NATO awaits new leadership

Posted in NATO | 30-Dec-08 | Author: Stephen Castle| Source: International Herald Tribune

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer holds a news conference during a NATO foreign ministers meeting at Alliance headquarters in Brussels.

The former secretary general of NATO, George Robertson, once recounted welcoming the first contingent of Russian officials to the alliance's headquarters in Brussels. To Robertson's surprise, his visitors already had an excellent grasp of the layout of a sprawling building none of them had ever visited.

Russia has always taken NATO seriously - invariably seeing it as an aggressive alliance determined, especially since the fall of Communism, to expand right up to Russia's frontiers. By contrast, NATO's Western members often seem to treat it with indifference.

With the Cold War won, the alliance's main raison d'être disappeared. The trans-Atlantic rift over the invasion of Iraq then sapped NATO's ability to act as a crisis intervention force.

Now, as the alliance's main challenge, in Afghanistan, gets bogged down, allies bicker over who should take more of the military strain. In a policy journal called Europe's World, Nick Witney, a former senior British official and ex-head of the European Defense Agency, recently wrote an article under the title "The Death of NATO."

But rumors of its demise may be exaggerated. In 2009, NATO will celebrate its 60th anniversary at a summit meeting in Strasbourg and Kehl, a small German city just across the border.

That meeting should anoint a secretary general to succeed Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the Dutch diplomat whose low-key period in office ends in July. Already there is discreet jockeying for the job.

History suggests that the successful candidate will be a current minister and a European, to balance the American who occupies the post of supreme allied commander Europe.

Though he has not declared any interest publicly, the front-runner is Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the prime minister of Denmark, an experienced and current leader, albeit of a smallish NATO nation.

His closest challenger is Radek Sikorski, foreign minister of Poland. Again, Sikorski has expressed no desire for the post, though observers noted a speech he made at a recent NATO ministerial meeting with Ukraine. Sikorski spoke in French, thereby, the theory goes, answering criticism that his main weakness as a candidate for NATO's top job is a less than perfect grasp of the language of Molière.

The consensus is that, given its historic ambivalence toward the alliance, it is too soon for France itself to put up a candidate, even though Michèle Alliot-Marie, a former defense minister, would be a strong contender. The names of Alexandr Vondra, deputy prime minister of the Czech Republic, and Norway's defense minister, Anne-Grete Strom-Erichsen, are also mentioned.

After years of safe-hands diplomacy under de Hoop Scheffer, most experts believe it's time for a bigger, noisier, character. Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform in London, thinks personal authority will be crucial. "Influence is informal and depends on the strength of the personality, not on formal powers, which are negligible," he said.

If Tony Blair was interested, argued one diplomat, he would walk into the job.

The logic is that whoever wins the post needs to have the confidence of key players as they confront complex challenges. One task is to help re-establish a trans-Atlantic consensus over security. Here there is reason for optimism for NATO's supporters.

The arrival of President-elect Barack Obama heralds an era in which America is more likely to listen to its allies, and coincides with France's offer to rejoin NATO's command structures.

In Washington the new national security adviser, General James Jones, is a respected former supreme allied commander of NATO (who also speaks good French).

Paris, which a few years ago delighted in obstructing Washington at NATO, is now working well with the core powers, the United States, Britain and Germany.

There are difficulties too. Berlin is proving less cooperative, and tensions are likely to increase when Obama asks Europeans for more help in Afghanistan, just as Germany prepares for federal elections.

Even if Europeans do produce more troops, Afghanistan will test the cohesion of the alliance. The greater the European military contribution in Afghanistan, the more it will brush up against the Pentagon's traditional reluctance to share decision-making with allies it sees as military pygmies.

Meanwhile the new secretary general will be trying to repair the dysfunctional relationship between NATO and the European Union, which has military ambitions and overlapping membership. These are currently obstructed by tensions between Turkey (which is in NATO but not the EU) and Cyprus (in the EU but not NATO).

But perhaps the most complex challenge will be steering ties with Russia, frozen after the war in Georgia.

As Obama was elected, Moscow threatened to site missiles in its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad if Czech and Polish governments participated in U.S. missile defense.

Russia's president, Dmitri Medvedev, has also suggested a new European security architecture - a vague initiative seen by some diplomats as a transparent device to weaken NATO.

Last month the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, called for a moratorium on missile deployments in Europe until a summit meeting next summer to discuss Russia's security ideas under the auspices of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe.

That idea won very little support at an OSCE meeting this month. But there is now talk of NATO resuming ties established back in May 2002, when, at a summit meeting in Italy, the alliance and Russia pledged to work together on issues from counterterrorism to missile defense.

At a ceremony in a mock-up of a Roman amphitheater, accompanied by an Italian Air Force fly-by, George W. Bush even suggested that the two former foes were "joined as partners, overcoming 40 years of division and a decade of uncertainty."

The idea of NATO as a fulcrum for debate between Russia and the West never took off. Instead, when Moscow's relations with Washington deteriorated, its ties with NATO became a casualty. The NATO-Russia Council, set up in 2002, produced little before it was suspended over Georgia.

But, over an Italian meal on Dec. 19, de Hoop Scheffer and Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's hard-line ambassador to NATO, discussed the gradual resumption of contacts. That the discussion took place at all shows that Russian officials still see NATO as important - just as they did when Robertson first invited them.