In his first speech as Secretary General (August 3) Anders Fogh Rasmussen identified Afghanistan and relations with Russia as the top two priorities for NATO. Unfortunately, that speech ignored the security concerns of the Central European members of NATO and contributed to the perception that rapprochement with Moscow was more important to the alliance than the issues of NATO’s eastern members.

 

In his speech Thursday at the Bratislava meeting of NATO Defense Ministers, Secretary General Rasmussen once again revealed NATO’s priorities, but this time addressed the security concerns of the Central Europeans. In the context of discussing the review of NATO’s Strategic Concept, the Secretary General stressed that, “NATO’s core task was, is, and will remain, the defense of our territory and our populations. For our Alliance to endure, all members must feel that they are safe and secure. NATO has never failed in this respect. And I intend that it never will.”

At the conclusion of his speech, Rasmussen also emphasized the importance of relations with Moscow, but did so in a way that suggests that NATO will continue to have difficulties in balancing its priorities. “And finally, relations with Russia. It is clear that we will continue to have differences with Russia but we must not let these differences hold the entire NATO-Russia relationship hostage. After all, NATO and Russia also have many common interests – in Afghanistan, in combating terrorism, and in preventing nuclear proliferation. And so what we need is a relationship that allows us to pursue these long-standing common interests, and which will not be derailed every time we disagree.”

Nevertheless, Rasmussen continued to show sensitivity to the security concerns of NATO’s Eastern members; “don’t get me wrong. A more mature NATO-Russia relationship will not mean that the Alliance will sacrifice its core principles. Clearly we won’t. But we do need a new beginning in NATO-Russia relations….”

This speech will not resolve the division within NATO over the pace and manner of “resetting” relations with Moscow. But it is a positive step toward rebuilding cohesion within the alliance. For too long, alliance unity has been ignored or demanded, instead of being cultivated. The warning voiced by Central European leaders in their Open Letter was crudely dismissed, and the abandonment of their recent partnership in transatlantic missile defense was thrust upon them in a unilateral fashion and with tragically poor timing.

In multilateral organizations, members will not always agree, but they must always be respected. Otherwise, the ties that bind begin to lose legitimacy and consensus becomes more and more elusive. By publicly including the security concerns of NATO’s eastern members with his emphasis on Russia, Rasmussen is beginning to display the skill at building coalitions that is necessary for an effective Secretary General. NATO is facing unprecedented challenges and is in need of unprecedented leadership.

Jorge Benitez is the Director of NATOSource, where this essay first appeared. NATO photo.