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NATO’s New Era

Anders Fogh Rasmussen Takes Over as Afghanistan, Russia and Other Crises Test the Venerable Alliance

By Jim Colbert and Elizabeth Donne

Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Photo courtesy of the World Economic ForumAnders Fogh Rasmussen. Photo courtesy of the World Economic ForumWhile NATO-led counter-terror and nation building operations in Afghanistan are increasing in intensity and tensions with Russia continue to simmer, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has installed a new leader. On August 1, former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen assumed the secretary-general's position from Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of the Netherlands.

Rasmussen takes over at a difficult time owing to the fighting in Afghanistan, NATO expansion issues and Russian discontent. Of considerable interest, however, was the low-level but feverish campaigning for the job that concluded with Rasmussen's April 4 appointment by unanimous consent despite serious Turkish misgivings.

NATO's secretary-general is responsible for coordinating the workings of the alliance, serves as the head of the North Atlantic Council, is the primary spokesperson of the alliance, and leads NATO's staff. Members handle succession through consensus and a pro-forma vote. Since an American traditionally holds the post of NATO's chief military officer, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, the secretary-general has always been a European.

The other declared candidate for the post was Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. Unofficially, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, former British Defense Secretary Des Browne and former Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy were considered contenders.

Sikorski might have been a perfect fit to take on the challenges facing NATO today – he has a distinguished resume that includes a stint as Poland's defense minister and worked as a war correspondent in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s even winning a World Press Photo prize in 1988 for a photo he took there, and comes from a fairly new NATO member state with a demonstrated strong commitment to the NATO's operational obligations. Sikorski also spent time in the United States as a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. His bid, however, was undercut by Russia, suspicious of his role as a leading advocate for the placement of elements of the American missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Knowing that consensus would not be forthcoming, Sikorski took himself out of contention just before the April vote.

Since 2001, Rasmussen has run three Danish center-right governments and was the EU chairman when the organization admitted ten new members, a significant diplomatic achievement. The fact that Rasmussen has personal relations with most, if not all, European leaders and is particularly well regarded in the United States, the UK, Germany and France will be an asset to his dealing with the many pressing issues confronting NATO.

Turkish Reticence

Though he was the leading candidate, Rasmussen faced a serious hurdle in the form of Turkish reticence over his role when, as prime minister, he did not act against the Danish newspaper that ran editorial cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Rasmussen, a staunch defender of free speech and a liberal media, also continued a policy that permits a nationalistic Kurdish television station to broadcast to Turkey from Denmark.

The Turkish government considers Roj TV to be little more than a mouthpiece for the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by the EU, of which Denmark is a member. Also, Rasmussen's inaction on the issue allowed critics to question his commitment to NATO's counter-terrorism role in the Afghan conflict.

In 2006, violent protests over the cartoons spread to Afghanistan and Pakistan and since then the Taliban have continued to exploit and exaggerate this issue for propaganda value. Many, including Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, feared that Rasmussen's election would lead to anti-West protests all over the Muslim world. While that did not occur, a worry that protests will occur every time Rasmussen visits a Muslim country remains real.

Indeed, due to the issue of the cartoons and the Kurdish television broadcasts, Turkey was the only NATO member that indicated it would not vote for Rasmussen. Although Rasmussen did not apologize for the cartoon crisis as many had hoped he would, he did claim that he was "deeply distressed that the cartoons were seen by many Muslims as an attempt by Denmark to mark an insult or behave disrespectfully towards Islam or the Prophet Mohammed…I respect Islam as one of the world's major religions as well as its religious symbols." Furthermore, he promised that Denmark would shut down Roj TV if investigations showed that it had connections to terrorism.

It was reported that Turkey relented and agreed to vote for Rasmussen after President Obama, and possibly also Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, gave assurances that Turks would be appointed to senior military command posts and assume the role of the NATO's next deputy secretary general once the term of Italian Claudio Bisogniero ends.

Afghanistan Ops

The Afghanistan mission has become NATO's top priority. President Obama has requested an increase in the number of American troops being sent to Afghanistan and has spoken of accelerating and enhancing the training of local Afghan military forces. This expanded NATO mission will focus on high-level training and mentoring of the Afghan army and national police. Obama also requested NATO members to increase their input to the Afghanistan mission, which has not had a positive response from the Alliance's members save the UK, which has sent nearly 1,000 additional troops.

Rasmussen is a strong supporter of the Afghanistan mission; indeed, relative to its population, Denmark has the most troops in NATO’s Afghanistan contingent, 750.

Russian Grumbling

Another key issue that Rasmussen will be compelled to tackle is NATO's declining relationship with an increasingly insecure Russia. Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union came apart, NATO added to its ranks such former Warsaw Pact countries as Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, many of which share borders with Russia.

Although influential NATO members, such as France and Germany, want to ensure a cordial relationship with Moscow, the United States was of late more interested in expanding the alliance further. After an Oval Office meeting with outgoing Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, President Obama expressed his desire to improve his America's relations with Russia, but he made it very clear that any improvement would have to be consistent with the administration's support for expanding NATO's continued expansion.

This point is particularly evidenced by the NATO-Georgia Commission, which was set up in 2008 and oversees NATO assistance to Georgia following that country's conflict with Russia. The Commission falls short of the Membership Action Plan (MAP) that the Bush Administration wanted extended to Tbilisi. The MAP is the traditional route to NATO membership.

Unable to secure the backing of Germany and France in the face of Russia's displeasure at the prospect of Georgia ever joining NATO, however, the Commission is regarded by knowledgeable observers as little more than a sop. But those concerned by Russian fearfulness will not be assuaged as NATO's commitment to Georgian integrity and independence seems quite firm.

Jim Colbert is communications director and Elizabeth Donne is a research associate at JINSA.

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