"[NATO] is no longer the primary place where trans-Atlantic partners consult and coordinate their strategic ideas," Struck said. "The same goes for the dialogue between the European Union and the United States, which in its present form does not correspond with the growing weight of the alliance or the new challenges of trans-Atlantic cooperation."
German-U.S. relations were badly strained by the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and have not yet recovered. German officials, in recent years, have quietly argued U.S. influence in the NATO alliance is too strong and that the opinions of other member states are not taken fully into consideration.
Nevertheless, Schroeder's comments came as a shock. Several European and U.S. delegates told the conference they regretted Schroeder was not present to explain his remarks.
Struck said he was not in a position to do so but added that it was not Schroeder's intention to put NATO in the grave but to improve international cooperation.
Schroeder began by saying circumstances in both Europe and the United States had changed with the end of the Cold War and Europe wanted to be more deeply involved in decision-making.
Schroeder said he hoped an impetus for change would be generated during U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to Europe in late February.
Schroeder proposed that the United States and the European Union establish a panel of experts to consider how the present decision-making structures could be adapted to what the German chancellor called different conditions and challenges.
Schroeder's comments were received coolly by other speakers.
Current NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that "whoever is unhappy about poor consultation [within NATO] should make better use of the opportunities within the alliance."
U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld reacted by saying NATO remained the most important military coalition in the world and the most successful alliance in history.
Rumsfeld said membership in NATO did not imply a uniformity of views on ways to handle terrorism and other problems. All that was required was a common purpose, he added.
"We know that our collective security depends on our cooperation and mutual respect and understanding. Members of NATO share much more than an Atlantic alliance. We are united by ties of purpose, a heritage of liberty, and a calling to confront extremist violence -- and defeat it," Rumsfeld said. "Our unity need not be a uniformity of tactics or views, but rather a union of purpose. Those who cherish free political systems and benefit from them, and those who cherish free economic systems and benefit from them, share similar hopes. And working together, those hopes can be realities for the many who yearn to be free."
Nevertheless, newspaper reports suggested that Rumsfeld refused to back down from his formulation that future conflicts should be handled by coalitions of willing states -- as in Iraq -- rather than by alliances like NATO. The "Financial Times" reported today that this position caused consternation among German parliamentarians attending the conference.
Observers said the trans-Atlantic alliance remained divided on several key international issues.
One of the main issues is Iran and how to handle that country's suspected ambitions to build nuclear weapons.
Iran's deputy foreign minister for international affairs, Gholamali Khoshru, at the conference rejected U.S. charges that Tehran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. He told the security conference that Iran's nuclear program was peaceful and that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had uncovered no evidence of concealed nuclear activities or an atomic-weapons program.
The European Union -- through three leading member states -- has launched a diplomatic effort to offer Iran economic incentives to abandon any weapons-making plans.
The United States has generally favored a harder line, threatening to raise the issue before the UN Security Council and to seek international economic sanctions.