Speech Foreign Minister Koenders at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly
Speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bert Koenders, to the
Political Committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (The Hague, 22 November 2014)
Dear members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly,
Dear colleagues and friends,
It is an honour and a great pleasure to address you here in The Hague, in my own country. The Parliamentary Assembly is close to my heart. I used to be a member of the Assembly’s Socialist Group. And I was briefly President of the Assembly, from 2006 to 2007. Last year I had the honour to address your Assembly in Dubrovnik on my work as Special Representative and Head of the UN peacekeeping missions in Côte d’Ivoire and Mali.
I was a member of the Parliamentary Assembly for many years. I have great respect for your Assembly. It’s an organisation of peers, of equals, of democratically elected representatives. You not only represent your own people. You also help parliamentarians in your own countries to improve their expertise on NATO. That’s important because national politicians’ democratic scrutiny of NATO is often limited and public support for NATO is more important than ever as we increasingly face conflicts at Europe’s and NATO’s borders.
The post-War and post-Cold War transatlantic generations are slowly making way for a younger generation that has to cope with issues like hybrid warfare, misuse of social media and complex conflicts. NATO remains as relevant as ever.
Dear colleagues, we know that the international order is being shaken to its foundations. The world is changing faster than we could have imagined a few years ago, when I left NATO territory for the conflict zones in West Africa.
Over the past year, newspapers, magazines, think-tanks and other writers have published a colourful variety of historical comparisons between the situation in Europe today and in the past. Depending on their personal preferences, the authors have argued that we are returning to the Cold War, or that we are not returning to the Cold War. That we are seeing a return to the balance of power of the 19th century. Or that we are living in a completely new era, which makes historical comparisons impossible.
Historical comparisons can be useful in assessing the present situation. But they also divert our attention from the key fact that our future is not determined by the past. There is no Cold War 2.0. It is what we do now, the course we chart and the decisions we make, that will determine the outcome of the major challenges we face. So it’s not our history that decides our future. It’s we ourselves.
Developments in Euro-Atlantic security over the past year have highlighted the fact that security cannot be taken for granted and requires ongoing efforts. Many people are again looking to our Alliance – more so than ever before. An Alliance that offers unique collective security guarantees.
I would like to say a few words about the principles behind the Netherlands’ international security policy, focusing on how the developments of the past year affect our national and international commitment.
Decisions on security, including the procurement and deployment of military capabilities, should be based on a clear security analysis. Strategic interests shape policy and the related instruments and resources. The five main elements of our strategy are as follows:
• first, Europe needs to take more responsibility for security in and around its own territory;
• second, we should focus more on our immediate vicinity, the arc of instability surrounding Europe, to the east as well as to the south;
• third, we want to improve mechanisms for prevention and early warning, so that conflicts do not cause social disruption and major human suffering;
• fourth, a comprehensive approach is essential: security policy is not only about defence, but must also include diplomacy and development;
• and finally, we should continue to pursue arms control and disarmament.
Important constant factors in our policy are multilateralism, attachment to international law and our strong transatlantic ties, not least through NATO.
These five basic principles are central to the security policy adopted by the Netherlands last year. Let’s now look at the problems we face.
What can we learn from developments over the past year? That we live in an uncertain world is nothing new. But the speed at which it became more uncertain and more volatile last year certainly is. Europe is surrounded by an arc of instability. Potential threats that previously seemed abstract or far away have become reality. Faster than we thought possible.
Take the situation to NATO’s east. Last year saw Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its aggression in eastern Ukraine, and its attempts to put pressure on our eastern neighbours like Georgia and Moldova.
On the southern flank, the most conspicuous development was the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but we are also facing instability in the Sahel (Mali) and Libya. We have to fight battles on multiple fronts, including the virtual battle ground of cyberspace, where information warfare presents us with new challenges. And old challenges remain, such as uncertainty about Iran’s nuclear programme. We are all aware of the important negotiations taking place in Vienna this weekend.
All this shows that we have to prepare ourselves for a longer period of geopolitical turbulence and instability. This has led the Dutch government to review whether our security strategy is still based on valid principles and whether we need to adopt new approaches.
Let’s begin with Russia and the Ukraine crisis. We let Russia take us by surprise. Four years ago, in NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept, we agreed with Russia to seek a true strategic partnership and act accordingly, expecting Russia to do the same.
But it didn’t. Its annexation of Crimea, including the sham referendum, was a flagrant violation of international law, and of the principles on which we’ve built peace and security in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and seems intent on destabilising eastern Ukraine. Your Assembly has studied the modernisation of the Russian armed forces. You realised that modernisation would be tested by snap exercises. But we didn’t expect Russia to flout fundamental principles by using the threat of violence to get its way. We assumed that our common security interests and our mutual economic and energy dependence would diminish the risk of further conflict.
NATO and OSCE reports on Russia’s growing military support for the separatists are worrying, and show that the Minsk agreements are not being respected. Unfortunately, this is in line with Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity since March.
Another complicating factor is that we are confronted with new, hybrid methods of warfare, combining conventional, irregular and cyber tactics. This is putting increasing pressure on the international legal order. Hybrid strategies call for a coordinated response.
Countries need to be resilient to hybrid attacks. Years of corruption and poor governance have made countries like Ukraine more vulnerable to Russia’s attempts to stir up trouble. The recent elections showed that Ukrainians want problems to be tackled firmly. The Netherlands is using all the avenues available – the EU and IMF, bilateral and NATO – to support Ukraine’s efforts to improve the rule of law and make socioeconomic reforms. A more prosperous and democratic Ukraine, where the rule of law is strong, is the best response to cynical tactics.
Russia’s behaviour in Crimea and eastern Ukraine has brought about a fundamental change in the EU and NATO’s relationship with Moscow. The revival of power politics and thinking in terms of spheres of influence, and the disrespect Russia has shown for the sovereignty of its neighbouring country, have an impact on our security analysis and on our policy towards Russia. We have to stand united against this infringement of international law, and respond to Russia’s behaviour, but in a sensible manner and without causing escalation.
We are not in another Cold War. The new situation is – in a way – more complex. Many common security interests (Iran, Iraq/Syria, fighting extremism, etc.) still exist. And so does our interdependence; in fact, that’s why sanctions are a relatively effective means of applying pressure. But Russia’s actions must be a wake-up call to review our defence strategy. In Wales we decided to enhance our readiness and responsiveness, so that we can react faster to outside threats. The Netherlands is contributing to this. I’ll come back to this later.
As well as strengthening NATO, we need to invest more in cooperation with other international organisations. Our response to hybrid attacks cannot be purely military; we need a mix of instruments – a joined-up approach. The challenge is to find the right balance between a clear and powerful response to Russia’s behaviour on the one hand, as we are doing in NATO and with our sanctions policy, and continuing to seek dialogue, de-escalation and confidence-building measures on the other. We need to strike a balance between the clenched fist and the open hand.
We should not abandon dialogue, no matter how difficult it may be. Russia is part of the problem, so it also needs to be part of the solution. We must use all the avenues available, including the NATO-Russia Council. Not least because rising tensions can easily lead to misunderstandings and incidents in the air or on the ground, with far-reaching consequences in terms of political psychology. NATO needs to consider how it can make Russia’s actions more predictable.
The Ukraine crisis has made it more difficult to talk about transparency and confidence-building measures. And this applies to both conventional and nuclear weapons. We have to continue, however, despite the adverse political climate, or rather because of it, to address within NATO the importance of transparency, confidence-building measures, arms control (both nuclear and conventional) and nuclear disarmament. We have to prevent a new arms race or a restoration of Cold War politics with an increased role for nuclear deterrence. It is crucial to continue talking about this important issue, particularly in times of mounting tensions. And as far as conventional arms control is concerned, Russia and NATO must keep informing each other about troop movements and exercises to prevent misunderstandings. The increased number of unnotified Russian overflights of European territory is a cause of growing concern. The risk of accidents in the air is significant. This irresponsible behaviour must stop.
On Europe’s southern flank too, we are seeing destabilising factors which affect our countries’ security. These are issues which directly concern the Netherlands. This has been made very clear by the young men and women who grew up in our country and are now travelling to Syria and Iraq to take part in violent jihad. When they return, they carry with them a substantial threat of terrorist attacks in the Netherlands. National and international security have become inextricably linked, more than ever before.
What conclusions can we draw from this analysis? What the situations in Ukraine and in Iraq and Syria have in common is that quick fixes are not available and the military instrument is never the sole solution. In the best case scenario, military power serves as a deterrent: you show strength so you won’t have to use force. If that doesn’t work, the military instrument must be used to create the time and space needed for steps to be taken in other dimensions: politics, the economy, society. Sometimes, as in the case of ISIS, the use of military force is necessary. But the fight against ISIS will not be won by airstrikes alone. They are needed to put a stop to its barbaric actions, and that’s why the Netherlands is deploying its F-16s and providing training. But we will only succeed if the root causes of the instability in the Levant are addressed and a truly inclusive government is formed, uniting various religious and tribal groups and increasing their resilience.
We must not be alarmist, but we should be very realistic. An active foreign policy is crucial if we are to protect our strategic interests, freedoms and values. Promoting the international legal order and international stability is in our own interests and in the interests of others.
Your Assembly plays a crucial role in this regard. The active involvement required of us must strike a balance between the immediate alleviation of symptoms and a long-term approach to the causes of instability, in order to achieve sustainable political solutions. The background to these conflicts is complex. There are various underlying causes, which make quick solutions impossible. So we need international cooperation and an integrated approach. That means coordinating efforts in the fields of diplomacy (both in the conflict regions themselves and in international organisations) and development cooperation, using instruments aimed at the defence, police, justice and trade sectors.
We must not only have an eye for the acute crises of today; we must also bear in mind the crises of the future. Today’s policies must also work tomorrow.
The crises in our vicinity call for the strengthening of crisis management mechanisms in NATO, and also in the EU and the UN. The importance of peacekeeping operations has increased significantly as a result of the challenges we are facing. Worldwide, 130,000 UN peacekeepers are active – more than ever before. They operate under difficult and dangerous circumstances, as I witnessed myself in Mali, for instance. The UN Secretary-General has therefore initiated a strategic evaluation of UN operations. The Netherlands supports this initiative and has offered to host a regional meeting on strengthening international peacekeeping operations next spring.
I hope that the NATO Parliamentary Assembly can help. Greater participation by our troops is necessary in Mali, Sudan and the Central African Republic. More support can and should be given to poorly equipped African troops.
We also see this as an opportunity to highlight the importance of a comprehensive approach to crisis management and peacekeeping, and to address the highly relevant issues of the protection of civilians and the position of women in armed conflict. We are pleased that NATO is also paying attention to the latter, for example through the appointment of a Dutch diplomat as special representative for women in armed conflict.
For NATO, the collective defence of allied territory is once again a priority. Events in recent months have prompted the Alliance to refocus on that core task.
The reassurance measures to help our allies in Eastern Europe must be implemented. They include immediate measures and longer-term adjustments:
In the short term:
- A stronger presence of NATO forces on land, at sea and in the air. The Netherlands is contributing air-to-air refuelling capability, minehunters and also F-16s as part of the Baltic Air Policing mission.
In the mid- to long term:
- Changes to the structure of NATO forces, so that NATO can respond faster to unexpected troop movements by Russia. This means reducing the forces’ response times.
- Creation of a NATO ‘spearhead’ force, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF).
- The Netherlands and Germany have offered the services of the First German/Netherlands Corps, which will help NATO draw up training and exercise schedules. Norway will also make a major contribution to this.
- And in 2015, the Netherlands will contribute to the NATO Response Force. Units from the NRF can be deployed for the interim phase of the VJTF.
It’s easy to get caught up in the acute problems of the moment. But we must not lose sight of the threats of tomorrow and the day after. New threats, which may include cyber attacks and ballistic missile attacks, call for capabilities that can respond effectively.
For many countries, finding the right answer to the new reality in Europe is no easy task. First of all, it requires political will. Parliaments have both a leading and monitoring role in this respect. Most European countries have seen distrust towards political parties and politicians grow over the past few years. But right now it’s more important than ever to show leadership. The reality on Europe’s eastern and southern flanks requires our European allies to shoulder more responsibility.
Let me end with a brief historical analogy. Some 160 years ago, Europe was in the grip of the Crimean War. The circumstances were completely different from today’s, as was the background to the conflict. What is similar, however, is the fact that the Crimean War marked the beginning of the end for the European Concert of Nations – a precarious balance of power. The European states acted on the basis of mutual distrust and fear, which only quickened the descent into armed conflict.
The lesson is this: history is made by people. No outcome is predetermined or written in the stars. The reality in Europe is erratic, but by no means hopeless. We must defend ourselves against external threats, without fuelling the fire. This requires us to perform a difficult balancing act, but I’m confident this Assembly will play an outstanding role.