In sum, there has been a sea change in our understanding of each other, and our willingness to work together.
Last December, the Foreign Ministers of our Mediterranean Dialogue partners came to NATO to discuss the way ahead. This was a first, and highly symbolic. But our discussions went beyond pro forma niceties. We discussed, openly, all key security issues on our common agenda. And the visits I have recently made in the region have also reinforced this trend. The perception of NATO in the region has changed for the better, and there is a willingness to engage in concrete security-related discussions and cooperation.
Last June, at our Istanbul Summit, we took our outreach to a new level. We launched the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, through which we offer cooperation to countries of the broader region, starting with countries from the Gulf. Right away, we received a lot of positive feedback, especially from Kuwait and Bahrain, which have already formally joined the initiative. Because in the Gulf region as well, there is a growing awareness that we face common challenges, and that we need to meet them together. The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative is work in progress, and still needs to be fleshed out in detail. But, politically, the stage is set for closer relations between NATO and interested Gulf states.
All this is not to suggest that the image of NATO in the Middle East is exactly what we would like it to be. We need to do more sustained public diplomacy in the Arab world, to explain what we are and what we do today. But the willingness to look at NATO in a new way is clearly there. And that must include a fresh look at how NATO can contribute to Middle East security.
The time for a fresh look, and a more systematic approach has clearly come. The Middle East is currently going through a period of big change – and this time, there might be a change for the better, even if huge challenges remain. The election of President Mahmoud Abbas, the Summit held in Sharm El Sheikh just last week, the possible Gaza pullout, and a renewed U.S. commitment have opened new prospects for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Libya is coming back from its self-imposed isolation. The European Union, in close contact with the U.S., is addressing the International Community’s grave concerns on Iran’s nuclear programme and talking with this country on ways to restore international confidence in the peaceful nature of its programme. In Iraq, just over two weeks ago, millions of Iraqis went to the ballot boxes and showed their determination to participate in building a new, democratic country. I hope this courageous first step will pave the way for a stable political environment in Iraq.
We must sustain this positive momentum, and I am happy to see that, earlier this week, NATO Foreign Ministers focussed their discussion on Iraq and on relations with the broader Middle East region. We can only offer encouragement and assistance. But we have seen on many occasions in the past that outside support can be critical to sustain a positive dynamic over the longer term.
What can NATO do? First and foremost, we must be prepared to listen. We must get a feel for the concerns and needs of the countries of the region. And then we must tailor our approach accordingly, because cooperation can only be a two way street between NATO and each of its partners.
How could NATO’s role in the Middle East evolve? Let me give you my views on where the Alliance might be able to make a greater contribution.
First, I believe that we need to explore with our southern neighbours how NATO’s existing bilateral, multilateral and regional mechanisms could be focused to suit the specific needs of each individual nation. The experience NATO has gained through the Partnership for Peace could certainly be adapted and used for the benefit of the partners in the Mediterranean Dialogue. Joint training is one important area that comes to mind. Another is greater cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Yet another is non-proliferation. We could also assist interested countries in the field of security sector reform and defence institution building. These offers might also be of interest to others, if our initiatives were to be broadened to include more regional players.
This outside support has to be coherent and driven by each actor’s added value, without unnecessary duplication. For its part, NATO can offer a broad range of practical, defence related cooperation, in full complementarity with initiatives of the EU and the G8.
I also believe that we should not shy away from already starting to think about a potential role for NATO in supporting a Middle East peace agreement. This is not a revolutionary idea. For years, politicians and academics have, at various times, highlighted the potential added value NATO might bring in supporting an eventual Israel-Palestine peace agreement.
But let me be clear: we are not yet at the point where an active NATO role is in the cards. There would first have to be a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians and a request from the parties for NATO to get involved, with the understanding that the prime responsibility for security should remain in the hands of the regional players themselves; and, I suppose there would be a UN mandate to support such a role. These conditions do not yet exist. But I believe that, if the call comes to NATO, this Alliance must be prepared to respond positively – and to play its full part.
It is no surprise that this idea is surfacing again. For reasons of military and political credibility, any multinational peace operation deployed to the region to support a peace agreement would likely have to include both North American and European forces.
NATO is the only organisation that engages North American and Europe both politically and militarily. It has the political and military structures necessary for the effective political management of peace support operations. It has long experience in the most difficult and complex multinational missions. It has the arrangements necessary to include contributions by non-NATO nations, and long practice at making it work. For all these reasons, there is a logic to a support role by NATO in fostering peace and stability in the Middle East region.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
NATO’s approach to the broader Middle East is based on one fundamental premise: that the Alliance can only help the countries of the region to help themselves. We offer nothing more than a trusting dialogue and a hand of partnership. But those who wish to enter into this dialogue and this partnership will find NATO ready and willing.
But to be truly effective – for NATO to make a real difference in the region – NATO Allies must also have a fresh perspective. They must be prepared to use NATO to the fullest possible extent – not only as a vital military framework, but also as a unique political forum for transatlantic consultation. Contributing to the security of a region as complex as the Middle East requires profound transatlantic dialogue and coordination. And NATO is an important place – indeed, an unique forum -- to do just that.
There is a growing consensus between Europe and North America that new and stronger ties must be built with this region of such strategic importance. There is also consensus that NATO can and should play its part. For their part, countries in the Mediterranean and the Middle East also want to put their relations with the West on a new footing. We have today a chance – a chance that we must seize, for the benefit of the region, the Euro-Atlantic community and beyond.