A „Smart“ NATO Secretary General

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The political background of NATO’s new Secretary General, the former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is more complex than it may seems. He is facing the task of articulating a “new strategic concept” for NATO. The Americans want to shape this document along the lines of their new “smart power” doctrine. But above all, NATO has to face the impact of the financial-economic crisis.

By Michael Liebig


On August 1, 2009, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has become the new NATO Secretary General. He succeeds the Dutchman Jaap de Hoop Scheffer who, during his five-year term of office, always acted as a loyal follower of the Bush administration. Not only because of reservations against him in Germany and in France, which returned in April, 2009 to the military structure of NATO, it has been clear for some time that there would be no second term for de Hoop Scheffer. And, he was out of place with the Obama administration. Already in June, 2009, the military chief of NATO, General Bantz J. Craddock had to retire and was succeeded by his American compatriot, Admiral James G. Stavridis.

The political chief of NATO is always a European, but, of course, he must have the full trust of the US government. Should that trust be lost, usually some „scandal“ is uncovered in the political or personal past of the Secretary General – and he must go, mostly sooner than later. In the course of my journalistic activities, I have personally encountered three NATO Secretaries General, and they were impressive and competent personalities. One might characterize them as „nonpartisan“, but “not independent“. This lies in the nature of the office, because the NATO Secretary General is first of all a „moderator“ who must balance the very different interests of the member states. In this sense, de Hoop Scheffer was rather atypical.

Rasmussen and the USA

Whether Rasmussen will be genuine „moderator“ as Secretary General, is an open question. His nomination was supported by Germany, France, Italy and Great Britain, but he was first of all the choice of the Obama administration, which cleared the way for Rasmussen’s appointment against the bitter opposition of Turkey.

In Turkey and in Islamic states generally, Rasmussen is very unpopular. This is due to his handling of the „Mohammed cartoons“ which were published in 2005 in the Danish newspaper „Jyllands Posten“. When eleven ambassadors of Islamic states asked the then- Prime Minister for a meeting to protest against the cartoons, Rasmussen rejected their request, arguing that the „Mohammed cartoons“ were covered by the freedom of the press in Denmark. Also, in Copenhagen a private TV station is located which is tied to the Kurdish terrorist organisation PKK, which has infuriated the Turkish government. During a conference appearance in Istanbul – after his appointment as Secretary General – Rasmussen apologised for the „Mohammed cartoons“ and also the PKK-tied TV station in Copenhagen is being closed down.

It is substantially more important that Rasmussen belonged to the „coalition of the willing“ within NATO in 2002/03. He formally declared a state of war between Denmark and Iraq and sent a Danish army battalion to Iraq which was withdrawn only in 2007. One reason for the Danish support of the Bush’s administration might be found with the biggest corporation of Denmark – A.P.Moller Gruppen.

A.P.Moller Gruppen is the second-largest logistics firm in the world and owns “Maersk”, the world-leader in container shipping. In 1999, Maersk took over the American container shipping company “Sealand” and many container terminals run by Maersk are located in the USA. Maersk also plays a leading role in the oil tanker business. And, A.P. Moller Gruppen is engaged in oil and natural gas exploration/production. Besides the arms industry and banking, the American energy industry was the key backer of the Bush administration. The personification of that link was Vice President Dick Cheney aka CEO of Halliburton. Thus it is hardly surprising that already in late 2002 the Pentagon had chartered Maersk ships for the transport of war material to Gulf.

Arctic Geopolitics

Many observers think that with Rasmussen a representative of a „small country“ has become NATO Secretary General. This is absolutely wrong. Though the Kingdom of Denmark has only 5.5 million citizens, it is by far the biggest country of Europe – its surface area being six times larger than Germany’s. In spite of its autonomy status, Greenland belongs to Denmark: The Danish Queen is the head of state, the Danish krone is the currency, and all foreign and security matters are the prerogative of Denmark. Geographically, Greenland belongs to North America, not Europe. Within the European Union, Denmark has a special status: It is not involved in the „Common Security and Defence Policy“ of the EU, the Danish krone remains as national currency and Greenland is not a part of the EU customs area. So, Denmark is indeed quite special.

Though Greenland has only 57,000 inhabitants, its geopolitical setting is of great importance. In the northwest of Greenland, the US Air Force Base Thule is located. During the cold war,

strategic nuclear bombers were stationed in Thule, which drew international attention when a B 52 bomber crashed in 1968 and some of its nuclear bombs could not recovered. Today, Thule is the site of an American antiballistic missile defence radar system (BMEWS). In June 2009, the Danish government decided to upgrade the Danish military presence in Greenland what is another indicator of its geostrategic significance.

If the theory of global warming is valid, two new Arctic shipping routes would connect the North Atlantic with the North Pacific – saving 7000 km in comparison to the routes via the Panama or the Suez canal. The „northwest passage“ would run between the west coast of Greenland and the north-eastern coast of Canada, which is why there is a territorial dispute between Denmark and Canada over the Hans island. The “north-east passage” would run through the Barents Sea and along the Siberian northern coast.

Arctic geopolitics involve not only future shipping routes. In the Arctic Ocean, vast deposits of oil and natural gas have been found or are presumed to be there. And the states bordering Arctic Ocean are raising claims on them. These states are Russia, Norway, Canada, the USA

(Alaska) – and Denmark. In Greenland itself, large deposits of oil and other mineral resources, notably rare metals and gold have been found or are presumed to be there.

Of the five states bordering the Arctic Ocean, four are members of NATO. The depositing of a Russian flag by a Russian submarine on the seabed under the geographic North Pole in Summer 2007 has shown that the Arctic Ocean has indeed become geopolitically a most sensitive area. This is also demonstrated by the fact that all five bordering states have expanded their military presence in the area. These factors ought to be considered in respect to Rasmussen’s selection as NATO Secretary General.

Rasmussen and „Smart Power“

One can characterise Rasmussen as „smart“. This concerns not only his physical appearance, but also his clever-pragmatic political style – at least in the Danish domestic and economic policy. He began his political career as a right-wing liberal with xenophobic tendencies. He strongly attacked the Danish – traditionally social-democratic – „social state“. However, as Prime Minister from 2001 on, Rasmussen did not dismantle the social state. And up to the outbreak of the financial crisis, Denmark experienced a relatively sound economic prosperity. Big infrastructure projects were realised, notably bridges and tunnels connecting the Danish islands with Jutland and Sweden. For example, Denmark builds (and finances) the 20 km-long Fehmarn bridge which will connect Denmark and Germany across the Baltic Sea. My positive assessment of Danish domestic and economic policy under Rasmussen derives from many talks I had with a good Danish friend who is certainly no political follower of Rasmussen.

The principal reason, why „smart“ Rasmussen has become NATO Secretary General surely is his „fitting“ the Obama administration. What concerns his liaison with Bush Jr., one should not forget that Senator Hillary Clinton also voted for Bush’s Iraq war. The core concept of the foreign policy of the Obama administration is „smart power“.

On July 15, 2009, Hillary Clinton has elaborated what she means by „smart power“ in foreign affairs in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Her policy premise is:

„Now some see the rise of other powers and our economic troubles here at home as signs that American power has waned … But they are wrong. The question is not whether our nation can or should lead, but how it will lead in the 21st st century.“

Then she continues: „I speak often of smart power because it is so central to our thinking and decision-making. It means the intelligent use of all means at our disposal, including our ability to convene and to connect. It means our economic and military strength; our capacity for innovation and entrepreneurship, and the ability and credibility of our new President and his team […] Smart Power translates… [into] revigorating our bedrock alliances, which did fray in recent years … I believe NATO is the greatest alliance in history. But it was built for the Cold War. The new NATO is a democratic community of nearly a billion people stretching from the Baltics in the East to Alaska in the West. We’re working to update its strategic concept so that it is as effective in this century as it was in the last.“

The decision to produce a “new strategical concept” of NATO was made in April at the NATO Summit in Strasbourg/Kehl – at which also Rasmussen was nominated. On July 7, 2009, a big Nato conference took place in Brussels in which the „formal launching“ of the elaboration of the “new strategical concept” was proclaimed. A large number of (not very high-ranking) government representatives, parliamentarians, retired politicians, NGOs, business leaders and academic participated. But no authorised working group – in Strasbourg it was said it would consist of „Elder Statesmen“ – for the concrete elaboration of the “new concept” was announced. Maybe this announcement had to wait until Rasmussen was in charge.

So, we have see what NATO’s “new strategical cocept” will be under Rasmussen’s moderation. However, I venture the supposition that, when the document has been adopted, we will find in it, and prominently so, the concept of „smart power.“

In the latest issue of „Foreign Affairs Joseph Nye writes under the title „Get Smart“: „If a state can set the agenda for others or shape their preferences, it can save an of carrot and sticks“. If the Obama administration will manage to implant its new doctrine into the document, and we get a „smart“ strategical concept for NATO. What then? Will it have a major strategic impact on world-political reality? I think, probably not.

Whatever will be “message” of the new NATO concept, Rasmussen faces two fundamental and urgent problems:

  • A face-saving exit strategy from Afghanistan.
  • NATO’s coping with the effects of the financial and economic crisis.

The latter problem, I think, will be the really tough one. Because of the crisis, the national debt of all NATO member states have exploded – with the USA taking the lead. Budgets will inevitably have to be cut – including military expenses. And a significant part of military spending has gone into “out of area” military interventions. Instead of global interventionism, national and European security will come back into focus.

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