U.S. is open to East European, Canadian for NATO, Volker says

15:25, 02 February 2009
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Poland kicked off the jockeying over the alliance’s top job?

The U.S. is open to the appointment of an eastern European or a Canadian as the next head of NATO, potentially breaking western Europe’s half-century lock on the post, the American envoy to the alliance said, Bloomberg reported.

“We wouldn’t discriminate,” Kurt Volker, U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said in a Bloomberg Television interview in Brussels today. “If the right person comes out of Germany, the right person comes out of central Europe, the right person comes out of Canada, we’re equally open.”

Poland, one of the first ex-Warsaw Pact states to join NATO in 1999, kicked off the jockeying over the alliance’s top job in December by touting Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who has pushed for a hard line against Russia.

Whoever takes over the 26-nation alliance later this year will inherit an unfinished war in Afghanistan, strained defense budgets, tensions with former Cold War foe Russia and doubts over the pace of NATO’s future expansion.

Volker declined to disclose President Barack Obama’s views on the candidates to replace the current secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of the Netherlands, when his term expires at the end of July.

NATO’s Brussels-based civilian chief is traditionally a European. The top military commander, based in Mons, southern Belgium, is an American, currently U.S. Army General John Craddock.

Veto Power

NATO has had 11 secretaries general, all western Europeans, since the post was created in 1952. The appointment, usually for a four-year term, is made by consensus, giving veto power to any one country.

No Canadian has ever run the alliance. Two potential candidates this year are Defense Minister Peter MacKay and former Foreign Minister John Manley, the Economist magazine wrote last month.

Poland’s Oxford-educated Sikorski, 45, brokered plans for a U.S. missile-defense system to be stationed in his country and backed an unsuccessful U.S.-led bid for Ukraine and Georgia to be put on the fast track to alliance membership last year.

An eastern European would provide “an additional insurance policy” against Russia, Sikorski told Die Welt newspaper last month. “Ten years after we joined, it would be normal to consider a candidate from the new NATO countries.”

Others mentioned in the European media as NATO contenders include Solomon Passy, a former foreign minister of Bulgaria; Des Browne, a former U.K. defense secretary; and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere.

‘Balanced View’

“No one should assume that someone from central and eastern Europe is going to have one view of Russia or should assume that someone from western Europe would have a different view,” Volker said. “What we need to do is get someone who can bring a balanced view that unites NATO.”

Reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia in the 1990s was powerless to resist NATO’s embrace of former Warsaw Pact satellites. Now Russia is fighting back, trying to stifle U.S.-led plans to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.

Enriched by oil and gas revenues, Russia has served notice of its determination to regain superpower status by upping military spending, overpowering Georgia’s army in August and cutting off gas shipments through Ukraine this year.

Policy Reversals

In a Bloomberg Television interview last week, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he is “cautiously optimistic” that Obama will reverse Bush administration policies that he blamed for exacerbating East-West tensions.

Chief among these are U.S. support for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia and the anti-missile system in eastern Europe, which the U.S. says would guard against attacks by “rogue” states like Iran and poses no threat to Russia.

In response to the U.S. missile-shield proposal, Russia last year threatened to deploy short-range missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.

Now that Obama has questioned the feasibility of the anti- missile system, Russia suspended its deployment and will scrap it altogether if the U.S. abandons the shield, Interfax reported Jan. 28, citing an unidentified General Staff official.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia last August, NATO halted high-level contacts with Russia and said it may bolster contingency planning to defend eastern European allies such as Poland and the Baltic states.

NATO softened that stance last month, embarking on a “conditional and graduated reengagement with Russia.” De Hoop Scheffer plans to meet Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov at a security conference in Munich on Feb. 6, his highest-level Russian contact since the Georgia war.

That thaw won’t go so far as to invite a high-ranking Russian to this year’s NATO summit, Volker said. As Russian president, Putin attended last year’s summit in Romania.

Germany and France, the hosts of this year’s summit, want a meeting “that is really among the family, those countries that are members of NATO,” Volker said. “I think that’s a very sensible idea.”

While the April 3-4 summit is no “artificial deadline” for picking a new NATO chief, Volker said it would be an ideal time to unveil the choice if the allies agree by then.


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