Lord Robertson on the Transformation of NATO


George Robertson tells Simon Michell how the fall of the Berlin Wall brought in a period of confusion that saw a transformation in the role and mission of NATO.

According to former NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson, it is the way in which the transition from a fractured to a unified Europe came about that makes it so extraordinary. He admits, like most if not all of his contemporaries, he did not see it coming and even viewed those who demanded it as being a bit odd. Those in the House of Commons who spoke in terms of a reunified Europe and called specifically for the freedom of oppressed nations were viewed with amusement.

“Sir Bernard Braine comes to mind,” says Lord Robertson. “He was the one who was constantly calling for the freedom of the Baltic States and was consequently regarded as a bit of an eccentric – almost as if he believed that the Earth was flat.” Lord Robertson even recalls asking the governing Mayor of West Berlin, Richard von Weizsäcker, if, by 2001, he would be able to walk through the Brandenburg Gate. The response was an emphatic “no.”

It was this backdrop of almost universal acceptance of the status quo that brought about a state of panic and confusion when it became clear what was actually happening in the East. “There was undoubtedly a sense of joy when the Berlin Wall fell,” says Lord Robertson, admitting to having tears in his eyes when he saw the historic TV footage of the Wall being breached on the evening news. “However, there was also a feeling of impending doom. People spoke in apocalyptic terms. There was an expectation of massive disruption and bloodshed as those who had been oppressed for decades took revenge on their former masters. People had visions of a sort of Northern Ireland scenario, only on a grand scale.”

It was, then, a stroke of enormous good fortune that the NATO Secretary General presiding over these events was himself a German, Manfred Wörner.

“He was a genius. He recognized immediately that NATO would be able to help the East transition peacefully. It was down to him that NATO was able to react in such a brilliant way.”

It was Wörner who proposed the Partnership for Peace process, which was so instrumental in bringing about a change that was, by and large, devoid of turbulence and violence. The reason for this, according to Lord Robertson, was that the Warsaw Pact countries feared NATO, but they also respected it. They recognized that it was a force to be reckoned with. “So when NATO held out a helping hand and spoke to them, they listened.”

Despite NATO’s obvious success in aiding the transition, there were still some in the West speaking against the level of NATO involvement, who saw the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the reunification of Germany especially, as something to be avoided at all costs. However, they were quickly becoming a very small minority. Lord Robertson attended a lunch held by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher given in honor of the Polish Prime Minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki. The lunch was memorable for the way that Thatcher addressed Mazowiecki, saying that both Great Britain and Poland knew only too well what happens when you have a united Germany. Lord Robertson chuckles when he remembers Mazowiecki’s reaction. “He clearly thought that the interpreter had gone completely mad and that she could not actually be saying these things.” 

Looking back on those years Lord Robertson insists that it is important that we remember the truth about what happened and who really said and did what. “We should try not to rewrite history and airbrush things out. People tend to forget that even Churchill had his critics. Many people forget that Lord Halifax persistently and doggedly called for Britain to negotiate with Germany. In a less dramatic way, the former British Defence Secretary, Denis Healy, cautioned against NATO expansion, saying that it would weaken the bonds of unity.”

This caution, however, seems to ignore the fact that throughout its 60-year history NATO has always followed a policy of enlargement. In 1952 it invited Greece and Turkey to join, and later, in 1955, less than six years after NATO’s formation, it invited former enemy, West Germany, to join its ranks – against significant opposition. Likewise, as soon as Spain had transformed itself into a liberal democracy, following General Franco’s death, it too was welcomed into the fold.

So when the former Warsaw Pact countries asked to become members, it was not something that NATO hadn’t faced before. Of course, there was some trepidation and soul-searching within the existing member governments. This explains to some degree why an incremental process was adopted with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland being chosen as the first countries to join in 1999. The significant émigré populations from these countries domiciled in the U.S. helped to oil the wheels for this expansion and prepare for the next wave of countries that joined in 2004 – Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia.

The enlargement process continues. In 2009 Albania and Croatia joined NATO, and Macedonia has also been set conditions to become a member. Lord Robertson is a committed supporter of the enlargement process.

“Enlargement has strengthened NATO because it has brought in nations who were previously opponents, it has fortified their transformations and it has given a huge political boost for an Alliance transformed out of all recognition.

“There is no specific end to the enlargement process. You cannot say to countries which have made the changes that would qualify them that NATO is full up. The key criterion will be ensuring that all new additions add value and do not, by their membership, render NATO less than the organization they so keenly want to join.”

Turning back to the events that made the last waves of enlargement possible, Lord Robertson reflects that what happened during those years was a revolution – albeit a bloodless one. “What started on the border of Hungary just snowballed into a complete revolution. It was not a violent, hysterical bloody one, but a fundamentally radical one. It transformed Eastern Europe from a region of command economies and military dictatorships, where people were denied freedom of thought and assembly, into free nations, growing and prospering in a way that had hitherto seemed impossible.” Ultimately, NATO helped that happen because of its inherent strength. The former Warsaw Pact countries respected it and wanted to become members. They recognized that the collective defense that it offered the West could be expanded to include them.   

The Rt Hon Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen KT GCMG Hon FRSE PC, is a former Secretary General of NATO; Deputy Chairman, TNK-BP; Senior International Advisor, Cable & Wireless International and a member of the International Advisory Board of the Atlantic Council of the United States. This interview is fromFreedom’s Challenge, an Atlantic Council publication commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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