The New NATO Secretary-General (For Next Year)

Open the envelope, and the winner is . . . Jaap de Hoop Scheffer for next Secretary-General of NATO! And so the Netherlands contributes its third Secretary-General in the history of the Atlantic Alliance, the first two (as only NATO trivia-buffs will know) having been Dirk Stikker and Joseph Luns. Me, I’m slightly disappointed since I was looking forward to seeing the Norwegian Defense Minister, Kristin Krohn Devold, named instead as NATO’s first female Secretary-General. The New York Times Magazine, in a hagiographical article about her that it published back on August 24, virtually promised that this would happen. (That article has by now retreated behind the NYT’s paid archives-access gate; if you think you might like to pay to see it, the link is here.)

No, its Jaap de Hoop Scheffer instead – and surely it’s time here for a survey of the Dutch press to find out how the thinking-class in Holland is reacting to one of its own being picked out for such a crucial international position. What sort of a politician is he? What qualities will he bring to NATO? What is Holland losing by having him (temporarily) plucked away from its political scene? After all, he is currently the Dutch Foreign Affairs minister; and he used to be head of the CDA, the right-wing, somewhat Christian-oriented (“Christian lite,” anybody? – as opposed to the more “hard-core” Christian parties EuroSavant has briefly discussed before) political party which is now the Netherlands’ largest and whose current leader, Jan-Peter Balkenende (the man who replaced De Hoop Scheffer), is prime minister.

Let’s start out with the man’s own words; the Algemeen Dagblad snagged an interview with De Hoop Scheffer in its Tuesday edition, entitled I Am of Two Feelings About My Appointment. It proceeds mainly along short-answer lines: How do you feel? “I don’t want to leave as Minister of Foreign Affairs, for it’s a fantastic job. But if you get this opportunity and NATO gives you such a broad vote of confidence, then that’s fantastic.” What’s the greatest problem that awaits you as new NATO-chief? “Holding together the US, Canada, and the rest of the Atlantic Alliance, as the current Secretary-General is doing so outstandingly.” Must Europe spend more on defense? “I do think so, yes. But that’s no new point-of-view.” What has the Netherlands to thank for this? “The Netherlands has a good name, in Europe and in the Atlantic Alliance. We appear on the scene as bridge-builders.” And so on, including the question of what his wife was doing when she heard the good news. (Oh, I’ll give that one away: She was teaching a French lesson!)

The AD also indulges in a bit of analysis, in its companion article The Second Homecoming of De Hoop Scheffer. That notes that De Hoop Scheffer accompanied premier Balkende on a visit to the US to visit President Bush at the beginning of this month. Apparently he made a good impression on the President (who still mis-pronounced his name – but we can’t blame him on that score) – although, in the interview (above) he denied that the White House has the power within NATO to name Secretaries-General by itself. But De Hoop Scheffer was in many respects the natural candidate, the AD notes. A life-long civil servant/politician, he started his career working at NATO, before serving as personal secretary to a series of Dutch foreign minsters. Then he went into politics, gained a seat in the Dutch lower house, and eventually made his way to the leadership of the CDA – which proceeded to lose five seats in the election.

Last year, being appointed Foreign Minister in the first Balkenende cabinet, De Hoop Scheffer clearly returned to the diplomatic sphere for which he has more affinity. And with the NATO Secretary-Generalship, he’s climbing up yet another step within this sphere. Perhaps, the article speculates, he’s not so much a leader but rather more a true diplomat – “a type that weighs every word. And, even more importantly, someone who can ‘serve.'” After all, NATO doesn’t need a leader. It never does, because the decisions there are not taken by the organization itself, but supposedly by “consensus,” and in reality by the leaders of the organization’s most important countries, with the US at the head.

Over in Trouw’s coverage, Bert Schampers offers a fairly conventional review of where NATO is right now in his opinion piece NATO Believes in Itself. He gives the familiar history: NATO dominating European security from its founding in the late ’40s as Western Europe’s protector against the Soviet Bloc, yet falling into an intellectual crisis with the break-up of that Bloc, its supposed justification for existence; NATO then (rather late in the game, after much hesitation) conducting peace-keeping in the Balkans and even acting to stop Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic-cleansing campaign in Kosovo just as it celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1999. Now, after September 11, it has been called upon in the international fight against terrorism. It has taken over command of operations in post-Taliban Afghanistan (although the Bush administration had little need of it when going to war there in late 2001 in the first place) and, through it’s support of the Polish-led contingent on occupation duties in Iraq, also already has some sort of involvement there.

In this post-1989 history, Schampers sees an organization struggling to find and maintain its relevance in the world’s affairs, even as it prepares to expand to 26 members next year. Yet it also regards itself as really the only international security organization that still matters. In addition to the way that it has broken recently out of the European theater that once was its exclusive remit, into Iraq and Afghanistan, it has also established a relationship with Russia and is seeking to do so with China and countries on the other side of the Mediterranean. What’s more, it has begun a relationship closer to home – with the European Union! An agreement about the use of NATO assets for EU-instigated peace missions is still being negotiated between the organizations, and is scheduled for signing in December. But the EU is divided about just how independent European security should be from NATO, as was witnessed by the summit in late April between France, German, Belgium and Luxembourg, which sought to start to develop an independent planning and operations capability. The Netherlands did not join its Benelux partners at that meeting, and deliberately so, because of its continued belief in the importance of working through NATO. Naturally, De Hoop Scheffer can be expected to continue to advance that line.

Furthermore, he can be expected to take up the current Secretary-General’s mantra – never paid much heed to, it is true – that the Alliance’s European members must spend more on defense. This just after the government of which De Hoop Scheffer is a part announced a budget for the coming year in which defense spending is cut yet again. But, in Schampers estimation, his greatest challenge will simply be maintaining harmony within NATO, only months after an acrimonious dispute over whether to provide Turkey with enhanced air defense just prior to the American-led invasion of Iraq showed the Alliance potentially fraying at the edges. This will require his full experience and skills as a diplomat.

Is he up to that? An accompanying Trouw article by Teun Lagas (Jaap de Hoop Scheffer: Loyal Down to the Bone) focuses in on the man himself. As the article’s title gives away, loyalty is the main trait that has characterized De Hoop Scheffer’s public career: loyalty to the succession of Dutch foreign ministers whom he served as personal secretary, loyalty to the Americans upon whom he recognized Dutch security depended, and loyalty to his party, the CDA (or at least after he switched his affiliation to it from the somewhat more-leftist D66 party, when in 1986 an opportunity was presented to him to be elected to parliament for the CDA). He was loyal to his party even after it had found him wanting after a short time as its leader, and dumped him for Jan-Peter Balkenende. He simply returned to its back-bencher ranks in the Tweede Kamer and, as before, harrassed the then-government from the opposition like a good member of the opposition should. (His nickname in the Tweede Kamer, Lagas reveals, was “Jaap de Hoop Keffer”; “keffer” means “yapper,” as in a loud little dog.)

Perhaps, many thought, he couldn’t cut it as party leader because his interests and experience were so lopsided towards the Netherlands’ business outside its own borders. When the CDA emerged from the opposition last year to form the government, he was seen as a natural choice for foreign minister, and from that pulpit duly proceeded to warn the Dutch about excessive preoccupation with the country’s business inside its own borders (even though it was precisely that preoccupation – embodied in the figure of the assassinated Pim Fortuyn – that had led to the political turn-around that brought the CDA to power in the first placed and put him in charge of the Ministry of External Affairs). “We can’t go staring at our own navels,” he liked to admonish. (In Dutch the verb is navelstaren.) To which his critics replied, when the possibility grew greater that he would be named as NATO Secretary-General, that neither should the country go NAVO-staren. (“NAVO” is the Dutch acronym for NATO.)

He might be a classic foreign policy fanatic, but it’s clear that De Hoop Scheffer got his new job (or his job as of next January) because the US has valued his loyalty through the years. At the same time, the “take-sides!” atmosphere within NATO just before the invasion of Iraq showed how skilled he was in defying that imperative and continuing to have good relations with parties on both side of the US/France-Germany split. So that, if NATO’s main assignment during his tenure there is simply to stay together, he should be very well-qualified to undertake that indeed.

Finally, De Volkskrant’s in its commentary on the appointment (De Hoop Scheffer’s Mission) sees that primarily as a triumph for the Netherlands. Holland tried, and failed, in the mid-1990s to get a third Dutch NATO Secretary-General appointed, namely long-time prime minster Ruud Lubbers (who went on instead to become the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees), but Lubbers was everything that De Hoop Scheffer is not: boisterous, back-slapping, not seen as particularly trust-worthy, and with what the paper calls a Dutch penchant for using any high international position to lecture other countries over right and wrong. (So he must be having a fun time with his UN post.)

De Hoop Scheffer is the opposite, which is good because, according to De Volkskrant, he needs to lose any picture of himself as a representative of the Dutch and get to work tackling NATO’s problems with a wide approach. This newspaper is still very high on the Atlantic Alliance, calling it “the only credible alternative for America going it alone in the world,” and so earnestly hopes that De Hoop Scheffer can set it back on the right path – maintaining its relevance in current world affairs by persuading its European members to speak more with one voice, and persuading America not to walk away from it but rather to listen more and better to that one voice.

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