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Q

In two months, one of the world’s biggest and most durable military alliances will celebrate its 60th anniversary.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has racked up a long file of achievements, the foremost of which was facing down the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But recent years have brought challenges: the fighting in Afghanistan, tension between the U.S. and some of its European allies, and a newly resurgent Russia.

For most of this difficult period, the organization has been headed by Jakob Gijsbert (Jaap) de Hoop Scheffer, a Dutchman who has been an outspoken advocate of sending more troops to Afghanistan. De Hoop Scheffer, whose five-year term as secretary-general ends in July, spoke with The Times recently in his office in Brussels.

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Some critics have said that NATO is adrift and divided. Do you agree with that assessment?

We are certainly not drifting. We are operating in an environment -- a political environment, a security environment -- which is fundamentally different than it was 60 years ago, trying to find answers to new challenges. Who could have imagined even five years ago that we would be discussing cyber-defense, that we would be discussing energy security, that we would have over 50,000 soldiers in Afghanistan? . . . .

NATO is in a process of transformation. I cannot say that we have found answers for all the questions. That would be a bit too much. But NATO is as alive and kicking as it has ever been.

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Since you became secretary-general in 2004, the number of troops in Afghanistan has increased by almost tenfold. Yet five years later, you are still calling on NATO member states to do more. Has the alliance essentially failed to achieve its objectives?

No, but I will not deny that it’s a complex challenge in Afghanistan. . . . We have a tendency from time to time to forget the meaning of the word “patience.” Why am I mentioning this? Because a nation which was in the Middle Ages in 2001 . . . and one of the poorest in the world, you cannot expect in eight years . . . that we could or they, the Afghans, could shape that nation to the model of the United States or the Netherlands. . . .

We could still do better with more forces. [On Tuesday, President Obama authorized deploying an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.] But I have to add immediately that if we talked -- to say it in Iraqi terms -- about the military “surge,” we need a civilian surge as well, because finally, at the end of the day, we are not talking about a military victory. We are talking about rebuilding, helping to reconstruct, to develop a nation. . . .

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Polls in Afghanistan show that support for foreign troops is dwindling each year. Are we losing the battle of hearts and minds?

We had a very recent poll . . . where you see only slightly less support. What was striking was . . . that if you ask the question “By whom would you like to be governed -- by an Afghan government or by the Taliban?” 4% say Taliban, and 82% . . . say by the Afghan government.

But on the other hand, it’s a relevant question. Not being careful enough with the civilian casualties issue will have negative consequences for the hearts and minds. . . . We have been criticized, and we have taken that criticism at heart. . . .

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You have voiced strong criticism of the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Do you feel he is no longer up to the job?

If he’s up to the job or not is a decision made by the Afghan people, not by the NATO secretary-general. . . . The Afghan government should do more and should do better in, for instance, the fight against corruption. I’ve not seen sufficient results. Fighting narcotics, bringing people to justice who are in the narcotics business -- I don’t see that happening too often, to put it mildly. . . .

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What’s the best thing President Obama could do to repair the rift between the U.S. and its European allies?

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I must admit that when I came in, in ’04, I think the word “rift” was correct to qualify the relationship after the wounds caused by opponents and supporters of the war in Iraq. As we speak now, in 2009, I don’t see a rift or rifts. I do see 26 sovereign nations having their arguments from time to time, having their difference of opinion. . . .

What should President Obama do? President Obama should certainly not only listen. What I said [at a recent security conference] in Munich was that President Obama wants something more out of Europe than just advice, but also concrete contributions. And what he can do and what he is basically doing is having as open a dialogue as possible with his European allies.

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Do you foresee any consensus over how best to deal with Russia?

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Yeah, we have to have a line vis-a-vis Russia. If you look at the foreign ministers’ communique of last December . . . then you see that the language was very, very clear. . . .

On the other hand, we must realize that if you look at it from a wider angle, from a more geo-strategic perspective, NATO needs Russia and Russia needs NATO. . . . We will never agree on Abkhazia, South Ossetia; we will never agree on the disproportionate force used by the Russians in August. But there are many more things, like the fight against terrorism, like the fight against narcotics, like supply lines for our Afghanistan operation, like fighting piracy together . . . where NATO and Russia can work together.

But I don’t deny that there was a dent in confidence in August last year. That dent has not been entirely repaired yet, but I have a mandate from the NATO foreign ministers to be, let’s say, the plumber who stops the water from flowing in [and] pouring out. . . . We are, as is the word from the communique, in a phase of measured reengagement.

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Should Georgia and Ukraine become NATO states over the objections of Russia?

The Bucharest decision stands . . . that Ukraine and Georgia will eventually become NATO members. That decision stands, and is as relevant as it was a year ago. . . .

When they will become a member I don’t know. That depends on their performance.

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What’s the biggest piece of advice you would give your successor?

This is the strongest alliance in the world, where we have the unique character that we have the United States of America and Canada joined with many, many European allies. Let’s preserve the unique character of this alliance.

But more specific to my successor, he or she will need patience and perseverance and some equipment to build bridges -- hopefully not temporary bridges . . . but permanent bridges, not only across the Atlantic . . . but also in Europe itself, between European allies.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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latimes.com/world

A longer version of this article is available online.

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