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NATO: George Robertson's Legacy Leaves Alliance At A Crossroads

  • Eugen Tomiuc

Lord George Robertson says he will step down from the position of NATO secretary-general by the end of the year, resisting calls from member states to extend his term by another year. Robertson, who has used a firm hand to steer the alliance through one of the most challenging periods in its history, is credited with efforts to reshape NATO's role to better suit the post-Cold War security environment. Analysts also laud Robertson for initiating measures to prepare the alliance for such new threats as international terrorism, and for pressing staunchly for the improvement of Europe's defense capabilities. Last but not least, he has observed the largest-ever expansion of the military alliance, which now counts former Soviet-bloc states among its future members.

Prague, 27 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson has announced he will step down from his post in December, at the end of his four-year term at the helm of the 19-member alliance.

Robertson, who became NATO's 10th secretary-general in October 1999 -- in the wake of the alliance's first-ever war, in Kosovo -- is widely credited with initiating reforms to help NATO adapt to the new security challenges of the post-Cold War era.

Robertson also presided over NATO's most robust expansion to date, with seven Central and East European former communist countries being invited to join the alliance last year in Prague.

Robertson, who made the announcement on 22 January, expressed confidence that the transformations he initiated will continue. "A lot of the changes to NATO, the transformation of NATO -- new members, new relationships, and new rules -- are already in place. And during the coming year, we'll be doing even more about that. I would not leave if I was not content with the fact that the transformation is now a permanent transformation and that NATO is going to be as important in the future as it was in the past," he said.

Noting the NATO achievements under his leadership, Robertson cited in particular averting widescale conflict in Macedonia, Montenegro, and southern Serbia in 2001. But has he succeeded in accomplishing all of his goals for the alliance?

Analysts say that despite the political limitations of the secretary-general's position, Robertson has been successful on a number of levels.

In an interview with RFE/RL, NATO expert Daniel Keohane of the London-based Center for European Reform (CER) outlined what he considers Robertson's three main achievements: "That would be NATO's [improved] relationship with the EU [based on a December 2002 cooperation pact], NATO's [better] relations with Russia [following a May 2002 cooperation agreement], and then, of course, the enlargement of NATO -- inviting in seven more states at the Prague summit in November 2002. I think that these are probably the three most significant changes in what NATO is doing and in the relationship it has with other security actors."

Keohane also said that Robertson has been the driving force behind the idea of a 20,000-strong NATO rapid-reaction force capable of responding quickly to a variety of potential threats worldwide and set to become operational next year.

Analysts also note that Robertson, a staunch advocate of close cooperation between Europe and the United States, has worked tirelessly to convince European NATO members to improve their defense capabilities in order to narrow the military gap between them and Washington.

NATO analyst Geffrey Gedmin, who leads the Berlin branch of the Aspen Institute, a U.S. think tank, said Robertson's no-nonsense approach has earned him respect on both sides of the Atlantic.

Gedmin told RFE/RL that Robertson "told the story as it is in Europe, and I think this was the great theme of his tenure: that rhetoric is not sufficient. You have to spend money and you have to develop and build capabilities. He spoke to those issues clearly, correctly, candidly and illuminated where the problems actually are. I think he did a very good job and I think people on both sides [of the Atlantic] respect that he did a very good job."

Robertson was also the only secretary-general in NATO's 54 years of existence to have triggered the alliance's mutual defense clause, which he did in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks against the U.S. However, Washington subsequently chose to keep NATO away from its operations in Afghanistan, casting a cloud of doubt over the alliance's future role.

But Robertson, undaunted, has continued to stress that NATO can still play a vital role in such conflicts -- if it manages to reshape itself to face new, global challenges.

To that end, Robertson -- a Scottish former union activist born in a family of policemen -- has managed to push through internal reforms that are considered to have shaken what many analysts see as an outdated, Cold-War era administration. But he was less successful in persuading member states to increase their financial contributions to the alliance.

Robertson, 56, said he decided not to pursue an optional fifth year on the job, resisting calls from some member states to extend his term and throwing open the race for a successor. He did not elaborate on the reasons for his decision, saying only that four years was enough in what he called "a demanding and onerous job." But news reports said that Lord Robertson of Port Ellen -- the title came with the NATO job -- wants to spend more time with his family after four years of commuting weekly between Britain and Brussels.

NATO foreign ministers in June are set to discuss a successor to the post, which by tradition goes to a non-American.

Robertson, a former defense minister in Tony Blair's government, was the third Briton to hold this position, after Lord Ismay, the first NATO secretary-general, who served from 1952-57, and Lord Carrington in the 1980s. The Netherlands and Belgium have had two secretaries-general each, while Italy, Germany, and Spain have each had one.

While NATO officials say there is no obvious candidate to follow Robertson, some news agencies have speculated that Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski, who has nurtured close ties with the U.S., might be a candidate. Other reports have mentioned Norwegian Defense Minister Kristin Krohn Devold as a possible contender.

But NATO analyst Alex Nicoll of the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies said such speculations are premature. Nicoll told RFE/RL that personal qualities are more important than nationality when choosing Robertson's successor. "I think that there's plenty of time for NATO allies to settle on somebody, because Lord Robertson will still be in office for another 11 months. I think the personal capabilities are very important. I'm not sure that it matters too much where the candidate comes from. One has to remember that George Robertson himself probably was not that well known around the alliance before he became secretary-general," Nicoll said.

But some NATO officials say that the choice of the next secretary-general might indicate what the members want from the alliance in the future. The change comes at a time when disagreement between the U.S. and some of its European allies over a possible war in Iraq is mounting -- despite Robertson's assurances that the quarrel did not reflect what he called a "bust-up" in the alliance.