Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Nato’s secretary-general, will have the least enviable job of any of the leading figures at next week’s summit of the 26-member alliance.
For the past four years, Mr de Hoop Scheffer – who will celebrate his 60th birthday next Thursday – has been in charge of day-to-day running of Nato in one of the most active periods in its 59 year history.
But when the forthcoming summit in Bucharest gets under way, the organisation’s Dutch “chief executive” becomes very much the man in the middle. He will have the job of ensuring harmony among the 26 heads of government sitting round the table on some of the thorniest international issues today – Nato’s military operations in Afghanistan, its relations with Russia and its role in Kosovo.
The good news for Mr de Hoop Scheffer is that on the biggest issue on the Nato agenda – its 47,000 Isaf troop deployment in Afghanistan – next week should see some significant developments.
Recent months have seen serious squabbling among alliance members on burden sharing for the Isaf force. But Mr de Hoop Scheffer has told the Financial Times that the “pieces are coming together”. He is confident the alliance will receive fresh contributions from Nicolas Sarkozy of France, in what will be one of the highlights of the Bucharest meeting. He also says that Canada, which threatened to pull out of Afghanistan if it failed to get sufficient back-up from other countries, “will get the support they have asked for”.
On Afghanistan, there will be a strong focus on spelling out out a “comprehensive approach” to the international operation.
The secretary-general’s message here is that, while Nato’s primary role is to ensure security, it is operating “under Afghan ownership”. Other organisations, meanwhile, such as the United Nations and World Bank, have a big role to play in bolstering the economy and helping the fight against the narcotics trade.
“Nato is an important player,” he says, “but it is not the only player. Nato does not want to co-ordinate others but to co-ordinate with others.” As a result, next week’s summit will be attended by leaders from a range of bodies, including Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary-general, and José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president.
The big political difficulty next week will be over George W. Bush’s plans to move Georgia and Ukraine closer to Nato membership – a development that has infuriated Russia and is being resisted by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.
Mr de Hoop Scheffer knows that he cannot take sides. “My role is to ensure that the flock sticks together and that nobody leaves the field,” he says. However, he concedes that the issue has not yet been resolved and it is uncertain what will happen.
“Nato summits – and I’ve had a few – are usually well prepared, with the heads of states coming in and giving their blessing to a range of issues. But this time, we might have a real summit in the sense that there is something to discuss.”
For Nato these days, the range of operational and policy issues on its plate is daunting. One of the biggest is Nato’s role in the newly independent Kosovo, where 17,000 KFor troops are deployed as a security guarantee.
About 10 days ago, troops from Nato and the UN were involved in serious clashes with Serbian protesters in Kosovo that led to a UN soldier being killed. However, Mr de Hoop Scheffer says the alliance is undaunted. “In the unhappy event that this happens again you will see KFor and UNmik act,” he says.
There are other issues on the agenda next week. The summit will look at the enhanced role the alliance can play in issues such as the fight against cybercrime, where Nato has “a lot of expertise”. It will look, too, at developing a new strategic concept for Nato ahead of its 60th anniversary summit next year. Here, Mr de Hoop Scheffer says a big question is whether the European Union can enhance its defence capability, working in a way that complements what Nato is already doing.
For now, the central question is how Nato leaders will get on next week with Vladmir Putin, the outgoing Russian president.
The secretary-general’s hope is that relations between Russia and the west might be on the verge of improving. He says we should not underestimate the “hopeful, positive results” from recent talks between the US and Russia on Washington’s plans to deploy a missile defence shield in eastern Europe.
But if Mr Putin wants to continue to employ a tough tone, then Mr de Hoop Scheffer believes the Russian leader must calculate carefully.
“My job of keeping the Nato allies together does not become more complicated when Moscow hardens the tone,” he says. “For me, it makes things relatively comfortable. As soon as [Russia] crosses a certain line in the rhetoric, things for me get easier.”
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