Few mourn as the blunt Belgian packs his bags

SARAH HELM

Brussels

By all accounts, Willy Claes was a good Nato secretary-general, as Nato secretary-generals go. He was an efficient administrator and a good mediator. Some alliance leaders - particularly the Americans - were sorry to see him go, having lent him public support until the last.

But staff at Nato headquarters had no such sentiments. A blunt Belgian, Mr Claes was not a popular boss. Distant, unpredictable and charmless was how he was described by many yesterday. In the eyes of proud Nato loyalists, his refusal to resign earlier besmirched the reputation of the alliance.

The Secretary-General has a largely administrative and brokering role. Under alliance rules, the job always goes to a European. The US always appoints the two Nato military chiefs, the supreme allied commanders for the Atlantic and for Europe. If the US can maintain its men at the military pinnacle it is happy to let the Europeans run the bureaucracy.

The Secretary-General's job is not one that carries the kudos or political clout of some other top international postings, which is why few high- ranking politicians from big countries are interested unless they are thinking of retirement, like Lord Carrington, Secretary-General 1984-1988.

It is often respected politicians from smaller countries who line up for the job, and this time round Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, former Danish foreign minister, and Ruud Lubbers, former Dutch prime minister, are front-runners. The post apparently carried too little money (pounds 175,000 a year) or prestige to lure Douglas Hurd, the former British Foreign Secretary, but Britain, which has indicated that it sees both Mr Lubbers and Mr Elleman-Jensen as lacklustre candidates, is believed to be considering trying to persuade him to change his mind. Mr Hurd reaffirmed his decision not to apply yesterday, but sources in Nato believe he could be won round to "serve his country.".

Although 2,000 diplomats and staff work at Nato's Brussels headquarters, most answer to their national delegations. The Nato chief has only a small staff and not much role in initiating policy. However, as an operational manager the Secretary-General is the linchpin and will play a key role in the task now facing Nato, the peace-enforcement force for former Yugoslavia.

The Secretary-General's prime tasks are to act as chairman at the weekly meetings of the North Atlantic Council, the group of 16 Nato ambassadors who gather every Wednesday at the Brussels headquarters, and to heal divisions between member states by proposing compromise. Much Nato diplomacy is directly between capitals, bypassing Brussels altogether.

The Secretary-General travels the world, mediating. Mr Claes should have been at the UN's 50th anniversary meeting in New York this weekend.Instead, he will be packing his bags and moving out of his official residence The last deal he brokered was to be allowed to stay in the house for a few days.

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