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Fogh of War

Is the new secretary-general of NATO a slippery opportunist or just a good negotiator?

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Advocates for NATO may trumpet the transatlantic organization as the world’s most powerful military alliance, but in their more reflective moments they’re liable to admit that it’s also a group prone to crises of identity. Indeed, it’s no accident that in searching for a new leader, NATO members decided to forgo tapping a military expert and settled instead on Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a politician with a talent for steering fragile political groups through treacherous waters — and one who has had his own crises of identity along the way.

Rasmussen, who assumed office as secretary-general on Aug. 1, served as Denmark’s prime minister for the past eight years, and his lasting that long was itself an achievement. The success of his political career has been largely due to the ideological flexibility with which he has pursued it. Rasmussen, who grew up in modest circumstances in the Danish countryside, fancies himself a down-to-earth pragmatist, whereas his critics see a shameless opportunist.

The points of contention are many. Rasmussen first earned considerable attention on Denmark’s public stage for a polemic he published in the early 1990s harshly criticizing the country’s social welfare policies. By the time he was a candidate for prime minister in 2001, he had reconciled himself to the basic shape of the welfare state and was running instead on a tough law-and-order platform. After that election, to form a functioning coalition, he had his free market Venstre party forge a working relationship with the country’s right-wing populist Conservative People’s Party, a potential partnership that had previously been taboo. But after taking office, when one of his political priorities was at stake — introducing the euro as Danish currency — he didn’t hesitate to drum up votes on the other side of the political spectrum, among the leftist Socialist People’s Party. Opportunist or not, he certainly knows how to cut a deal when the situation demands it.


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A few of his pet projects as prime minister will serve as background for his new position at NATO. Rasmussen strongly thought that Denmark, despite its specially designed “opt-out” from EU foreign-policy decision-making, needed to lead an active foreign policy. For Rasmussen, isolationism is a strategic mistake. In office, he was eager to prove himself a strong ally of the United States during the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, arranging to send troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq. He didn’t shirk the international stage when Islamic countries agitated against cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that had been published in a Danish newspaper. He also made good-faith efforts to ease Copenhagen’s sometimes strained ties with Europe.

Rasmussen’s experience negotiating between warring sides should serve him well at NATO, though his difficulties will radically increase: Instead of a handful of political parties, Rasmussen is now responsible for mediating between 27 independent countries, each with its own understanding of its national security interests. And the stakes that Rasmussen faces are higher than they ever were in Copenhagen. Tensions between member states aren’t just expressed in the boardrooms of Brussels — their effects are felt on the battlefields of Kabul, Kunduz, and Kandahar.

Of course, the infighting that Rasmussen inherits is nothing new. Ever since NATO officially started its mission in Afghanistan six years ago, member states have been saying that they’re disappointed with the results. “Sometimes it seems the only thing they can agree on is that someone else is to blame,” one NATO official, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. The Europeans say the United States made everything more difficult with its invasion of Iraq and its propensity for killing and injuring Afghan civilians. America’s refrain is that the Europeans have neither sent enough troops to put up a serious fight, nor loosened the rules of engagement sufficiently for those few troops who are on the ground.

This is the breach Rasmussen is going to have to step into, and it’s not clear how he might go about healing it. With fully half of U.S. troops in Afghanistan fighting outside the umbrella of NATO’s mission — instead, they’re under the auspices of U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom — NATO has little leverage to use against Washington. It’s a point underscored by the fact that the Barack Obama administration hardly solicited the advice of its allies for its strategic review.

As for persuading European member states to increase their commitment to the war, Rasmussen shouldn’t get his hopes up. Some U.S. allies feel that they’ve already done more than their fair share: The Netherlands and Canada have suffered disproportionate casualties in Afghanistan’s dangerous southern provinces and have declared they’re unwilling to renew their stays.

Other countries — most prominently Germany, whose troops are stationed in the relatively quiet northern provinces — argue that they haven’t been given enough credit for the political difficulties they bear for continuing to participate in the mission. It’s a position for which Rasmussen might have sympathy, having been on the receiving end of criticism in Denmark for sending troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq. “Among experts in Europe, it’s an acknowledged fact that Afghanistan could use more troops,” said the German Marshall Fund’s Constanze Stelzenmüller. “But the public is not on board.”

Even if Rasmussen felt inclined to coerce countries like Germany into shouldering an additional burden in Afghanistan, he would lack the wherewithal and clout to do so. Rasmussen’s predecessor as secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, got nowhere with his attempts to berate Berlin. At a 2007 NATO summit, Scheffer lamented, “Not all allies — including some very important ones — want to go to the places where the fighting is.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s curt reply made clear that she had little appetite for public bullying.

Rasmussen will no doubt be relying on more personable and discrete methods. Rasmussen received rave reviews for his term as president of the European Union in 2002, a job that requires liberal doses of flattery and deference to be doled out in multiple directions. This is the man, after all, whom Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi once referred to as “the most handsome prime minister in Europe.” And in truth, the office of secretary-general demands someone capable of charming an audience. It’s a position designed not to resolve the differences among NATO allies, but to work those differences into slightly more manageable form.

Indeed, one forgets how many disagreements have already been artfully papered over during the course of the Afghan war. The long-standing — and in the American context, little-remarked-upon — division between NATO’s U.N.-approved mission and the independent U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom has given ample cover to European governments that want to portray their engagement as a strictly humanitarian endeavor. It has allowed the German government, when describing its presence in Afghanistan to its pacifist public, to avoid using the laden term “war.”

That sort of diplomatic ambiguity will be Rasmussen’s best friend in the coming years. The best he can hope to achieve may be a continued de facto Americanization of the war, carried out under the imprimatur of the NATO alliance. U.S. troops have, in most instances, proven more efficient than their allies at the intricacies of counterinsurgency and the prosaic protocols of training their Afghan counterparts.

With President Obama sending more troops this year and likely next, U.S. commanders might place a higher emphasis on maintaining full control over their military strategy — in which case, Rasmussen could seize the opportunity to negotiate with European governments to retreat into the background for a more politically sustainable supporting role. And Europeans might indeed be willing to lend their continued titular support, as long as they’re not expected to equally share the sacrifice of blood and treasure.

The same sorts of elisions will likely mark the final product of Rasmussen’s other major task, the drafting of NATO’s strategic concept for the next 10 years. It’s there that he perhaps stands the best chance of dispelling the air of crisis that has hung about the Western military alliance since its very inception. “The member states have very different interests. That’s always been the case,” said the German Marshall Fund’s Stelzenmüller. “At the same time, NATO is also more robust than people give it credit for.”

Whether the same can be said of Rasmussen, we’ll soon see.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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