Mike O’Brien – 2003 Speech on the Future of NATO

Below is the text of the speech made by the then Foreign Office Minister, Mike O’Brien, at Salter’s Hall in London on 24th January 2003. The speech was made at a conference debating the future of NATO.

I am grateful for this invitation to talk to such an impressive audience about one of the most interesting and topical issues in the European security field today. Lord Robertson’s remarks set the context for the day’s discussions. Before I begin, may I pay tribute to him for his leadership of the Alliance through the remarkable changes of the last three and a half years.

The NATO peace-keeping mission in Kosovo; the rapidly developing relationship with Russia; the transformation of the Alliance’s command structures; and the historic enlargement agreed at the Prague Summit. Any of these would constitute a significant achievement. All of them together represent a genuinely exceptional record. I would like to wish Lord Robertson well for the remainder of his time as Secretary General and for his future beyond NATO.

Today I should like to focus on the European dimension of strengthening the Alliance, in particular on the UK vision of the strategic relationship we are building between the EU and NATO.


The decisions at the Copenhagen European Council and in the North Atlantic Council just before Christmas represented the culmination of two years’ work to secure the agreements between the EU and NATO to underpin European Defence. These will allow the EU to start conducting military operations with support from NATO and will lead to a strengthening of European capabilities, which will reinforce NATO.

European Defence is, of course, NATO’s core business. NATO was created to defend Europe. It was – and remains – the basis for the American political and military commitment to the security of Europe.

Despite the end of the cold war which removed the threat of conflict between east and western Europe, this transatlantic link remains central to NATO’s purpose and thus every bit as central to European Security in the 21st century as it was in the second half of the 20th. But neither NATO nor European security can afford to remain frozen in time. The threats we face, sadly, have not remained static. Europeans are no longer confronting each other in a cold war on the Central European Plain but we do face fragmentation in the Balkans, terrorism and threats emanating from other countries.


NATO has modernised itself continuously and impressively over the past decade and a half since the fall of the Berlin Wall. That process will continue, as Lord Robertson has told us. NATO has enlarged and is continuing to grow. It has shown its value as an active military alliance, peace making and peacekeeping in the Balkans. As the Prague Summit demonstrated, it is transforming its structures to cope with the new tasks and challenges it faces, particularly the threats from terrorism and WMD. But NATO, though necessary, is not sufficient for all aspects of European security.

It is neither fair nor reasonable for Europeans to expect the Americans and Canadians always to contribute military forces to problems involving our security interests. Nothing would be more certain to place a strain on the health of the Alliance than continuing European dependence on American support at every turn. We must be prepared to bear our fair share of the burden. Also, the European Union has a Common Foreign and Security Policy, which should be underpinned by the ability for EU nations to conduct military operations.

It was because of this understanding of the need for Europeans to do more for their own security and because we wanted this to happen through the EU as well as through NATO, that the Prime Minister proposed the development of a European Security and Defence Policy. Today, I should like to set out the UK’s vision for European Defence in NATO and in the EU.


The UK conceived and has developed ESDP to meet three main objectives:

– to strengthen the European contribution to NATO by enabling European forces to take a fairer share of the European Security burden in circumstances where NATO as an Alliance was not involved;

– to set a target for European nations to make their military forces more rapidly deployable, effective and sustainable – this will also be highly relevant to the modernisation of NATO’s force structures agreed at Prague;

– to enable the European Union to play its full role on the international stage, recognising its uniquely wide range of external policy tools, from political dialogue, trade and aid to JHA co-operation and now civilian and military crisis management operations.


EU initiatives in this country tend to get a distorted reception from the Eurosceptic sections of the media and the political debate. ESDP has been no exception. It has been portrayed as everything from a Euro-Pentagon to a Euro-Army and a dagger at the heart of NATO. It is of course nothing of the sort.

Too often the debate about the EU/NATO relationship treats the two organisations as if they were institutional monoliths – or two boxers circling in the ring, the experienced one warily eyeing up the new kid on the block, fearing his next shot.

In reality we are talking about 23 nations, 11 of whom belong to both organisations. After enlargement it will be 32 nations of whom 19 belong to both.

Deployment of military forces – for EU, NATO, UN or any other operation – will remain a matter for national governments. Javier Solana, let alone Romano Prodi, will not be ordering troops into Euro-battle on the basis of EU directives.

The command, control and planning of ESDP operations can be done by NATO for the EU under the so-called Berlin Plus agreements now being finalised. Berlin Plus means that the EU has guaranteed access whenever it wants it to the resources of NATO’s operational and strategic planning capabilities.

The EU also has the strong presumption that when it asks for it, NATO will supply the EU with command structures and capabilities to support an EU-led crisis management operation. This does not mean the EU can act militarily only when it has support from NATO. The EU will act either in operations using NATO’s assets and resources, which will be planned for by NATO, or in operations, which do not require NATO assets and resources, which will be planned for by the national headquarters of an EU nation. In all cases the EU will act on the basis of consultation and coordination with NATO to determine the most appropriate form of response to a crisis.


What then is the future for ESDP and what does it mean for NATO?

The UK has a positive, ambitious and wide-ranging agenda for moving ESDP from the institutional to the operational phase. Much of the gestation of ESDP has been about institutional structures and bureaucratic rules-writing. This is necessary but it is not sufficient. ESDP also requires the development of military and civilian capabilities and the political readiness to put these into action.


The first opportunity is likely to come in a few months’ time, when an EU-led military operation replaces NATO’s Task Force Fox in Macedonia. This will be an EU operation based on planning done by NATO and with an operational commander provided by NATO. Given the crucial role that NATO and the European Union, in particular Lord Robertson and Javier Solana, played in preventing conflict in Macedonia, it is right that a NATO force should be replaced by an EU mission in that country.

It is also right in terms of the wider EU engagement in the future of Macedonia, which was the first of the former Yugoslav states to have a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU. These agreements open the perspective of eventual membership of the EU for the countries of former Yugoslavia and Albania. The Agreements will help prepare the way by encouraging reform and modernisation across the board, including in the security sector.

A bigger task for ESDP, but one which this Government thinks the EU should be ready to take on, will be replacing the NATO-led Stabilisation Force in Bosnia. The European Council at Copenhagen in December declared the EU’s willingness to take over from NATO in due course in Bosnia.

We would anticipate that force also being an EU operation planned, commanded and conducted with recourse to NATO planning, assets and capabilities. This would not mean the end of a NATO presence in Bosnia. NATO should continue the Partnership for Peace activities, which are so important to developing European standards in that country and in its former Yugoslav neighbours. These states should develop their relationship with NATO in parallel with the European Union.

As I just said, the scale and complexity of the operation in Bosnia would be more significant than that in Macedonia and the EU would want to be well prepared militarily and strategically to take on the task. But it would be consistent in our view with the strategy of Lord Paddy Ashdown, as the international community’s High Representative and as the Special Representative of the European Union, to help move that country in a European direction.

The Macedonia operation from this Spring, in testing out the EU structures and the links to NATO, will be useful preparation for a potential operation in Bosnia. Also, towards the end of this year, the EU and NATO will conduct an exercise premised on an EU operation with recourse to NATO assets and capabilities. Coming after the operation in Macedonia and before that in Bosnia, this will be a useful opportunity to test and refine the links between the two organisations and their internal structures at top level.


The crucial underpinning for ESDP and for the European pillar at NATO has to be continuing improvements in European national capabilities.

At the heart of the ESDP process, the UK and France proposed and the EU adopted the so called ‘Headline Goal’. This is that European Nations should, by the end of this year, be able to deploy at 60 days notice a force of up to 60,000 and sustain such a force in operations for at least a year. This was a deliberately challenging target.

The signs are that EU nations will be able to match the simple quantitative requirement, but aspects of the qualitative element, especially in terms of readiness, logistic support and sustainability may not be reached at full by the end of 2003. So work to improve our military capabilities will need to continue across Europe.

NATO, under Lord Robertson’s leadership, has stressed the importance of investment by all Allies in modern defence capabilities. At Prague, NATO leaders agreed to the Prague Capabilities Commitment – specific undertakings to improve the ability of our armed forces to deal with new threats. The UK has pioneered work in the European Union and NATO to provide a mechanism to link the capability development processes of both organisations to ensure that, in particular for countries like us who are members of both, the efforts we make nationally to develop military capabilities will inform, and be informed by, EU and NATO requirements.


The other element of the equation is, of course, ensuring that appropriate and capable force packages can be put together, if necessary at short notice, to conduct EU or NATO operations in the field.

To this end, NATO, at Prague, agreed on an ambitious transformation towards rapidly deployable and flexible forces, able to deploy wherever needed, to deal with the security challenges of the 21st century. At the heart of this concept is the NATO Response Force. This will enable NATO to field a highly effective force of up to 20,000 troops, able to move very quickly to wherever it is needed.

The UK strongly welcomes the NATO Response Force. It plays to our national strengths and it underlines the requirements in particular of rapid deployability that we think are crucial for NATO and ESDP. It complements work going on in the EU to place more emphasis on the rapid reaction elements of the Headline Goal.


Some commentators during the Prague Summit chose, paradoxically, at this moment of great success for NATO, to question the Alliance’s relevance to the post-11 September world. NATO has a role.

Of course there will be occasions where the UK and other nations will act in coalitions of the willing. This was the case of the Gulf in 1991 and in Afghanistan in 2001. But five years after the 1991 Gulf conflict, NATO deployed to implement the Dayton peace settlement in Bosnia and three years after that, NATO ended Serb repression in Kosovo and deployed a peacekeeping force to that province.

For each crisis that arises it is the responsibility of the governments whose interests are concerned to decide which is the most appropriate form of response. This may be a UN operation as in East Timor, a NATO operation as in Kosovo, an ESDP operation now that the EU/NATO links are in place, a national operation, as the UK conducted in Sierra Leone or a coalition of the willing as in Afghanistan. It is right that this range of options should be at the disposal of the governments concerned. This has always been the case and will continue to be the case.

In no way does it change the fundamental relevance of NATO to European security. Nor does it change the argument, in which the UK believes strongly, that a European Union Common Security and Defence Policy can lead to fairer burden sharing between NATO and the EU and can simultaneously strengthen both organisations by enabling the countries involved to strengthen and modernise their round forces and their ability to operate together.