Text of Speech by Lord Robertson on Transatlantic Relations: A Case for Optimism

Lord Robertson Atlantic Council Makins Lecture, March 2, 2010

From Lord Robertson, Chatham House:  In the wake of US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates’ final speech in office, berating as it did European allies for their growing uselessness in the security field, my title may seem at best generous and at worst delusional. I need to explain.

First of all I agree with Secretary Gates. Indeed in his forensic and scathing criticism of the Europeans he may well have pulled some punches. The situation is grave. Let me remind you of what he said just four weeks ago. On Afghanistan he rightly highlighted the upside of the war which NATO unanimously took on under my stewardship in 2001. He highlighted that in 2006, when he took over as US Defence Secretary, there were about 20,000 non-US troops from NATO nations. Today it is 40,000 and 850 non-US troops have been killed. He pointed out that with these new resources and new strategies there has, in his words, been a decisive change ‘in the military momentum on the ground, with the Taliban ejected from their former strongholds’.

But he went on to outline the downside too. ‘The ISAF mission has exposed significant shortcomings in NATO – in military capabilities and in political will.’ He added, echoing the sentiments I and my successors at NATO HQ relentless made in our time, ‘Despite more than 2 million troops in uniform, not counting the US military – NATO has struggled at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25-40,000 troops, not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets such as helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and much more.’

And then he turned to the Libya mission and again his message was brutal: ‘While every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission.’ He went on, ‘We have the spectacle of an air operations centre designed to handle more than 300 sorties a day struggling to launch about 150. Furthermore the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country – yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more to make up the difference.’

His valedictory message ended with a none-too-veiled warning about the US commitment to an alliance where during the Cold War US defence expenditure on NATO made up 50 percent of all NATO military spending, and where 20 years after the end of that war it was now running at 75 percent.

‘The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defence.’ So there it is. Straight on the chin. He may now have demitted office, but Bob Gates’ words should put a shiver down the collective European spine.

So, given that clarion call, why on earth should someone come here and make a case for optimism? After all I am not one to be mesmerised by fine words about underlying bonds of common values and common barbeques in Number 10 gardens. They don’t provide helicopters and precision bombs.

I rest my case for optimism because the European members of NATO have suddenly been made aware more than ever before that their Emperor is stark naked. Finally the US has said, and done, what it threatened for many years – and that is to demand that Europe protects its own interests through its own means. And this time, over Libya, it has done just that.

The comfortable illusion – even delusion – that if something happened in Europe or its back yard, be it Bosnia, Kosovo and now Libya, then the US would always be there to fill the yawning, inexcusable gaps in our capabilities, has now been exposed for the nonsense it was. And in that delusion-free atmosphere we can forge a new, albeit uncomfortable and expensive, relationship. We will have no other choice left.

The old relationship was, anyway, time limited. Based as it was on Cold War ties of confronting a common Soviet opponent and with lingering memories of how transatlantic divisions early in the Second World War brought us close to Nazi victory, its relevance today in terms of glue was wearing thin.

Of course the transatlantic link did matter, and indeed still does, because the ‘West’ still has business in confronting the dark side of globalisation. The developed world has much to lose from the perils of terrorism, organised crime, cyber warfare, failed states, nuclear proliferation, pandemics, population movements – as well as from the backwash from looming resource conflicts – energy, water and food. But the terms of political trade have changed dramatically. Austerity, budget balancing, burden sharing, economic interdependence and financial interconnectivity have signalled a revolution in political affairs.

With the migration of power and influence as well as economic muscle from west to east and south, and from mature and stable democracies to the new emerging powers with their own sharp elbows and ambitions, Europe and the US still need each other – but not in the same old, unbalanced way.

I’m reminded of the old Soviet-era joke. ‘We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us’. The US picked up the tab for European security and the Europeans let them dictate the policy. That may have been good enough for yesterday’s grand bargain but it assuredly is out of time for today’s multifaceted and complex world. Robert Gates, a Republican working for a Democrat President has now called time.

When I was Defence Secretary of this country attending a meeting of NATO Defence Ministers, my good friend US Defence Secretary William Cohen (another outstanding Republican working for a Democrat President) complained of the contradictory voices he heard at such meetings. Some said; ‘Yanks go home, we can look after our own affairs.’ Others said ‘Americans stay, your security is our security.’ I replied ‘Bill, if you can’t ride two horses, why are you in this circus?’ But frankly that’s not good enough, even as a joke, today.

In NATO I once made a speech rather similar to the Gates one, calling the European Union an economic giant but a military pygmy. This incensed the French Ambassador to NATO, my friend Benoit D’Abboville, who confronted me in the NATO Council. He thundered that anthropologically pygmies were small but were also fully grown. In contrast he insisted the EU’s military capability was new and still growing. It was therefore premature to judge it.

That was 10 years ago and my accusation is still horribly valid today. I ask my fellow Europeans this, have we no pride? Why are we content to flex economic muscle (the Eurozone crises notwithstanding) but remain so feeble and incompetent when it comes to hard power?

This country, the US and Europe are now involved in two wars. In Afghanistan and in the continuing attempt to permanently protect civilians in Libya from a merciless and brutal dictator. We are investing huge amounts of money and thousands of lives and limbs in asserting our values and in protecting our interests and safety in two continents but do we really mean business?

Are we in both conflicts to win or just go through the motions? I ask that question because I am having genuine doubts about the capacity of the main players to achieve victory rather than declaring it. If you want to win, and I passionately believe that we have to win, then you have to look as if you want to win. It is crucially important that your own population knows why we are in these conflicts. Praising and honouring the men and women who are fighting is right but wholly insufficient. They need to know and so do the electorate that the mission matters and that sacrifices in terms of money and lives lost and brutalised have a purpose.

And crucially the enemy whether in Tripoli or in the Tora Bora caves needs to know precisely why we are there and why they have to be defeated. Constant repetition and reinforcement of the mission and the message ‘NATO does not do losing’ is an absolute requirement.

So too is preparing for victory. In the case of Libya, why are we not already planning for the stabilisation force which will be required if Col Gaddafi’s mercenary force capitulates? In the latter stages of the Kosovo conflict it was the reinforcement of the ‘peacekeepers’ in Macedonia by Gurkhas and Paras which made the Serb Generals believe their game was coming to an end. We had looked them in the eye, physically through CNN as well as metaphorically, and told them that we would go on until we had achieved our aims – Serbs out, NATO in, refugees home. For the whole 78 days of the conflict we held press conferences with variations on that simple message and it eventually got through to the military high command – and Milosovic himself – in Belgrade.

But where is that sense of purpose in the wars of today?

Put yourself in the command bunkers of the Taliban and Col Gaddafi and look through their eyes at what they confront. The policy on Afghanistan is now taking place on costs and staged draw-downs in the context of the US primary and presidential election framework and a target for withdrawal by the UK seems based on the next general election date.

In neither case are we transmitting the idea that withdrawal should be based on success on the ground and on the defeat of the enemy. We parade our weaknesses and we undersell our manifest successes. We debate withdrawal, its pace and size, without reference to what we leave behind and we do so as if the antennae in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border regions and in the Tripoli basements don’t pick it up. They watch every move we make.

No modern war was won on military force alone. Psychology has always played a huge part and demoralising the enemy has a vital utility. Our Prime Minister has been to Helmand province in Afghanistan this week. Good; his presence helps get over the importance of what is being done and achieved into public consciousness.

But how much better might the visit have been if he had been accompanied by the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Prime Minister? That would have shown the troops, and this country and importantly the Taliban that this was not just a war by the British government but by the nation as a whole? I did that exercise during Kosovo and I know it had the three effects.

I have in the past, and to general astonishment, quoted Leon Trotsky in this context and I do so again. At another time and about another war he said, ‘You may not be interested in this war, but this war is interested in you.’ And these are wise and relevant words today.

Afghanistan is not like Vietnam, a comparison regularly and foolishly made. A premature exit from Afghanistan would not leave that country to fade into Taliban dominated remoteness and isolation. You only have to look at what happened when the Soviet troops left. For four years we ignored that country having helped expel the Red Army, only to see the Taliban take over and offer free rein to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida.

If the Taliban managed to win against NATO, and that’s precisely what a premature election timetable-driven withdrawal would mean, then the shock waves will certainly not stop in Afghanistan. The parasite Bin Ladenites will return to their favoured terrain and the war of terror will once again engulf the world. It is said that not foreseeing 9/11 was a failure of imagination. We now face a total absence of imagination.

Where is the next surprise going to hit us? We were caught of guard by the collapse of the Berlin Wall, by the disintegration of the Soviet Union just 30 months after they exited Afghanistan, by the global financial crisis, by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami and then by the Arab spring. Are we ready for the next surprise? Have we the tools to deal with what might come next?

Will we be forgiven if we not only don’t forecast the next surprise but are incapable of dealing with it whatever it may be? That’s why capability toolboxes are so essential, why defence investment is so important and why a range of instruments both physical and human are so pivotal. And it is why their absence at this juncture is such an indefensible outrage.

All of this does not sound optimistic I grant but within it I assure you there is a case being made.

Some contend there is a crisis for NATO. It has taken on two major commitments and neither seems to be going well. The organisation, say the critics, has taken on too much and it cannot deliver.

I say this to them. NATO is not some monolith. It is the sum of the nations who make it up. Its permanent staff is tiny but high quality. Its headquarters is a slum but effective. All its decisions are taken unanimously and are the property of the nations, not the bureaucracy. If NATO nations take on Afghanistan unanimously and take on Libya unanimously and then surround operations with caveats, limitations and no-shows then that is the failure of those national governments, not of NATO.

Atlanticism is no longer lived, it has to be learned. For those of us committed to that sentiment this is a hard fact. If countries in Europe want to confront the security challenges of today and tomorrow and not a single one of them has a purely national solution, and in the process guarantee their people the safety my generation has enjoyed, then it will not be achieved by voting for it in the NATO Council chambers and then walking on. That sadly is happening too often.

When President Obama supported the rescue mission in Libya, but pulled back to let the Europeans lead, he performed a great favour to our continent. He has forced the European nations to confront their own destiny and he has precipitated a rebalancing in the Alliance, one which so often in the past has been shirked and avoided.

In coming weeks as the Libya drama comes to a climax and as the debate on Afghanistan sharpens on what happens next, the European nations will have to make a decision on what kind of transatlantic relationship they want, or need, or value. The option of grumbling dependency is over. An era of shared responsibility and mutual contribution is about to dawn.

President Obama and Robert Gates have truly started something, and I am, as a consequence, optimistic that the result will be a reinvigorated and renewed transatlantic relationship ready for the next generation.

"Transatlantic Relations: A Case for Optimism," delivered by Lord Robertson, President of Chatham House and a member of the Atlantic Council’s International Advisory Board, July 6, 2011.

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