A sleek, futuristic structure, made for the 21st century, or an unwieldy relic of the cold war, ill-suited to current demands? Architecturally, at least, modernism triumphed last week as NATO Secretary-General George Robertson unveiled drawings for a gleaming new edifice to replace the complex that has served as the military alliance's headquarters in Brussels since the mid-1960s. The design, Robertson stressed, reflected some of the core values that have shaped his NATO stewardship: modernity, efficiency and change
I don't think the transatlantic rift is as big a problem as people make out
Why not stay on?
I've initiated what I set out to do and it's time for a fresh pair of eyes and a fresh mind to take over. I set a number of benchmarks at the beginning and they've either been achieved or are on their way to success.
Right from the beginning, I said that the No. 1, 2 and 3 priorities were capabilities, capabilities, capabilities. We launched a big initiative at the summit in Prague last November that is going to make sure that they are kept on track.
But you've called Europe a military pygmy compared to the U.S.
I've sort of revised my view. [Europeans] have got a lot of stuff, but it's often the wrong stuff. They have 2,800 attack and fighter aircraft, but only 10% of them can fly day and night, all weather and with precision-guided weapons. The Americans have half that number, with virtually all of them able to perform in every forum. The reality is that the Europeans have had to try a fundamental transformation from static defense, which is what their role was during the cold war, into power projection and rapidly and flexibly deploying troops and sustaining them a long way from home. Maybe Europe is less of a military pygmy and more of a flabby giant.
You also said you wanted to focus on the relationship with the U.S.
That's right, keeping that transatlantic balance. We're going through a bumpy patch at the moment, but there's a very robust basis to that relationship. Whether it was the Clinton or Bush Administration, [the Americans] were very unhappy with European performance. The links with the E.U. and the operations in Macedonia and Bosnia, which have been taken over by the E.U., are a step in the right direction.
The U.S. didn't ask for NATO's help in Afghanistan.
What makes you think the Americans have come to appreciate what NATO can offer? This time around they've come to NATO because they've grown used to the idea that if you get agreement in NATO, then you get 18 other countries tied to what you're doing, and that's quite a bargain if you can get away with it.
Robertson's announcement last week that he will step down when his term ends in December highlighted just how far NATO has come since its beginnings as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. As Robertson leaves, NATO's ranks will swell to 26. Like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, which joined in 1999, all but one of the seven new member states (Slovenia) were part of the former Soviet bloc.
Last week, consensus among existing members was proving elusive as NATO hit a rare patch of overt controversy. As the French and German governments made clear their opposition to the Bush Administration's Iraq policy, the alliance failed to agree on how to respond to U.S. requests for military support in case of an American-led attack. "The disagreement has nothing to do with substance," says Robertson, insisting that any internal rifts are simply a matter of timing and nuance.
One of those nuances is the possible defense of NATO's only Muslim member, Turkey, which borders Iraq. Should the U.S. invade, Iraq might retaliate by striking Turkey. Robinson says the Turks will enjoy the full protection of their allies: "There's no question in my mind that Turkey will get the defense that it requires. But a lot of people want to wait to see what [U.N. chief weapons inspector] Hans Blix says before they put in place certain elements that could be seen as leading up to military action."
After Blix's report has been analyzed, Robertson says, the transatlantic rift between the U.S. and its European allies will diminish: "I don't think it's as big a problem as people make out. There is a general recognition that there is a problem with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and that Iraq is a specific danger in that respect."
If his rhetoric and reasoning echo British Prime Minister Tony Blair's, it may be because Robertson served as Blair's Secretary of Defense. He was elevated to the House of Lords when he departed for Brussels in 1999 and, he says, "being an active parliamentarian has given me an authority in the job I've got." His title as Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, however, means that he cannot return to the House of Commons, where he served as an M.P. from Scotland for 21 years. No matter, he can sit in the new Scottish Parliament "which I had a lot to do with creating," he says proudly or the European Parliament. But his immediate priority "is the 11 months that lie ahead, and they're going to be pretty active and demanding months."
After that, well, headhunters take note. "I'll be young and fresh enough to take up a new challenge," he says (he's now 56). "I've done two pretty huge jobs, as Defense Secretary and Secretary-General, so I think these skills might be useful. I'm waiting to see whether anybody makes an offer."