NATO's Reach And Strength Put To The Test Embroiled in an escalating Afghanistan conflict and startled by disintegrating relations with Russia, NATO is facing troubling times. NATO's Secretary General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer discusses the evolving nature of the military alliance.
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NATO's Reach And Strength Put To The Test

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Established as a bulwark against the old Soviet Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization transformed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. NATO fought its first war in Kosovo, while it greatly expanded membership and re-emphasized its political side. After 9/11, NATO took on a critical military role in Afghanistan, a war that grows more difficult and dangerous every day. And then, last month the conflict between Georgia and Russia prevented - presented fresh challenges, even in some circles talk of a new Cold War. Jaap De Hoop Scheffer, the secretary general of NATO, is in New York this week to attend the general assembly of the United Nations. If you'd like to talk with him about Russia, Afghanistan, NATO expansion or other problems, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. The secretary general joins us from a studio at the United Nations and Jaap De Hoop Scheffer, welcome to Talk of the Nation.

Mr. JAAP DE HOOP SCHEFFER (Secretary General, NATO): Thank you so much. Pleasure.

CONAN: And talking about the conflict in Georgia, you've said before this was a disproportionate use of force by Russia, that NATO should somehow show support for Georgia. Does that include militarily? Should NATO help rearm Georgia?

Mr. SCHEFFER: Well, that was of course, a message and is a message of political support first and foremost. We have an intensive relationship with Georgia. Georgia is a partner of NATO and in Bucharest in Romania last April, the NATO heads of state and government said, Georgia - and Ukraine, by the way -eventually will become NATO members. So first and foremost, it is political support. At the same time, NATO nations, NATO allies are assisting Georgia in the aftermath of the conflict of August.

CONAN: Assisting them militarily or just doing humanitarian aid and helping to rebuild infrastructure that was destroyed?

Mr. SCHEFFER: It's a bit of both. It is the aftermath of the conflict on several emergency planning. It is for instance, on helping them to establish what we call an air picture so that they can see what's going on in Georgian airspace for commercial traffic of course, first and foremost. We are making an inventory of the state of play after August of their armed forces. But NATO will never as an alliance, for instance, deliver arms to Georgia. That is a matter for individual NATO allies. But NATO as an alliance? The 26th allies, they have of course, an important bond with Georgia and that bond was there before the guns of August, to borrow Barbara Tuchman's book title, and that's still after.

CONAN: You mentioned the equipment to help the Georgians see in Georgian airspace. Well, does Georgian airspace include South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two provinces that have been recognized as independent states now by Russia?

Mr. SCHEFFER: No, this is mainly airspace along the Georgian Turkish border. So, it has nothing to do as such with the conflict because it was there before. It's called Air Situation Data Exchange, and it's mainly focused on the border between Turkey and Georgia. So this was not specifically designed in the aftermath of the August conflict.

CONAN: And we have to ask - the president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev has accused NATO of helping to provoke the fighting in Georgia. At this point, is NATO willing to stand by Georgia and Ukraine? Russia has said it is most - I'm trying to use my words carefully - that that's a red line for them. They would not see Georgia or Ukraine as members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Well, let me start by reacting to the first part of your question. NATO of course did not provoke anything. It would be very bad indeed if NATO would provoke armed conflict. NATO has been invented in 1949 to prevent armed conflict. So there is, of course, not a shimmer of doubt, there can be no shimmer of a doubt, that NATO did not provoke this conflict or any other conflict. And as far as the more general problem of NATO enlargement is concerned - because that's what the second part of your question is about, I have always wondered and I'm still wondering also after August who can be worried or concerned if the family of democratic nations, where democracy prevails, where the rule of law prevails, where respect for human rights prevails, if that family is growing, I can't understand why that should be a threat for anyone.

But I say in the same sentence - and it's unfortunate that after August, our relationship with Russia is not at its best at the moment - I do think that if the perception in Moscow has been and is that NATO enlargement in one way or the other is a danger or a threat, let's discuss this perception with our Russian partners. Because they are still partners although we have a fundamental difference of opinion about August and the aftermath of August. But again, I say who should worry about this family expanding?

CONAN: Our guest is Jaap De Hoop Scheffer, the secretary general of NATO, who's attending the United Nations general assembly this week in New York and joins us from a studio there. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. And let's get a caller in. Greg is on the line from Wichita, Kansas.

GREG (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Greg. Go ahead, please.

GREG: Here we have a situation where we have a small region of a country where we have a different ethnic group. That ethnic group wants independence from the larger country. In their efforts to struggle to get that independence, the larger country comes back with military force and is clearly causing suffering for the civilians in that area, and you have a superpower come in and tell that country, no, you're not going to be allowed to dominate this region. Now let's see, did I just describe Kosovo or did I just describe South Ossetia? I think that description fits both.

CONAN: An analogy that has certainly been presented, Jaap De Hoop Scheffer, in Moscow.

GREG: And...

CONAN: Well, let's give him a chance to respond, Greg.

Mr. SCHEFFER: This is indeed an analogy you'll hear more often. I don't think the argument is a valid one. We should not forget that Kosovo, before it declared its independence, went through a full United Nations-sponsored and organized trajectory with special representatives by the United Nations. Ossetia was a completely different thing - that was indeed force which came in by the superpower, the Russian Federation - in this regard. Of course, before August, there was a conflict on Abkhazia and South Ossetia - I don't deny that. But what has now happened is that Russian massive force came into these two regions, occupied the two regions, recognized the two regions and now say, listen, we have two governments. We are the Russians. We are there on their request. Our troops are not peacekeepers anymore. Our troops are now there because those quote, unquote, governments want us to be there.

It has not been peaceful in the Caucasus unfortunately. It has been very peaceful up til now after the 1999 genocide preventing NATO actions. I think there was no threat of genocide in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in August and there was a clear threat, a beginning of genocide by Milosevic in 1999 in Kosovo. So I think I should disagree with Greg here that you cannot say Ossetia is Kosovo and we have the same scenario here.

CONAN: Greg, thank you.

GREG: Well, I do have another point.

CONAN: If you could make it very quickly because we have limited time. I want to get on to Afghanistan, which is important, too.

GREG: I dispute that the United States, in particular, had no role in leading Georgia to make their attack on South Ossetia. I think the Georgian president in his relations with President Bush was led to believe that he would be backed up by the U.S. in a lot more than he was. And even if he wasn't, George Bush should have been actively discouraging him from any sort of military moves into that region.

CONAN: OK, Greg. Thanks very much for that point. And we're just going to move on. Obviously, Afghanistan is another area of NATO responsibility - not entirely NATO responsibility, though. We did hear today from the U.S. Secretary of Defense that there could be three additional brigades of troops available from the United States for Afghanistan come the spring. Will that come soon enough? Reports from Afghanistan are terrible.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Let me start by saying that we should never forget - I'm in the United Nations building here - that Afghanistan is a United Nations operation based on a Security Council resolution and the U.N. did ask NATO to take military responsibility. It's important to note if we discuss Afghanistan. I think, as such, it's very good news if Secretary Gates announces more U.S. forces in Afghanistan. I think other allies - non-U.S. allies in NATO could follow suit in this regard. We should never forget that the final solution in Afghanistan will not be a military one. We need a political solution. We need a political agenda. We need development and reconstruction, and we need a regional approach where Pakisan plays, of course, a very important role. In other words, yes, I'm happy with this announcement by Secretary Gates and by an extra United States investment - military investment - in Afghanistan. I hope again that the U.S. will not be all by themselves in this regard, but let us not forget that the political side of this meddle is as important as the military one.

CONAN: Well, the president met today with the new leader of Pakistan there in New York and clearly one of the subjects of discussion had to be cross-border attacks. The United States, not NATO, has been making strikes into that western area of Pakistan where this insurgency - the Taliban and al-Qaeda - have been supporting and mounting their war. Is there a military solution? You said there can't be just a military solution. Nevertheless, something has to be done about the support bases there in Pakistan, no?

Mr. SCHEFFER: Oh, indeed. And I do think what I've been seeing and hearing of the new president, Pakistani President Zardari - I'll meet the foreign minister, Kareshi, here in New York tomorrow - is that I do see signals and signs of an investment by the government. And I think that President Zardari realizes very well, like President Karzai in Kabul in Afghanistan, by the way, and like us in NATO in Brussels, that the same people who tried to destroy Afghanistan - destabilize Afghanistan - are exactly the same people as the guys who are trying to destabilize Pakistan. So we have a lot in common here. I think we have and we should have one single agenda, which is the agenda of fighting extremism and the border plays a very important role there - this cross-border traffic of people who create havoc in Afghanistan. As long as we realize, the Afghani side, the Pakistani side and the side of the international community, that we are in this all together, I think we can also find our way out and extremism will not have the chance it has at this very moment.

CONAN: Jaap De Hoop Scheffer, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it and good luck to you in New York.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Jaap De Hoop Scheffer, secretary general of NATO joined us from a studio at the United Nations in New York where he's attending the general assembly. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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