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NATO Reloads for Afghanistan with a New Sheriff

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There is a new sheriff patrolling the North Atlantic and he’s called Mr. Rasmussen! A career politician, Anders Fogh Rasmussen has steadily moved up through Danish politics to lead the country since 2001. He has proven a very skilled diplomat on the world stage since, being well-educated in the minority government tradition the Danes enjoy. But who is this new sheriff and what can we expect from his leadership of NATO in the years to come?

Mr. Rasmussen has been pegged for the top NATO job since the Irish declined to ratify the Lisbon Treaty that would have created an EU President, which he was already pegged for as well. The man has serious friends in the EU it seems! To be handed the NATO job however, he clearly needed powerful US support as well. Oddly enough Denmark, a moderate EU nation, has provided military troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo during Mr. Rasmussen’s leadership. This has clearly boosted Denmark's stock in the Pentagon and shown Rasmussen to be skilled at making tough political decisions and surviving the voter fallout. Reports have Obama directly convincing the Turks who all but spit on Rasmussen in national cartoons for not showing more respect. Mr. Rasmussen clearly has extensive NATO member support on both sides of the Atlantic heading into the job.

The very recent April 3 meeting of NATO has provided some early returns for the challenges that Rasmussen will face. Minor troop increases to Afghanistan along with equipment and reconstruction money have been promised. However the truth is that America is taking over the direct control and command of the Afghanistan war. They are bumping up troop commitments 50% and widening the scope of the engagement to include the Taliban strongholds in northern Pakistan. NATO’s role in Afghanistan is clearly going to be in support of the US action, a friendly face to maintain law and order while rebuilding some key infrastructure, which is NATO’s specialty. It is fairly evident that NATO does not yet have the full ability to conduct a major war against a determined enemy. It’s not that NATO has lost Afghanistan, nor the member countries' armies performed poorly. They have fought to a stalemate due to a lack of political will, not a surprise given the amazing Afghanistan history of resistance to invaders.

The other main challenge to NATO now is clearly Russia. On the Russian front, however, NATO seems to have been given a much larger leadership position. President Obama has made a few very carefully crafted statements after the NATO summit, stating, "It is important for NATO allies to engage Russia and to recognize that they have legitimate interests. In some case, we have common interests, but we also have some core disagreements,” and that "we should be in a dialogue with them about how we can maintain stability while respecting the autonomy and independence of all countries in Europe – west, east, central, wherever they are.”

The statements highlight a few key concepts:

  • NATO will talk often to Russia on any and all issues. The US seems to be following the examples of North Korea and Iran here by engaging in an international way. Engaging Russia through NATO is much stronger than direct US-Russia talks, where heavy media coverage and political pressure are disruptive.
  • NATO would like to handle issues separately and find solutions individually rather than letting one big issue rupture the entire relationship. Given NATO’s response to the Georgian conflict this is a change of policy.
  • There is more than one "core" issue with Russia where neither side seems willing to consider negotiating. These issues seem to be Georgian sovereignty and NATO membership. However in reality the issue is if Russia is going to get to maintain a sphere of influence and if so how big will it be.
  • NATO wants to engage Russia on Georgian sovereignty and the two breakaway republics. Other NATO statements request an immediate and full Russian military withdraw from both areas to start. Recognition of the two breakaway republics as Georgian territory was also confirmed.
  • NATO wants Russia to respect the independence of all countries anywhere in Europe in any decision to join NATO.

What can we expect from Mr. Rasmussen given these issues and the current almost non-existent NATO-Russia relationship? As a master politician he will surely be able to bring Russia back to the negotiating table in a meaningful way. This is where Georgian sovereignty and NATO expansion will be discussed, possibly for years given Russian concerns.

But the more important task Mr. Rasmussen faces is getting Europe to speak with a common voice. The French move to rejoin NATO very soon after negotiating an end to the Georgian conflict clearly shows that European security is tied to NATO now more than ever. There was no European unity in the face of a potentially serious military conflict. This heightened the status of planned European security talks but showed that any result is many years away. It appears that the French have conceded that European security  role up to NATO for now, something conceded by the rest of Europe many years ago.

Mr. Rasmussen will command not only NATO but European security as well. He’s a master of European politics but now he is stepping up to the highest level of power politics. As a European leader he only needed a slick tongue, but as NATO sheriff he is carrying some serious peacemaker guns on his hips to back up that tongue. Europe hasn’t done very well in power politics for many years so it remains questionable how well Mr. Rasmussen will perform.

Mr. Rasmussen has the opportunity to become a great European leader. He could very well become the first real leader of a free Europe. While President Obama is in the limelight now, a new leader rises in Europe.

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