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Secretary Cohen's Remarks at the Transatlantic Forum of the Western European Union

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
June 30, 1998
Secretary Cohen: Jean Paul [Poncelet, Minister of Defense, Belgium], thank you very much for the introduction. I have always maintained that you can tell there's more truth in fiction than fact, but I will leave that for the question and answer period. But thank you for your kind words of introduction and your stewardship during Belgium's presidency of the Transatlantic Forum.  

It was roughly 50 years ago this spring that Walter Lippmann said the world was in "perilous drift." The Communist Iron Curtain had descended upon Czechoslovakia. Communist rebels threatened the people of Greece and Turkey and Communist blockades cut off Berlin, which prompted the historic Allied airlift. By 1948, it was clear, as journalist Norman Cousins wrote at the time, "it seemed a new war was in the making."

To prevent that war, diplomats from the European democracies converged on Brussels and pledged their common defense. Their resolve helped to convince America that Europe was ready; ready to bear the burden of keeping the free half of Europe free; ready to rebuild their nations with the help of the Marshall Plan; and ready, a year later, to join the United States in a new alliance called NATO. Indeed, the 1948 Brussels Treaty that eventually became the WEU signified a step toward collective defense that has been the core of the Transatlantic partnership for the past half century.

Today, the world is no longer adrift, but it does remain perilous. On one side of the world coin, we see stunning new opportunities, booming domestic markets, breathtaking technologies and brave new democracies. But on the other side of the coin, we see startling new dangers, rogue regimes, rekindled ethnic hatreds and exotic biological viruses and plagues. And so, we need a new NATO for the new century that allows us to seize the opportunities that await us and avoid the dangers that confront us.

NATO is first and foremost, a military alliance. It's core mission remains the collective defense of its members. At the same time, however, we need to ensure that NATO can confront the new dangers by promoting regional stability, preventing conflicts, reducing dangers and threats posed by weapons of mass destruction and deterring aggression and coercion beyond its borders.

In this sense, the on-going mission to stabilize Bosnia is an excellent example. It is a NATO-led operation. It involves many nations already exercising with NATO through the Partnership for Peace program. It concentrates on a country outside NATO territory and it aims to ensure regional stability. The success of NATO's presence in Bosnia is evidenced in the tremendous transformation I have seen during the past several years. There are new Bosnian Serb leaders who give hope that all Bosnians can one day work together and live together. A new common flag now flies over Bosnia's government buildings and beginning last week, a common currency is now in people's pockets. More families are going home and more war criminals are going to the Hague.

And yet, while Bosnia is headed in the right direction, NATO's hard work is not yet finished. The success of this fall's elections are going to be critical. And Kosovo is a stark reminder that the Balkans can still be a powder keg. So we're right to remain in Bosnia as a stabilizing presence, helping to ensure that a durable structure for peace can continue to take root.

But for Bosnia-like operations in the future, NATO, and particularly the European members of NATO, must have the ability to project their forces. Fortunately, Europe wants to play a more active role in European security. The United States agrees. Our commitment to a greater role for Europe is evident in our support for the WEU as a vehicle for strengthening the European pillar of NATO. Our commitment is evident also in our support for the Combined Joint Task Force concept and for the European Security Defense Identity, the so called ESDI, within NATO that will make available separable but non-separate alliance assets for possible WEU lift operations.

If Bosnia reveals the face of future missions, it also reveals the difficulties that can result when you have a great disparity between coalition force capabilities. So in order to build a more flexible NATO, the alliance has to take several steps toward building forces that are fully compatible. First, we need to really improve the interoperability of our forces. I'll give you an example. In the early days of the deployment to Bosnia, we had great difficulty communicating with one another because we had incompatible equipment. We have since addressed the shortfalls, but forces still need to share more information and data more efficiently. So one of our goals has to be to improve our ability to communicate, not through a complete commonality of equipment, but through the compatibility of overall systems.

Second, we need to enhance our ability to sustain the operations of our deployed forces. Again, Bosnia reminds us that operations can last for a long period of time and they can challenge even the best prepared logistics pipelines. Commanders need to know not only that we have equipment that's available, but they need to know where it is and when it's going to arrive. So we have to ensure that our forces are backed up by the most advanced logistics supply systems in a seamless flow of critical information between those in the supply lines and troops on the front lines.

The more reliant we become upon computer information systems, the more vulnerable we become to cyberterrorist who are going to conceive unlimited ways to cripple our infrastructure, our power grid and our banking, financial and space-based communication systems. All of these are vulnerable to attack by cyber-terrorists. So NATO has to focus on methods and technologies that will anticipate and defeat these new asymmetric attempts to send poison arrows at our Achilles heels, or in this case, poison pills at our data bases.

NATO also needs to inoculate itself against the threat of chemical and biological weapons so that our forces can fight and win on any battlefield, even on that's contaminated by either biological or chemical weapons. We stand ready to strengthen our own ability to detect and defend against these new terror weapons. We have, for example, mandated that all of our troops be inoculated against anthrax. We are vaccinating our entire force. In some countries, Great Britain for example, it's voluntary. For us, it's mandatory. And we have undertaken that process and we are continuing it as we speak. So the alliance has begun developing the doctrine of plans to counter these weapons of mass destruction, but to paraphrase an American poet, Robert Frost, we still have miles to go before we can rest or sleep in this particular case.

Finally, we have to improve the integrity of our information systems. The millennium threatens to arrive not with a bang, but with a crash -- the crash of computers whose government users are either blindly indifferent or simply overwhelmed by the looming Year 2000 problem. We have to be mindful that our information systems are a chain and they are only as strong and secure as the weakest link.

And so, these are among the challenges that we are facing as far as bringing NATO into the 21st Century. But we also have challenges in terms of bringing new members in to NATO as well.

I left Brussels a couple weeks ago, confident that our European allies are already prepared to bear their fair share of the burden of weaving these reborn democracies into the alliance. I visited Poland a couple of weeks ago and I saw there a people who were invigorated by a powerful of dynamic of building a stable democracy, a free society and a free market with great expectations for the future. And of interest to me was the wall of the defense minister's office. They had a plaque and a star next to all of those countries that have ratified the new members' accession to NATO. I was pleased to see the United States represented there as well as six other countries who have endorsed the accession of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic who've become producers as well as consumers of security.

But to maintain the momentum toward a 21st Century alliance, we have to continue reaching out to our non-member partners. And the success of NATO's Partnership for Peace was captured in a truly incredible sight in Brussels. And I'd like just for this moment, pay tribute to Bob Hunter [former U.S. Ambassador to NATO], who was instrumental in making that Partnership for Peace program a reality. I must tell you, as a former member of the United States Senate, when the notion and the concept first surfaced, I was skeptical. And I conveyed that skepticism to Ambassador Hunter. He was in my office and he pledged to me that no, it was going to work. And indeed, it has worked.

When I sat in Brussels a few weeks ago and looked around a table much like this I saw not only the NATO members, but all of those who were in attendance from the PFP nations -- the faces of Germany, Georgia, Canada and Kazakhstan around a single table at the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council talking and working together -- a sight that just a few years ago would have been impossible to even think about. But to see countries of Lithuania and elsewhere sitting down with the minister of defense from Russia, engaging in conversations about ways in which we could cooperate, exercise and train together was truly a remarkable sight.

So along with our military officers who are planning PFP operations and exercises, I think it's easy to see why PFP is now an indispensable cornerstone of regional stability and security. We have to ensure that PFP remains to prepare nations for potential NATO membership, but also to say that it should be an end in and of itself. The PFP program should prepare those countries who will not necessarily seek membership to NATO, [giving them] the opportunity to train with us, to experience and share their approach to solving their military problems and see how we train and solve ours. That is a remarkable experience in its own right. And so, we should do whatever we can to make sure that countries have an opportunity to prepare for membership, certainly, in NATO, but also to pursue PFP as an end in itself.

How best to prepare these countries for NATO membership was the central theme of a conference I attended in Copenhagen. And there the leadership of Minister [of Defense, Hans] Haekkerup brought together all the ministers of defense from the Baltic and Nordic nations to discuss how to continue creating the conditions for the Baltics to walk through NATO's open door. And we reminded our Baltic friends that while no country is guaranteed membership, no country will be denied membership on the basis of geography.

One nation whose geography has placed it in a unique position to bridge old divides is Ukraine. Ukraine is now propelling itself toward the European mainstream, buttressed by the NATO-Ukraine charter that's now a year old. It's growing strong. And when I sat down with my NATO counterparts, we met with the Ukrainians for the first time at our first defense meeting of the NATO-Ukraine commission in Brussels. And once again, we reiterated that an independent, democratic, prosperous and stable Ukraine is essential to the new security order for an undivided Europe.

We should also focus our attention upon the relationship between NATO and Russia. That also was on display at the NATO headquarters as well. Last year's historic Founding Act commits NATO and Russia to a future of consultation and cooperation. We had very candid discussions with the minister of defense from Russia during some of the more tense days of the Kosovo crisis, which I'm sure we will talk about here in a moment. But this is also part of the new and emerging Europe that we see. The ability to have nations sit down with Russia and to consult with them on issues that certainly effect European security is a remarkable transformation that's taken place in a very short period of time.

So our vision for the 21st Century of NATO is truly an expansive one. And as we see the stark images of the Cold War retreat from our collective memory, there is a danger, in the words of T. S. Eliot, that "we will have the sudden illumination, that we had the experience but we missed the meaning." Our hope and challenge for the future is to spare future generations of Europe the experience of a continent that's divided against itself, half in peril, half in peace; half in fear, half in freedom. But it's also our challenge to ensure that they grasp the meaning of this century, that freedom is not free and it requires our collective strength, resolve and fortitude to build a foundation of liberty in Europe that will be the legacy for generations to come.

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. (Applause)

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