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NATO: New Chief Assumes Command At 'Crucial Moment' For Alliance

Former Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer took office this morning as the new secretary-general of NATO. De Hoop Scheffer succeeds George Robertson, who stepped down at the end of 2003 after four years as NATO chief. De Hoop Scheffer comes aboard as the alliance is considering expanding its stabilization roles in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Brussels, 5 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Jaap de Hoop Scheffer may be forgiven for stating the obvious when he said his tenure as NATO chief comes at a "crucial moment" for the alliance.

The issue of the future role and relevance of NATO appears to be uppermost in the mind of the new secretary-general. At a news conference on the morning of his first day in office, de Hoop Scheffer said his predominant concern will be the transformation and modernization of the alliance as seven new member states join in June.

"It's, of course, let's say, pursuing transformation, pursuing transformation first of all, seeing this smooth further integration of the new member states, building bridges across the Atlantic Ocean, focus on NATO's very important role in Afghanistan. Let me stress once again that the world community and NATO cannot afford to lose there," de Hoop Scheffer said.

Success in establishing new command structures and a greater focus on fighting terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will be crucial in guaranteeing continued U.S. engagement with NATO.

The most important NATO mission in the foreseeable future will remain Afghanistan. De Hoop Scheffer appeared cautious when questioned on plans to extend NATO activities in Iraq beyond the limited role it already plays in supporting the Polish-led forces in the country.

"The primary focus at the moment should be on Afghanistan. We've heard the news last night on the result of the Loya Jirga, and I think the alliance should pursue what was set in motion, and that is focus on Afghanistan. And about Iraq, we'll see and wait and, of course, influence -- if possible -- political developments there. But first, let's focus on Afghanistan," De Hoop Scheffer said.

De Hoop Scheffer said he does not exclude further NATO involvement in Iraq, but added that it will depend on political developments. He acknowledged that NATO's Istanbul summit in June -- coming just a few days before the planned handover of power from the U.S.-led coalition to Iraqi authorities -- could be overshadowed by the issue.

De Hoop Scheffer said he believes NATO should remain "firmly embedded as the cornerstone of the trans-Atlantic relationship" between Europe and the United States.

He said he is about to embark on a tour of old and new member states to "build bridges" to ease the recent strain in the relationship.

"Certainly, the relationship between the European Union and the countries on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean -- [primarily] the United States -- will be one of my prime targets, so I'll pay a lot of attention to that. And in my introductory tour around the member states and the new member states, I'll certainly pay a lot of attention to that," De Hoop Scheffer said.

Speaking of transforming NATO's structures, de Hoop Scheffer said NATO's member states must match the political commitments they undertake with real contributions on the ground to help the alliance carry out its missions.

"Transformation is, of course, all about new command structures, capabilities -- may I refer to the NATO Response Force -- and the very important point about the usability of our means. Let me add commitment as a notion to underscore the importance of a direct link between a common political decision and the need to meet the requirements on the ground," de Hoop Scheffer.

De Hoop Scheffer also said he is going to promote greater transparency in NATO's work as a political decision-making body.

In what could be viewed as latent criticism of how disagreements within the alliance have so far been managed, the new secretary-general said public diplomacy is the key to NATO's reputation -- both inside and outside the alliance.

De Hoop Scheffer also promised to work on developing NATO's relations with Russia, Ukraine, and other partners.

He said that beyond the NATO-European Union relationship, he attaches great importance to improving the alliance's ties with the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.