How War Tests the Allies

The Dutch government fell over its part in the Afghan war—just the latest strain on NATO’s unity. Richard Wolffe talks to Secretary General Rasmussen and Madeleine Albright about its growing pains.

NATO has at least two big challenges that will determine its future as the world’s strongest military alliance. One is on the battlefield in Afghanistan, where the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban has drained its resources and political will for several years. The Dutch government collapsed last weekend in large part because the left-of-center Labour Party made a promise to pull troops out of the Afghan war.

The other challenge is what NATO stands for. After two decades of expansion, and two out-of-area wars—in Kosovo and Afghanistan—the alliance is rewriting its strategic mission. That means going beyond the traditional concept of mutual self-defense, under Article Five of the North Atlantic treaty. With the help of an expert panel, led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, NATO is trying to plan for the next decade.

“It’s understandable that people are impatient,” said Rasmussen, of the Dutch government’s collapse over its role in the Afghan war. “They want to see clear progress on the ground."

Albright makes for an unusual partner with NATO’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Danish prime minister. She was President Clinton’s chief diplomat and a sharp critic of Bush’s foreign policy. He led a right-of-center government and was one of President Bush’s closest allies in Europe, committing Danish troops to the invasion of Iraq.

The two gave an exclusive interview to The Daily Beast just before Rasmussen delivered a speech on Monday at Georgetown University, where Albright teaches at the School of Foreign Service.

The Daily Beast: With what happened to the Dutch government over the weekend, have the politics of war and the politics of NATO changed?

Secretary General Rasmussen: Basically no. But obviously our mission in Afghanistan puts focus on what is territorial defense in today’s world. Territorial defense of our nations and populations has been the core task of NATO since it was established 61 years ago and will remain the core task. However we have to realize that to defend our own borders we very often have to go far away, like in Afghanistan. So in that respect you may say that the nature of collective defense has changed. But it’s still with the aim of ensuring a strong, credible territorial defense.

Do you think this idea of out-of-area operations in Afghanistan is harder for the public to grasp? Do they have less of an appetite for enduring longer operations, difficult wars, because they are not engaged in direct self-defense? It’s indirect self-defense.

Rasmussen: Indeed it is a bigger challenge to communicate a strong narrative. But we have to repeat the clear message that we are in Afghanistan primarily to protect and defend our own populations against terrorism. If Afghanistan once again became a safe haven for terrorists, they could easily spread through central Asia and further, not to speak about the risk of destabilizing neighboring Pakistan, a nuclear power. That would be a very dangerous situation. So basically it’s the same notion but the message should be conveyed convincingly. And it is indeed, communications-wise, a bigger challenge than in the past.

Civilian casualties. This isn’t the first time you’re facing this. If NATO’s mission is not just about winning wars, but a broader nation-building enterprise, is NATO better suited to fighting wars or the humanitarian, population-driven goals of what you’re trying to do in Afghanistan?

Rasmussen: It’s not either/or. It is both. We should realize that there’s no military solution solely to the problems in Afghanistan. We have to reinforce the interaction between military efforts and civilian reconstruction and development. And this is exactly the core element in our new strategy. We have increased the number of troops significantly, but at the same time the international community has committed itself to increased development assistance and the Afghan government has committed itself to better governance and in particular strengthening the fight against terrorism and the drugs trade. And the ultimate goal is to hand over responsibility to the Afghans themselves. And you see this new strategy displayed in the current operation in Helmand.

Tell me about the partnership the two of you have formed. You are working independently and together as well.

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Former Secretary of State Albright: First of all, we exist because the heads of state got together at the Strasbourg summit and said that there should be an experts’ group that was independent and would work with the Secretary General, who will in fact be writing the Strategic Concept. I think that’s the part that is very important. We are going to provide building blocks for various aspects as a result of our work, but it’s the Secretary General’s responsibility to actually write the Strategic Concept. But I have met with him a number of times. He has met with the experts’ group. We have sat together at the North Atlantic Council. So I think we are very much in tandem. I think it’s a very comfortable relationship.

Your experience in the Clinton administration came at a different time: the post-Cold War era, a historic expansion of NATO, but also before 9/11. And Secretary General, your experience was of the political challenges post-9/11 and through the Iraq war. Are the two periods connected in some way? Do they give you different perspectives of what NATO is and can be?

Albright: I actually think there’s not a divergence, because you don’t start de novo. NATO is an organization that is 60 years old. Having passed that age, I can tell you that everybody needs a little refurbishing. But I think the part that provides a common thread is that post-Cold War, NATO had to change. So the evolution of NATO through the '90s when in fact there were two Strategic Concepts that were written at the time, that basically were pivoting NATO to deal with out-of-area issues, as well as to protect the Article Five countries and to be open to expansion. The experiences we had in Kosovo with an out-of-area operation, while clearly before 9/11, did in fact provide some basis for some of the actions later. And then actually I haven’t been in a cave since 2000.

I didn’t mean to suggest that.

Albright: It’s very obvious that what we have to look at are the whole series of new environments and new threats that the Secretary General was talking about. That increases the issues that NATO has to deal with, while— and this is the real challenge for all of us—keeping the central concept of what NATO is about, which is the defense of its members, and then how you take it out wider. I think the thing that the Secretary General really has provided fabulous and important leadership on is that we have to explain what NATO is doing. So we have been very transparent. That is something that he is pressed us to keep doing, which is to be inclusive and transparent and speak in some language that non-experts can understand. So that’s been the directive in some ways that we have.

There seemed to be a political drive to expand NATO after the Cold War, to increase the group of nations to include the former Communist bloc. There’s also this line of going after terrorism as a vital mission for NATO as a whole. Can you do both at the same time? Can you expand but also have a highly focused counterterrorism mission?

Rasmussen: Yes indeed. I think it’s two sides of the same coin. But let me say first of all that in our thinking I feel that Madeleine Albright and I are very much in line with each other. And I see a direct link between what happened in the '90s and what happened after 9/11. NATO took the first steps out of area during Madeleine Albright’s tenure as secretary of State. As an active politician at that time, I was very much in favor of that. So based on that, I have seen it as a quite natural development that NATO also took on the responsibility to fight terrorism in the wake of 9/11. And let me remind you that the first time Article Five of NATO was invoked in the history of the alliance was on the 12th of September 2001, when a united alliance declared that terrorist attacks on the United States should be considered an attack on all alliance members. That is the essence of Article Five. That is the solidarity clause on which NATO is based. So I see a clear link here. And there’s no contradiction between a focused fight against terrorism and a continuation of our open-door policy. On the contrary, it takes a joint international effort to fight international terrorism effectively.

And I can assure you that NATO’s open-door policy will continue. Actually our open-door policy is based on Article Ten of the NATO treaty, according to which we may invite any European country that is able to improve Euro-Atlantic security and further the principles of the treaty.

Albright: You make it sound a little bit as if our taking in new countries is something of a philanthropic operation. It is not. It is a way to enhance NATO. In terms of whether countries are members, they take on responsibilities and obligations. It strengthens the solidarity the Secretary General was talking about and does in fact contribute forces and a number of different aspects. They add to NATO. They don’t subtract from NATO.

It doesn’t make the organization unwieldy? In languages, bureaucracy, agreement between different countries?

Albright: It has clearly expanded it. Among the various things that we are charged to look at, are various issues to do with processes.

If you’ve had to struggle, or go through an extended process, to come up with a strategic mission for an organization, what does that say about the organization?

Albright: I don’t think we’re going through that. First of all, there has been a new Strategic Concept every 10 years, so this is not unusual. I think it’s a responsible process, not an extended process. You have to understand that this is part of a systematic way that the alliance has looked at itself every 10 years.

Rasmussen: It shows that it’s a dynamic living alliance, which has been expanded from 16 member states when we adopted the current Strategic Concept in 1999, to now 28 members.

We have to talk about Russia. Do you think their concerns about NATO have abated over the years, since you were secretary of State?

Albright: I have to say I think it’s mixed. We were just there and various groups see it differently. But they just put out their military doctrine that would indicate it has not abated. But the secretary general was there and there is also a reaffirmation of the NATO-Russia Council and every attempt to make things work. There’s no question that the Georgia war created a variety of complications. But we’ll have to see. We deliberately went to go and listen to them. And I think it’s a mixed bag.

What did you find? Did they welcome you in Moscow or wonder why you’re there?

Rasmussen: They welcomed me. Actually we have achieved some progress in our relationship since I took office on the first of August last year. The NATO-Russia Council has been reinvigorated. We have lively political discussions in the Council. We have agreed on important documents and decisions, a work program for 2010, a reform package which will make the NATO-Russia Council more dynamic. And last but not least, we have agreed to prepare what we call a joint review of 21st century common security challenges. Which is a very important project because the aim is to map out areas in which we see common security threats and then develop practical cooperation on the basis of that. Afghanistan is one example where we share interests with Russia. Terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, piracy. And we are now going through these areas with the aim to develop practical cooperation in those areas, while of course we have to realize that there will still be disagreements with Russia. We have disputes on Georgia, or our open-door policy, and that will continue. But that should not overshadow the fact that there are a number of areas where we share interests with Russia.

Did President Bush’s term make NATO’s challenge harder in terms of keeping European countries, especially, in line with the mission?

Albright: Yes. I can say this. I think that there was—I just finished teaching class and we were talking about this—basically there was a much more unilateral approach. I think that there was generally a question about whether the U.S. was operating in partnership with a variety of countries. The secretary general mentioned that NATO activated Article Five in solidarity and the truth is that was not picked up on. So I think that things evolved in the course of the eight years, but my sense is that there was generally a question in terms of how America was going to operate with alliances or the U.N. And I keep saying that President Obama's middle name is partnership because he has been reaching out.

Rasmussen: The fact is that we know the decision on Iraq caused a split inside Europe. But what I can say is that I appreciate that the current administration attaches a great importance to consultation with allies. The current administration is strongly committed to NATO as an alliance. And I also think it’s fair to say that in response to that, allies have stepped up to the plate. I mean after President Obama announced the 30,000 American troop increase, 35 allies and partners followed suit, pledged more troops, and we have more or less reached the 40,000 troop goal as recommended by General McChrystal. This is of utmost importance because it keeps the mission in Afghanistan an alliance mission. It’s not just America’s war.

Although judging from the Netherlands, it’s not like things have started again from scratch. The legacy of the last several years is still being played out in European politics, right?

Rasmussen: Well I think the situation in the Netherlands is unique and very much influenced by domestic political factors. The fact is that 35 allies and partners followed suit once President Obama had announced an additional American troop contribution. And though there is a discussion in many European countries, so is the case in the United States, as regards to our mission in Afghanistan. There is still a strong commitment from all governments to our mission in Afghanistan. But it’s understandable that people are impatient. They want to see clear progress on the ground. This is exactly the core element in our new strategy. That we will hand over in a gradual process the responsibility to the Afghans. That will be a visible progress that people can actually see on the map that Afghans take real responsibility in bigger and bigger parts of their country.

By the time of the next strategic review, in 10 years, what will NATO look like? How big will it be, what kind of missions will it be undertaking?

Albright: I think it’s hard to answer because the world is changing so rapidly. I do think the core Article Five aspects, which are at the heart of the operation, will be the same. What we’re looking at is how to make NATO a flexible tool in an unpredictable world. And I think the unpredictability of the world is more and more unpredictable. I think it is harder and harder. Therefore what you have to develop is an alliance of countries with similar values and determination to deal with the unpredictability. NATO will have that central core. The unpredictability will be what makes it different.

Rasmussen: I am very much in line with that. Our open-door policy will continue, so I would envisage more member states than today. We know that a number of countries are knocking on our door. We will see an alliance which is better suited to address new security challenges like cyber security, energy security, climate change and other new security challenges. And last but not least, it’s my vision at least that we will also see a new NATO structure as regards command structures, headquarters, which is leaner and more efficient.

Richard Wolffe is a Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.