x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Nato's walking wounded

Dubbed Denmark's Tony Blair, he seldom put a foot wrong as prime minister, despite facing crises such as the Iraq war and the outcry over blasphemous cartoons of the Prophet. Then, on the eve of his greatest triumph, he slipped on a hotel stair.

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Dubbed Denmark's Tony Blair, he seldom put a foot wrong as prime minister, despite facing crises such as the Iraq war and the outcry over blasphemous cartoons of the Prophet. Then on the eve of his greatest triumph he slipped on a hotel stair. During one his first public appearances as the new Nato secretary general designate last weekend, Anders Fogh Rasmussen promised that he would be even more watchful of religious and cultural sensitivities than he had been when he served for eight years as Denmark's prime minister. Some in the audience could have been forgiven for wondering if he should generally be more careful of his personal safety, for he appeared at this press conference with his arm swathed in a bandage - the result, not of some altercation with an Islamist zealot, but of one of those embarrassing little accidents that can befall men when they achieve important office and get a little carried away with themselves.

He had apparently tripped down the stairs of his Istanbul hotel where he was staying as he waited for his appointment to Nato to be confirmed, and dislocated his shoulder. Danes, and the wider Nato military leadership, can only hope this will not prove to be a bad omen. Rasmussen has had early warning of the sort of problems that can engulf a man in a politically sensitive position, for it was his misfortune to be Danish prime minister in 2005 when a Copenhagen newspaper published a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

The cartoons were designed not just to test the limits of free speech, but specifically to cause offence, just to see what happened. In the event, a lot happened. Rasmussen was arguably slow to see the potential damage in what he later conceded was to become Denmark's greatest political crisis since 1945. Initially he took a strict line in support of the country's traditional liberal belief in freedom of expression. He backed the newspaper editor, and he declined to hold a meeting with a group of ambassadors representing 11 Muslim countries who wanted to express their revulsion.

As crowds swelled on the streets of Danish cities, the crisis culminated in the torching of Danish diplomatic missions in the Arab world, and mass boycotts of Danish products. Scores of protesters died in violent incidents in various capitals. Consignments of Danish agricultural products were ceremoniously burned on the streets. It was ugly, for Denmark generally does not go around the world picking fights, though the broader Danish population, alarmed by the high levels of immigration and the way they tested traditional Scandinavian liberal traditions, rallied in support of their centre-right prime minister.

And it was to create a specific problem four years later when the main Nato players, led by US President Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, decided that Rasmussen was the ideal man to oversee the transformation of Nato as it adapts in the new order. The Turkish government, a key component in the Nato alliance and its only predominantly Muslim member, showed its teeth and initially refused to back Rasmussen's appointment.

The problem was that one of the ambassadors Rasmussen had refused to see during the cartoon incident was from Turkey, a slight that came back to cause aggravation. So there was a stand-off which threatened to overshadow Nato's 60th birthday celebrations in Strasbourg last weekend, and stymie the progress of the man who was about to take on the most important international job to be filled by a Dane, ever.

President Obama was forced to intervene. In a series of late night phone calls, he offered Ankara sweeteners, including an assurance a Turk would serve as a deputy secretary general. Rasmussen was required to say the right thing, over and over again, to various audiences. "I respect Islam as one of the world's major religions as well as its religious symbols," he intoned. His diplomatic offensive was ultimately considered sufficiently self-abasing, and in the end peace was restored, and Rasmussen won the prize.

Denmark is a charming, self-deprecating little country, with an extremely well-educated population, and one of the highest standards of living in the world. It is a generally conformist sort of place: its people forged a cosy, non-antagonist relationship with German occupiers during the Second World War, an episode which Danes still prefer not to talk about, though all of them are profoundly aware of it.

One of the first things Rasmussen did in office was to publicly break with the political convention of not mentioning the war, and the Danes' collective decision not to be part of it. That was a courageous move which won plaudits in Britain and the United States, but made him more enemies at home. Rasmussen, born in Jutland in 1953, four years after Nato's inception, is an economist by background who became leader of the centre-right Liberal (Venstre) party, which emerged as the leader of the coalition government in 2001.

For his un-Danish belief in cutting rates of personal taxation and reducing the size of government, Rasmussen was initially, and inevitably, labelled as Denmark's Margaret Thatcher. But then his former allies on the right grew weary of him as he migrated towards the centre-ground, economically at least, so equally inevitably was he called Denmark's Tony Blair. For sure, he has Blair's charisma, though is much better looking, with chiselled features, impeccable teeth, and an imposing physique that betrays his passion for running and cycling - he has completed sections of the Tour de France. His conspicuous good looks triggered one of the most bizarre interchanges in recent European diplomacy with the Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi. During a joint press conference, Berlusconi, seemingly in despair at his wife's extramarital canoodling with an Italian philosopher, suggested she would be much better off dallying with Rasmussen, whom he described as the most handsome prime minister in Europe.

Rasmussen, standing at the Italian's side behind the podium during this excruciating exchange, looked as baffled as he was clearly embarrassed by Berlusconi's peculiar intervention. Rasmussen is right-wing only by Danish standards, though as his coalition grouping won three general elections in a row, he did draw on the support of the People's Party, which most Danes regard as having unpleasantly xenophobic tendencies and no sympathy for would-be asylum seekers, or those who fall between the cracks in Danish society.

Rasmussen's political success in Denmark was that he could be attractive to voters who think there are generally too many foreigners in the country; they could express that view by supporting him without going to the extreme lengths of voting for the People's Party. Rasmussen is unusual in that he is simultaneously, and unquestioningly, for the European Union, while unblinkingly Atlanticist. He broke with the traditions of Scandinavian foreign policy by backing President George W Bush in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and even provided 500 Danish troops to the mission.

There was intense opposition at home to this support for Washington, but it did Rasmussen as little harm electorally as it did Tony Blair in Britain, for both men won general elections after their respective deployments which, at the time, seemed to many to be electorally suicidal. Rasmussen has the drive and ambition that will be needed to forge a new role for Nato, at a time when many Europeans and Americans are wondering what the military alliance is actually for.

It became glaringly obvious at last weekend's 60th birthday bash that for all Europe's protestations about the centrality of Nato in the new military order, Paris, Berlin and the other important European members will not be underwriting that rhetoric with boots on the ground. As usual, it will be America alone (with a cameo role from Britain) and not Nato, which will have to go back into Afghanistan in numbers to sort out the mission that appears to be unravelling there.

Rasmussen, his old friends say, dreamed of becoming Danish prime minister as a schoolboy; he has planned for this important Nato job over many years, and showed determination in achieving it. He is known to be driven, to be keen to make his pleasant Scandinavian country punch above its historic weight. His Danish political opponents concede it would be foolish to underestimate him, or his determination.

If he can stay on his feet in the months ahead, and not slip down any treacherous diplomatic staircases and bust his shoulder, he may yet succeed in reshaping Nato, and confound those sceptics who speak so noisily of its inevitable decline and irrelevance in this more complicated age. * The National