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Opinion: NATO's Safe Choice

With NATO locked in internal strife, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of the Netherlands is conflict-free choice as the new secretary general of the alliance.

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Jaap de Hoop Scheffer: New hope for NATO?

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a Christian Democrat from the Netherlands, was among the first to speak out in favor of the United States proceeding in the war against Iraq without a United Nations mandate. Though in contrast to his counterparts in Spain, Italy and Britain he was barely audible in the cacophony of European voices, his "yes" went down well in Washington.

The lawyer, who is seen as a bit of a bore in his native Holland consistently stresses the importance of Europe in the alliance and the role it has to play in ensuring NATO is equipped to deal with future issues. The new candidate is also in favor of a particular military role, which pleases both the "old" and "new" Europeans, as U.S. Defense Minister Donald Rumsfeld dubbed those nations opposed to and in favor of the U.S. stance, respectively.

Clever mediator

Hoop Scheffer's political contemporaries speak highly of his outstanding ability to forge compromises and the skill with which he balances on diplomatic tightropes. His one-time superior, the former Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Broek once referred to Hoop Scheffer as a man who was born to walk on egg shells, which is currently a much needed quality back at NATO headquarters. Gone is the Cold War era when a NATO leader could give off a mere growl to keep the Warsaw Pact in check. These days the top diplomat needs a honed dove-like coo if he is to keep the illustrious 17, soon to be 26, member nations on course, and succeed at building the apparently necessary maze of bridges between the two sides of the Atlantic.

The U.S., which is undoubtedly the greatest military might in the alliance, sees NATO as a kind of toolbox to be used in the handling of missions such as that of international security troops in Afghanistan. On the other side of the coin there is Europe which favors an independent military role, and the new alliance leader will have to negotiate between these two poles.

A harmless leader

Overall, the relative ease with which Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was elected to head up the alliance is an indication that the meaning of the transatlantic alliance is no longer such that London, Paris, Berlin or London felt it worth igniting a full-scale row over personnel issues.

De Hoop Scheffer will harm no one, although France uttered some initial skepticism about the man who was reported to have an excellent relationship to U.S. President George W. Bush. That particular rumor seeped out into the world when, during an interview with the U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney at the start of September, de Hoop Scheffer was spontaneously joined by the president himself as he coincidentally entered the room and sat down to join in. Paris was soon soothed into giving the Dutch man a chance with news that de Hoop Scheffer is not only in favor of a strong Europe, but also speaks fluent French, and even considers watching French movies one of his hobbies.

Back home in the Netherlands, NATO's new leader's own political party had refused to let him run as a candidate for prime minister on the grounds that his charisma was simply not up to the job. But Jan Peter Balkenende who ultimately led the Christian Democrats to election victory rewarded his political contemporary with the post of foreign minister.

Now both de Hoop Scheffer and the Netherlands are being rewarded again, this time for remaining faithful to the U.S., whose leaders evidently don't count charisma as a prerequisite for the job.

Bernd Riegert is Deutsche Welle's Brussels correspondent.

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