The Nato headquarters, a former Brussels hospital, is not the most stylish of buildings. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the organisation’s secretary general and a former Danish prime minister, has tried to give his own office a Scandinavian twist. Light grey Arne Jacobsen sofas are positioned at precise right-angles. His desk – also Danish – is made of sleek black mahogany and is similarly uncluttered. Rasmussen introduced them shortly after taking over from the former UK defence secretary, George Robertson, a Scot with less interest in soft furnishings. “I inherited some… Cold War- inspired furniture,” he says, laughing.
Rasmussen has tried to stamp his influence on all aspects of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, a body that is still struggling to find a role more than two decades after the end of the Cold War, which it was established to fight. In some ways it has become a quasi-UN force, leading multilateral military intervention when the UN Security Council is unable to agree (Kosovo 1999) and enforcing UN resolutions when speed is of the essence (Libya 2011).
The successful action in Libya has given Nato a much-needed morale boost, although with most of its members experiencing deep defence cuts, not to mention the spectre of Syria, the threat of cyber attacks and the rise of China, the final year of Rasmussen’s first term will be no less difficult.
Monocle: Was the Libya operation a success?
Anders Fogh Rasmussen: Absolutely. A great success. It was a historic event. Firstly because the UN Security Council adopted a resolution to protect a civilian population against attacks from its own government. Next, because Nato decided to take responsibility for the conduct of that operation and we made that decision quickly. The European allies took the lead, together with Canada, for the first time in the history of our alliance. And thirdly we got the active support of countries in that region. It couldserve as a model for similar operations in the future.
M: Did you ever have concerns about the lack of a plan B?
AFR: No. We didn’t have a plan B because failure was not an option.
M: But failure is always an option isn’t it?
AFR: Yes, but if you have the will and the capacity to see it through to a successful end you can [succeed].
M: You say it could be used as a model for similar operations. How about in Syria?
AFR: No, we don’t have concrete plans for intervention in other countries. I just mention it as a hypothetical situation.
M: Is a UN Security Council resolution always a prerequisite?
AFR: We have stated in our strategic concept that Nato operates on the basis of the principles of the UN charter.
M: That’s not a yes.
AFR: No. Actually, in the 1990s you have seen Nato take action in Kosovo to prevent genocide. There was no explicit UN mandate but that operation took place on the principles of the UN charter.
M: Nato has been in Afghanistan for 11 years. Why are western troops still there?
AFR: To prevent the country becoming a safe haven for terrorists who use Afghanistan as a launching pad for attacks against our societies.
M: So why are we not in Pakistan? In Yemen? In Somalia?
AFR: We can’t solve all the crises, conflicts and disputes in the world. The decision to engage in Afghanistan was a direct consequence of the terrorist attacks on September 11.
M: Did the West take its eye off the ball by focusing on Iraq rather than Afghanistan?
AFR: I don’t see a link. I do believe that the international community underestimated the challenge in Afghanistan. Several times the international community more or less abandoned Afghanistan and that’s a mistake. We do not abandon Afghanistan. We stay committed.
M: Looking back at the Afghanistan mission, will it be regarded as a success or failure?
AFR: It has been a great success because since we initiated the military operation in Afghanistan you haven’t seen it as a safe haven for terrorist groups.
M: You believe it’s been a great success?
AFR: It is a great success but of course there is still work to do. I spoke openly about lessons learned from the operation but we are now seeing an improvement in the security situation.
M: Let’s talk about Nato’s remit. How has it changed since the end of the Cold War?
AFR: During the Cold War there was one enemy: the Warsaw Pact. After the Cold War we realised that the security challenges are much more diverse. We have seen international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, cyber security. Who would have expected piracy to become one of those modern challenges?
M: The West is making defence cuts. How can we maintain military capabilities?
AFR: The key word here is cooperation. More multinational projects instead of national solutions. Pooling and sharing of resources is the way forward.
M: You head an Atlantic alliance but the coming conflicts may well be in the Pacific. What will Nato’s role be in this region?
AFR: We have no intention to establish a permanent military presence in the Asia-Pacific area but we are looking to develop stronger partnerships with countries in the region. We are working with like-minded nations. We strongly believe in cooperative security. It’s not in Asia but with Asia.
M: China would say it’s “in”.
AFR: Our current operations are based on UN mandates. With four out of five of the permanent members we have a structured dialogue. Three of them are members. And with the fourth, Russia, we have a special partnership within the Nato council. With the fifth, China, we don’t have a structured dialogue.
M: Would you like to?
AFR: We would like to see a strengthened dialogue with China. Based on our experience with the European Atlantic we believe that partnerships can contribute in a valuable way to maintaining international peace and stability. That concept can also contribute to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.