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NATO: New Chief Will Need All His Political Skills To Refocus, Consolidate Alliance

  • Breffni O'Rourke

NATO has chosen as its new secretary-general a Dutchman who has displayed consummate political and diplomatic skills. As foreign minister of the Netherlands, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has firmly supported the need to keep the trans-Atlantic alliance intact and vigorous. And at a time of trans-Atlantic tension, he has been able to steer a course friendly to the United States while not alienating European nations. De Hoop Scheffer will take over leadership of NATO at a critical moment, as the alliance strives to develop a new role in the post-Cold War era.

Prague, 23 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Even before he takes up his job, NATO's new secretary-general can be seen as a pivotal figure in the alliance's 54-year history.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer will become the civilian leader of the alliance on 1 January, when outgoing Secretary-General Lord George Robertson of Britain steps down at the end of his regular four-year term. Robertson will leave his successor with an organization riven with tensions mainly due to trans-Atlantic disagreements over Iraq.

Nevertheless, Robertson has skillfully guided NATO through some turbulent times, keeping it intact and steering it toward a new post-Cold War role in world affairs. Evidence of that is the current NATO contingent in Afghanistan, the first out-of-Europe mission for the alliance, which was set up in 1949 to protect Western Europe from the Soviet Union.

De Hoop Scheffer now has the difficult task of consolidating Robertson's work and restoring confidence between Washington and its European allies, many of whom opposed the war in Iraq.

Mark Joyce, a senior analyst with Britain's Royal United Services Institute, told RFE/RL: "Mr. de Hoop Scheffer is taking over an organization which is in some considerable trouble, and people on both sides of the Atlantic have been publicly questioning whether the organization has any strategic relevance anymore, and whether the Americans remain committed to it. My view, and I think the view of most people, is that they do, but he has a very demanding job on his hands in reconciling the Americans and particularly the French and the Germans, and he comes at a crucial time in the alliance's history."

De Hoop Scheffer sees himself as a "bridge builder" between the Americans and the Europeans. He has supported the United States politically throughout the Iraq war, without his country becoming involved militarily.

At the same time, he declined to add his name to a letter of support for the United States signed by Spain, Italy, and many Eastern European countries because he wished to avoid emphasizing divisions between Europeans.

De Hoop Scheffer is comfortable in Paris and Berlin but is also a welcome guest at the White House. And his "vision" for NATO corresponds closely to that of Washington, which has welcomed his nomination. "What is also significant is that he does have some strong views on NATO that he has expressed in the past," analyst Joyce said. "He is in favor of a shift in the center of gravity of the alliance to the East, and he is in favor of the alliance pursuing out-of-area missions. Both of these are things which conform very closely to the signals coming out of Washington at the moment."

De Hoop Scheffer also has to deal with a security scene in Western Europe that is more fragmented than it once was. Since the end of the Cold War, and even more so since the war in Iraq, the European Union has begun to develop its own perspective on defense, and its views are not always in agreement with those of the U.S.-dominated NATO.

Exactly what form the EU military capacity will take is not yet clear, but it is a movement that is unlikely to disappear. De Hoop Scheffer has already said he sees the EU as having a role in crisis prevention and crisis management, but that it must not be at the expense of NATO cohesion.

Frans Osinga is a senior analyst with the Clingendael Institute of International Security in The Hague. Osinga said Scheffer will emphasize the "complementarity" of both NATO and EU developments. "You should not look at them as competitors but as complementary," he said. "He will also stress that -- culturally but also in terms of security and political interests -- there are still lots of things in common between Europe and the United States."

Can de Hoop Scheffer restore trust on both sides of the Atlantic? Osinga said, "He has the advantage compared with Robertson that he is from a small country which traditionally has been one of the mediators in between the big countries, so that may help in restarting the regaining of trust between the different parties, because it is not only a trans-Atlantic problem, it is also an inter-European problem."

Joyce said the new leader of NATO will have to focus on both immediate tasks and long-term goals. "In the immediate term, the task of mending the trans-Atlantic relationship is clearly foremost, but this is not an end in itself. I think if and when relations are repaired, the alliance needs to be taken forward. It will be interesting to see where it goes. My view is that it will follow the American vision of an organization that operates out-of-area and more internationally. But I think Mr. de Hoop Scheffer's long-term role would be to sell this vision to some of the European skeptics," he said.

De Hoop Scheffer is the third Dutchman to head the alliance, following Dirk Stikker, who was secretary-general from 1961 to 1964, and Joseph Luns, who guided NATO from 1971 to 1984.

A graduate of Leiden University's law school, he became a pilot in the Royal Dutch Air Force in 1974 before taking up a diplomatic career and later politics. In 1986, he entered parliament for the Christian Democrats and went on to lead the party from 1997 to 2001. He lost that post amid dissatisfaction over his performance.

Last year, de Hoop Scheffer became foreign minister in a short-lived center-right coalition. He returned to that post in a second Christian Democrat-led government earlier this year.