Brussels, 27 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said today that NATO's trans-Atlantic ties today remain strong.
After a meeting in Brussels, the two officials also stated that disagreement concerning the European Union's planned Rapid Reaction Force would not lead to a rift between the United States and its European partners. Robertson said:
"[Powell's] presence here is a reminder of the vital importance of the trans-Atlantic link which is at the very heart of NATO, and also the continuing U.S. commitment to this whole alliance."
Robertson said the European Union had so far not "pulled its weight" in the alliance and needed to increase its input. He went on to stress that the EU would always need NATO -- and more specifically the United States -- in order to act.
Powell said Washington welcomed the rapid reaction force project, which he said should benefit both the EU and NATO.
He added, however, that it was of vital importance that the EU's developing defense capabilities not result in planning facilities rivaling those already existing in NATO.
Powell also discussed the situation in the western Balkans with other foreign ministers of the alliance nations.
Both Robertson and Powell said NATO is currently working on a plan for phased reduction in the security zone in Serbia's Presevo Valley, with the aim of allowing the Yugoslav army to re-enter the zone.
Powell said the Yugoslav army would eventually be responsible for handling the ethnic Albanian insurgency in Presevo.
But both Robertson and Powell said that the re-entry of Yugoslav forces into the Presevo Valley would only be possible in the presence of observers and after the Yugoslav government implements wide-ranging confidence-building measures.
Robertson said he had today appointed a special representative to the Presevo region. Powell also said the U.S. had no immediate plans to reduce its presence in the Balkans:
"[The] United States is committed to the success of peacekeeping forces in the Balkans. With our NATO allies, we will review carefully and on a regular basis the right types and levels of our forces. We are determined to meet our commitments to stability in the region and we would avoid any steps that would jeopardize the alliance's success so far."
Powell also confirmed the U.S. would go ahead with its proposed national missile defense, but he said a precise program would only be put in place after extensive consultations with NATO's European allies as well as with Russia and China. Powell said that NATO foreign ministers had given him a "positive response" on the issue today. He also said recent proposals by Russia to cooperate on missile defense were "noteworthy" but remained too sketchy to draw any immediate conclusions.
Addressing the issue of NATO expansion, Powell refused to speculate on the strength of individual candidates. He said that the remaining year before NATO's 2002 summit would be crucial in appraising their progress.