Monday, February 14, 2005

"New Rumsfeld" meets "old Europe"

Famous for his dismissal of France and Germany as "old Europe" – two months before US-led forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, has bearded the lion’s den and is now in Germany on an official visit.

Addressing a security conference of 250 senior diplomats and security experts in Munich, however, he side-stepped any criticism with hallmark charm and humour, attributing his earlier remark to “old Rumsfeld.”

But, if Rumsfeld wowed the conference, Schröder managed to put his foot in it, without being there, being too ill with influenza to attend. In a speech delivered for him by defence minister Peter Struck, he argued that "the environment for Atlantic cooperation has changed," calling for a drastic overhaul of Nato and a bigger voice for Europe

Described by The Independent as souring “carefully choreographed efforts to heal transatlantic wounds”, his text said that Nato risked becoming outdated and was "no longer the primary venue where transatlantic partners discuss and co-ordinate strategies".

The text proposed setting up a commission to propose improvements by the start of next year, and said "dialogue between the EU and the US neither reflects Europe's growing weight nor corresponds with new requirements of trans-atlantic co-operation".

The International Herald Tribune has Rumsfeld "brushing off" Schröder’s idea for a commission, declaring that: "We are already reviewing NATO's structures." In a clear put-down, he added, "Nato has a great deal of energy and vitality. I believe they are undertaking the kinds of reforms to bring the institution into the 21st century. The place to discuss transatlantic issues clearly is Nato."

Schröder, though, has his own agenda, not least his ambition for a seat on the UN Security Council, and his suggestion of "a high-ranking panel of independent figures from both sides of the Atlantic to help us find a solution" for dealing with disputes is startlingly similar to a panel advising the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, on how to renew his organization.

Nevertheless, Schröder's proposals came as a surprise, both to Rumsfeld - and to Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, general secretary of NATO, who was also at the conference. In the wake of the visit by US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, they are being seen as less than diplomatic, evoking a rebuke from fellow German, General Harald Kujat, chairman of NATO's military committee. "The proposals were clumsily formulated," he said.

They comes at a time when Bush is about to make his first visit to Europe since his re-election, in what is styled as an effort to mend trans-Atlantic relations, with a visit to the NATO headquarters in Brussels planned, where he hopes to shore up support from the other 25 member states for training the Iraqi security forces.

But, in a further rebuff to the US, German foreign minister Joschka Fischer has rejected any idea of a greater role for Nato in Iraq, in the context of delays in plans to increase the number of Nato trainers for Iraqi security forces.

Thus, while "old Rumsfeld" may be no longer, it looks very much as if "old Europe" is still very much in evidence.