Icelandic Security and Transatlantic Affairs

Security and Environmental Issues in the North Atlantic Region
Conference in Reykjavík and Keflavík
7- 9 September 1995

Address by Björn Bjarnason, Minister of Culture and Education Icelandic Security and Transatlantic Affairs.

I want to welcome you all here in Iceland. I have had the opportunity to take part in a similar meeting in Throndheim. For us Icelanders it is of great importance to be involved in discussions about Nordic and North Atlantic security, both to inform you about our views and interests and to learn what is highest on your agenda.

As we all know different interests dominate the foreign affairs debate in our respective countries. Icelandic emphasis on fishing rights and fishery policy is alien to those who do not rely as much as we do on fishing. This is not however an internal matter as we all know, fishing is an international industry and can easily lead to disputes and problems between friends. The main thing is to solve such disputes in a friendly and orderly manner.

Looking at the European Union it is also obvious that nations have different interests to defend, when they take part in it. Iceland has often had another time table than its Nordic friends when taking part in European economic cooperation. For instance we joined EFTA as late as 1970 and in 1993 we joined the European Economic Area. If we had at that time been debating both membership of the Economic Area and the European Union I am sure that both would have been defeated in our parliament, the Althingi. This was the time we had to make up our mind and decide if we wanted to enter the Union with our EFTA partners, who wanted to join before the Governmental Conference of 1996. You all know that we did not apply for membership, and one can affirm, that the issue is not high on the political agenda.

As the 1996 Conference is going to discuss further expansion of the Union, conditions for membership and the institutions, we have to wait for its outcome before taking any decisions about applying for membership.

Although nations have different interests to defend there are so many common factors that draw them together, that multilateral cooperation is the main theme when talking about foreign policy. Such cooperation is to be favoured by small states, as it binds the bigger ones and guarantees equal rights.

All this may be changing. Dr. Henry Kissinger testified recently (13 July 1995) before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington. In his testimony he recalled that emphasis on multilateral diplomacy was one of President Clinton's campaign themes.

Then Kissinger said: "The trouble is that excessive reliance on multilateral diplomacy is proving starkly at variance with the realities of ethnic conflict, rampant nationalism and the emergence of multiple centers of power.... In this fragmented world, excessive multilateralism leads either to abdication (as in Bosnia) or to sacrifices not tolerated by the American public because they are not perceived to reflect basic U.S. interests (as in Somalia)."

Perhaps Kissinger is only saying that too much multilateralism is unsatisfactory for a superpower. The rest of us may need it as much or even more than ever.

At the same time as war is waged in Europe we want to emphasise the role of European institutions created to secure peace and stability in our part of the world. Those institutions are however hardly able to do anything to stop the war or help the fastly growing number of its victims.

Looking ahead into the 21st century it is of course difficult to predict in detail how European security and defense policies will develop as a result of regional conflicts such as the war in former Yugoslavia or global security challenges. But the reality is that this deadly conflict is but one of many potential regional wars in Central and Eastern Europe that previously were kept in check by Communist dominated Warsaw Pact forces or dictatorial regimes. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact those living under Communist rule have faced uncertainty and fear of regional instability. They have looked to the European Union and NATO in order to seek growth and stability. The Union will probably open its doors again after the Governmental Conference and NATO is studying how to expand and at the same time promoting the Partnership for Peace, open to all European states. After the Conference the role of the Western European Union (WEU) should also be better defined. When considering a common factor for those interested to become members of the European Union security is obviously of great importance for all. In spite of dr. Kissinger *** char: [byte=171 AB]«s remarks about excessive multilateralism it is clear that European states find themselves better off cooperating in the military and security field. Those closest to Russia find such ties to the West of vital interest. Russia on the other hand wants at least to be consulted about NATO's expansion if not having the last word about it.

As for Iceland in this respect, it is clear that the bilateral US-Icelandic defense agreement makes it of less importance for Iceland to seek membership of the European Union. Being associate member of the WEU and an European member of NATO, Iceland can take part in all deliberations about European security without joining the Union. In fact Iceland has stronger security ties with the WEU than some of those who are members of the European Union.

Let me quote dr. Kissinger again: "A major American role in Europe is a prerequisite for European coherence. Without it, the European Union would founder on the fear of German domination; France would seek reinsurance in a Russian option; historic European coalitions would form, compounding their traditional tenuousness with irrelevance; Germany would be tempted into a nationalist role, Russia into revisionism.

..... But unless America assumes a real leadership role, the nations bordering the North Atlantic will gradually drift apart; the two sides of the Atlantic will grow more conscious of their rivalries than of their common purposes."

Kissinger is of the view, that security can no longer be the principal unifying bond of the Atlantic nations because, fortunately, there no longer exists a unifying threat. Common purposes, not common fears, must provide the cohesion in the new era in which economic and social issues will dominate. He thinks that an initiative that would give a new impetus to North Atlantic relations would be a North Atlantic Free Trade Area for manufactured goods and services, with negotiations on agriculture to follow. And my last quote from him is: "In short, America should return to what it has traditionally done best: putting forward its vision for how nations of the North Atlantic can create a new world worthy of their democratic principles."

This is music in Icelandic ears as it must be the aim of a responsible Icelandic foreign policy to contribute to close and peaceful relations between North Atlantic states. A rift between Europe and North America might compell Iceland to make an impossible choice.

The evolving success of the bilateral US-Icelandic defense and security relationship since WW II, has indeed proved to be a reliable transatlantic security link to Iceland. Our defense and security partnership with the United States and with NATO has been and still remains the cornerstone of our security. This has been especially true as we do not have any national military forces of our own. Without the United States military forces deployed to Iceland and without the security guarantee of the 1951 Defense Agreement this country would be defenseless against any armed bands of criminals, mercenaries or military forces that might wish to raid or occupy Iceland. The geographic location of this island in the North Atlantic offers no better immunity from potential attacks now than it did in the late 1600's when pirates from Algiers wrought havoc on many settlements on a number of occasions around the country and carried off several hundred Icelanders to be sold in the slave markets of Algiers or later during WW II when Iceland was occupied by military forces from Britain.

I have said publicly on a number of occasions that there are no "taboos" in Icelandic defense and security issues that cannot be discussed openly and freely if the occasion warrants it. I remember that some years ago it was thought impossible for Iceland to join the Military Committee of NATO or military exercises to be conducted in Iceland. Now both are accepted. Now one should ask: Just because we have secured our defence and security so successfully for over 50 years as a sovereign independent republic can we expect to continue doing so in the uncertain future of the next century? My answer is a qualified no. It is a qualified no because I believe that for the foreseeable future we can rely on NATO and the defense agreement with the USA. However, in the absence of large gobal threats such as we experienced during the Cold War and with continuing military force reductions across the board in US and European military forces it will be harder to justify overseas postings of military forces and help may take longer to arrive when requested. Also, it is not inconceivable that there may come a time because of other military and national security priorities that the Naval Air Station at Keflavik might be left in caretaker status and the forces that are there now be moved to the United States. In this case Icelandic authorities would seek to retain continued security guarantees from the United States in case of crisis or war. However, ground defense forces for the defense of key installations in Iceland would not be readily available at short notice.

Regardless of whether this may happen or not past Icelandic governments, politicians and the public have become too prone to think that a friendly government such as the United States government may indefinitely provide the security of the nation which is the primary responsibility of any elected government in an independent and sovereign nation. This we cannot and must not assume. Over the years when the issue of Icelandic defence or security forces has been raised the excuse has inevitably been that the Icelandic population is too small to provide for its own defense however limited and that it is too expensive. Both arguments are manifestly wrong. Not only does Iceland rank high among wealthier European nations but makes a net profit from the US and NATO defense presence in Iceland. Not one krona has gone to the defense or security of Iceland while at the same time for example the Nordic countries spend between 2-3% of their GNP on national defense. There is no logical reason why Icelanders should be exempt from the duty to share in the cost of their own defense requirements. I will take this argument one step further. During recent discussions between the American Defense Department and the Iceland Defense Force on cutting costs at the Keflavik Naval Air Station the general policy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been to discuss measures to save money, reorganize and rationalize but not to participate by subsidizing with state funds the presence of U.S. military forces in Iceland. I fully agree with this approach. It might be argued that payment of Icelandic state funds to preserve the deployment of U.S. military forces in Iceland is tantamount to paying tax to a foreign state for its protection or worse engaging in mercenary trade. On the other hand cost sharing is an integral part of true multilateralism. Ideally our policy should be as a sovereign nation to share in the defense of Iceland by creating our own capability to do so however limited in scope or size.

With regards to the argument that the population of Iceland is too small to man military units the truth is that with a total population of approximately 270.000 people as a rule of thumb about 8-10% can be mobilized for military duty if a national emergency occurs without bringing the national economy to a standstill. In our case this means between 21000-27000 people or about the same number as in Luxembourg which has an army of 1000 soldiers. A small number of Icelanders or between 500-1000 people in uniform on either voluntary or full time basis who could train other reserves would not create any difficulties for the Icelandic labor market. More importantly the creation of some type of Icelandic National Guard or Home Guard Units either independently or alongside American forces based at Keflavik would allow the Icelandic authorities the flexibility that does not exist today to enhance security at key objectives around the country without calling for reinforcements from the United States in situations that fall short of national military emergency and could also be used to augment existing civil defense and natural disaster relief efforts if required. During the Gulf War there was such a staff level requirement by the Defense Department to increase the security at specific sites around Iceland because of threats to carry out terrorist attacks by the Iraqi regime but this could not be done because there were no national armed forces available. As it turned out this threat quickly disappeared, but the point is that the Icelandic Government does not have the flexibility or the means to secure vital installations and sites in Iceland at present unless reinforcements from the United States are requested.

So what I am specifically talking about is the participation of Icelanders in the ground defense of their country by creating a small nucleus of officers and non-commissioned officers that would be responsible for certain security tasks as well as training voluntary or conscript reserves across the nation. I am well aware of the fact that we would still have to rely on continued support from our Allies for air defense and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) because of the expense of operating and maintaining the aircraft involved. But there is nothing to prevent us from participating more actively in the maritime defenses of this country through for example the Icelandic Coast Guard. Former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geir Hallgrímsson, made repeated statements in his annual reports to our Parliament in the mid- 80's that more attention should be paid to this important aspect in our defense and I still hold that to be a true assessment.

Debates in Althing on defense policy and military budgets should be a positive and normal part of legislative work that has so far been absent.

Finally, the creation of our own defense component would enhance all military cooperation projects between Iceland and other NATO countries in a way that is not possible today and would clearly be seen as a concrete burdensharing issue in the United States and in Europe. But more importantly it would be a concrete step by Icelanders to start thinking about national defense as necessary tool to preserve national independence and the ability to react to unforeseen danger and aggression as all other independent nations have to do if they want to survive in this world we inhabit.

Mr. Chairman,

I have taken this opportunity among friends to put forward ideas about Iceland's security which are not at all discussed in our daily political activity. It is however my firm believe that they should be debated. And for us Icelanders it is of vital importance to do it in a multilateral context.