In the summer of 2008, the Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen followed up an invitation from his fellow country-man, Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis, to cycle the steepest rise of the central stage of the Tour. Twelve months later, career wise, Rasmussen ascended even higher: He succeeded Dutchman Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as Secretary General of NATO. The civilian top job in Brussels is the highest international office ever occupied by a Dane. Similar to cycling, Rasmussen is expected to show stamina, endurance and leadership qualities in the light of the current challenges faced by the alliance.
NATO, now in its seventh decade of existence, is confronted by enormous tasks of varied nature. The most pressing issue is - and will remain to be - Afghanistan. Consequently, that was the first country Rasmussen visited once he took office. There, he announced an open-ended mission and underlined the determination to remain active in Afghanistan until the job is done. Beside the fierce war effort in Afghanistan, NATO is substantially involved in the Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa, where it has established maritime security with some tangible success. In both regions, diverse threats including piracy, human trafficking, proliferation of small arms and WMD, and failing and failed littoral states threaten the maritime security.
However, these activities can hardly conceal the huge number of unsolved question NATO faces. On the one hand, there are internal issues such as the inter-member relationships, the integration of new member states, and the strategic and operational adjustment to new threats. On the other hand, there are issues concerning NATO's "foreign policy": the relationship with Russia, the question of membership candidates like Georgia and Ukraine and its working relations with other alliances. Against this backdrop, the development of a new strategic concept for NATO by a working group led by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is a major step in the right direction. The alliance has to reinvent itself - once more.
But center-right politician Rasmussen is up for the job, and brings his much needed political socialisation skills to frantic Brussels. For the small kingdom and founding member of NATO, the alliance has always been more than just an end in itself; it was regarded as a unique military and geopolitical life-insurance during the Cold War. When the deepening integration of the European Union resulted in an additional security and foreign policy dimension in Europe, this was met with fierce opposition in Denmark, with the Danish parliament even threatening to reject these treaties. That shows that an Atlantic approach to security continues to dominate Danish foreign policy and is preferred to the EU foreign and security policy. The reasons for that are good and peaceful experiences with NATO on the one hand and the strategically significant rights over Greenland on the other hand. The latter is a prominent example of Atlantic power and dominance. It is safe to say that Rasmussen shares this view as well.
Another key challenge facing Rasmussen is France's return to NATO. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has repeatedly stressed that the return of his country into the command structures of NATO aims to strengthen the European pillar of the alliance and, whilst doing so, massively revives France's influence. Rasmussen will have to act as a broker between Sarkozy and the administration of Barack Obama, who has openly moved away from the critical position to the Alliance of his predecessor George W. Bush. It is Rasmussen's task to loose the image of "Bush's poodle" quickly, without instantly turning into either Obama's or Sarkozy's puppy. With September 11, 2001 and the events following it, we have witnessed the decline of the Eurocentric alliance. This is Rasmussen's window of opportunity: The future of NATO will be decided in Washington rather than in Brussels.
The first Secretary General of NATO, Lord Ismay, is often quoted for pointedly summing up NATO's initial mission in Europe: "To keep the American in, the Soviets out, and the Germans down." More than half a century later, Rasmussen's Herculean task is "to keep the Americans in, the French satisfied, and the rest of the allies united." This is a challenge far too great for a single person: Like in professional cycling, alliance politics needs team spirit of those involved. In the light of the challenging ramps ahead, this will prove to be indispensable.
Sebastian Bruns is project leader at Haus Rissen Hamburg, where he is in charge of the maritime security, Model United Nations and consultancy on local politics programs.
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Nato: Road to Stability
- Ian Davis: Strengthening the Non-Agression Norm Within Nato
- Christopher Lee Davis: Five Steps for Success in Afghanistan