A good man in the right place at the right time
As Fogh Rasmussen takes over as Nato secretary-general, Julian Lindley-French looks at the track record of his very Dutch predecessor.
Nato secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer steps down after over five years in one of the toughest jobs in international relations. Never has a secretary-general had to tread so carefully from day one. The 2003 Iraq war poisoned relations within Nato for years – not only between nations, but between individual members of staff. Thus de Hoop Scheffer will be remembered as a man who consolidated Nato in the wake of arguably its greatest crisis.
He patiently worked to help the Alliance cope with the political and military
consequences of Nato's rapid enlargement to poor countries in the south and
east of Europe. Moreover, he did this at a time when the US was clamouring
for a greater European effort in Afghanistan. He demonstrated political
courage when he resisted Washington over too hasty a drive to include
Ukraine in the Alliance before it was ready. He also demonstrated
commendable political wisdom as the Alliance once again threatened to split
over how to respond to Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia and impressive
political skills in preventing missile defence from becoming too divisive.
He has had notable successes such as the September 2008 agreement formalising co-operation between Nato and the United Nations, opening up the possibility of vital enhanced civil-military co-operation that this pragmatic secretary-general has done much to encourage. Furthermore, it was on his watch that France returned to the Alliance’s military core which it had left in 1966, which is an historical landmark.
On Afghanistan he has proven to be a steady hand on the tiller over an issue that is only slightly less contentious than Iraq. He oversaw the expansion of the mission of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) across the whole of Afghanistan. He did that at a time when the political appetite on the part of many European allies was lukewarm at best. Indeed, many of them went to Afghanistan only wanting to do the least possible commensurate with keeping the US engaged in European security and defence. This basic divide between the US and its allies was often expressed through a series of metaphors, such as the desperate search for more helicopters to increase the mobility of Nato forces. Where he could fix things, he did.
Where he has been less successful is in the domain of high politics. He once famously characterised Nato-EU relations as a 'frozen conflict' which he did little to thaw. Sadly, he never really established a comfortable working relationship with EU foreign and security policy supremo Javier Solana.
Equally, given the seemingly intractable and tangled politics of Turkey's relationship with the EU and the byzantine inner workings of both the Alliance and the Union, it is hard to believe much progress could have been made towards greater synergy between what are two profoundly different organisations.
Perhaps his greatest weakness has been an inability to sell Nato to the Americans. Strange though it may seem to many Europeans used to complaining about Nato and taking it for granted in equal measure, Nato is facing a crisis in the US. Americans have felt themselves to be at war since 9/11, whilst Europeans are most decidedly not.
Marginal to American security at the best of times, de Hoop Scheffer has faced an uphill battle in the US to convince many Americans that Nato matters. Lord Robertson, his immediate predecessor, a big politician from a big country had more success and maybe the fact that de Hoop Scheffer was neither from a big country nor British condemned him from the outset.
Never a visionary, he once remarked that Nato was not a global policeman just at the moment when the Americans were looking for support for their world-wide counter-terrorism effort. He was respected rather then revered in Washington and his inability to really grasp the sheer scale of Nato's future global mission rendered him to some extent hors de combat in Washington power games.
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer offered the Alliance all the virtues of the Dutch political class. Fair-minded, hard-working, down-to-earth, he afforded a return to common political decency that Nato so needed in the wake of the Iraq fiasco. He will not be remembered as a great Nato secretary-general but as a very good one, and it is perhaps a mark of his virtues that he has had the wisdom to know when to leave the stage.
In Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato will have a very different secretary-general for a very different age. Indeed, as Nato embarks on the search for a new Strategic Concept – the what, the why, the where, the when and the how of Alliance action - a new kind of leader will be needed. Put simply, Nato must re-establish the essential contract between those who lead the people and those that secure them and with the best will in the world Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is not the man for that.
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer will thus be rightly remembered as a good man in the right place at the right time. For that the Euro-Atlantic community has much to thank him because Nato's very Dutch secretary-general leaves an Alliance in far better shape than when he joined it.