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Denmark's Rasmussen Takes Over As NATO Chief At Difficult Moment

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen (left) is taking over from NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (right).

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen (left) is taking over from NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (right).

On August 1, Former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen takes over as secretary-general of the NATO alliance.

He will be confronted with immediate challenges, the first and most pressing of which is NATO's effort in Afghanistan, which appears to be stagnating as the shooting war heats up.

Then there's the issue of continuing to repair Russian-NATO relations, without appearing to minimize the Western condemnation of the Russian invasion of Georgia just a year ago. There is also a need to better define NATO's post cold-war role in the world, at a time when some alliance members feel it is losing focus.

The new emphasis placed on the Afghan conflict by U.S. President Barack Obama has imposed strains on the 28-nation alliance. As the United States and NATO forces go on the offensive, most of the fighting is being waged by Americans and British, who are suffering record casualty numbers.

These two countries want an increased commitment from other NATO partners, notably the Europeans. But this has not been forthcoming, despite appeals from Washington and London.

Tomas Valasek, the director of foreign policy at London's Centre for European Reform, says Rasmussen's crucial task will be to get the alliance increasingly focused on what will certainly be a long campaign to drive Taliban militants out of Afghanistan.

"His job will be to work on the governments to make sure that (a) they keep up their commitments, and (b)...that the forces they send do not come with the strings attached that render them partly useless when it comes to the theater -- that's really the responsibility, or where the strengths of a NATO secretary-general lie,” Valasek told Reuters.

Rasmussen “will have less of a hands-on role in setting the day-to-day strategy of exactly what we are doing in Afghanistan. That is really more with the national capitals and the military commanders in the field," Valasek said.

Afghanistan is NATO's first major venture into an international conflict situation, and Rasmussen knows that it cannot afford to fail.

Outgoing NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer last week said that one of the regrets during his term of office is that he did not manage to get more member states to participate in the Afghan mission. He said he would have liked all members to have contributed in equal measure to the operation.

Repairing Broken Ties

Rasmussen's second most pressing problem is to complete the restoration of relations with Russia, broken off after Moscow's war with Georgia last year.

Ties were formally restored in June, with the two sides prepared to tolerate their very different views of the invasion of Georgia. But relations remain delicate, and are complicated by the strong distrust of Russia among NATO's eastern members.

According to Valasek, the new NATO chief “will need to reassure the Russians that NATO is an alliance that would like to see Russia as a partner on issues where their interests overlap. But at the same time, he as secretary-general and NATO as an alliance needs to reassure its own member states, countries in NATO's east, Latvia, Poland, Estonia, as well as the north, Norway and others, that should they come into conflict with Russia...the rest of NATO will come to their aid, and that is a difficult balancing act."

The nervousness in the east is illustrated by the open letter sent in mid-July to U.S. President Barack Obama by 22 intellectuals and former political leaders in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, and other eastern NATO members.

The letter expressed concern that the United States has ceased to regard their region as a foreign policy priority, under the "misguided notion" that Eastern Europe is now on a secure path.

The writers say that on the contrary, they see a weakened NATO which is ambivalent about defending its newest members and faces a strong "revisionist" Russia increasingly intent upon restoring the old Soviet sphere of influence. The letter urges the United States to remain fully engaged with NATO.

This sentiment overlaps with another issue which Rasmssen will have to grapple with, namely, determining NATO's future role and relevance in the world.

After the end of the cold war, Washington envisaged NATO as an alliance which could have a key international role in restoring or keeping the peace in any agreed situation.

But the difficulties in getting boots on the ground in Afghanistan leads some to say that a world-wide role for NATO is probably not the answer. And at a time when Europe and the United States are in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, there is increasing pressure to cut defense spending.