NATO's uphill struggle

Posted in NATO | 19-Jun-04

Günther Altenburg is NATO Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs.
Günther Altenburg is NATO Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs.
Exclusive interview with Günther Altenburg conducted by Dieter Farwick

Sir, in the past almost all NATO Summits were linked to a historic signal or message. What would you like the “Signal from Istanbul” to be?

Günther Altenburg; ASG: The key message from Istanbul is that NATO is building stability where it matters, including in regions outside of Europe. Being able to act in places as far away as Afghanistan has become the precondition for our security. Territorial defence remains a core function, but we simply can no longer protect our security without addressing the potential risks and threats that arise far from our homes. Either we tackle these problems when and where they emerge, or they will end up on our doorstep. If you recall the divisive “out-of-area” debate of the recent past, this is indeed an enormous change in the way we think about security and NATO.

Sir, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has declared Afghanistan as the litmus test for the Alliance. Now there are obviously problems with nations participating in the NATO mission in Afghanistan who do not live up to their commitments. In advance of the Istanbul Summit, Mr. de Hoop Scheffer announced that there will be a discussion on reforms in NATO-force planning. What are your objectives for that discussion?

Günther Altenburg; ASG: In fact, we have now generated most of the forces we need to expand NATO’s ISAF mission beyond Kabul. But I admit that it has taken nations too long to pledge these resources. There is an obvious disconnect between our longer-term force planning system and the way we generate forces for a particular operation. We need to overcome this disconnect. It is simply unacceptable that we first take a political decision to undertake and operation only to find that that nations are not prepared to make available the necessary capabilities.

I am happy to report that work is already underway to address some of the shortcomings. For example, we are looking at defining concrete targets for deployability and usability of our forces, and a clear understanding of what nations are able and willing to do to match these targets. This will provide us with greater confidence and predictability that the forces needed for our operations can be provided.

NATO’s Secretary General repeatedly said that NATO should play a bigger role in Iraq. After the recent UN Security Council resolution, the UN might give NATO a mandate for commitment in Iraq. On the other hand, from the G8 summit there are negative signals. What will be the way ahead?

Günther Altenburg; ASG: In Istanbul, there clearly will be a serious exchange of views on Iraq. How could it be otherwise? After all, 16 NATO nations have troops on the ground in Iraq, and NATO supports Poland as it leads the multinational division there. Moreover, our Summit takes place only 48 hours before the transfer of authority to an Iraqi government. That being said, it is not clear what a sovereign and legitimate Iraqi government might request in terms of NATO assistance. And I cannot, and will not, prejudge any decisions by NATO governments.

Dieter Farwick. Sir, NATO has repeatedly announced an initiative for a dialogue with countries in the “Greater Middle East.” The current G-8 summit has established “Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa.” What role can NATO play in this context?

NATO forces in Sarajevo - feet on the ground.
NATO forces in Sarajevo - feet on the ground.
Through our Partnership for Peace programme and our Mediterranean Dialogue we have acquired a wealth of experience and expertise in security cooperation with other countries. This expertise can now be put to good use in engaging with countries from the co-called “broader Middle East”. But we have to be guided by realism. We must acknowledge the complexity of the issues at stake, and we must fully take into account regional specifics. Above all, we must never forget that the “ownership” of this process must be a “joint ownership” – in other words, that the countries in the region are shareholders in any cooperative effort. No institution should feel that it could impose solutions.

Sir, at the Summit in Istanbul NATO obviously will declare the end of the SFOR mission in the Balkans. The EU is willing and ready to take over. Is NATO saying good-bye to the Balkans?

Günther Altenburg; ASG: Not at all. The security situation in Bosnia and Herzegowina has developed so favourably that we can indeed successfully terminate SFOR at the end of this year. But we will, for instance, retain a NATO presence in Bosnia even after the handover to the EU. We will continue to help the country in its defence reforms. Because our goal remains to welcome both Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Serbia and Montenegro in our Partnership for Peace programme in due course.

Our commitment to Kosovo also remains unflinching. When violence flared up in mid-March, we were able to quickly reinforce our presence and put out the flames. And we are now far more deeply engaged in the political process than ever before. So our policy remains unchanged. We will leave when the job is done, not sooner.

Sir, Germany has officially declared that it will not send troops to Iraq even if there was a UN mandate and a NATO decision to do so. That might even be true for individual German staff officers in integrated NATO HQ. What does this mean for the cohesion of the Alliance?

Günther Altenburg; ASG: The German Government has said that it will not send German soldiers into Iraq. It has also said, however, that it will not stand in the way of an emerging NATO consensus on Iraq. To me, this suggests that we need to see what the new Iraqi government will say and then take it from there. I see no need to rush. Helping Iraq to find its feet is a long-term challenge. We need to have a long-term perspective.