Nato goes Dutch and appoints safe Foreign Minister as secretary general

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Nato opted for a safe pair of hands yesterday when it handed Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the Dutch Foreign Minister, the alliance's top job.

Mr de Hoop Scheffer, who replaces Lord Robertson of Port Ellen as Nato secretary general, has a mandate to mend relations between Europe and America. He is seen as a bridge builder who combines pro-American credentials with diplomatic experience in the EU.

The appointment was rubber-stamped by Nato ambassadors yesterday when it became clear that the only other candidate, John Manley, Canada's Deputy Prime Minister, had not won enough backing. The decision ends a difficult search for a successor to Lord Robertson who, during his four-year term of office, had to deal with international crises including the deep Nato split over the war in Iraq.

The divisions over Iraq put a new onus on finding a candidate thought capable of managing the divisions between the US and several of its European allies.Mr de Hoop Scheffer has impressed colleagues this year with his chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Several people were canvassed as successors to Lord Robertson, including the Italian Defence Minister Antonio Martino and Kristin Krohn Devold, Norway's Defence Minister. She who would have been the first woman to hold Nato's top job. Where Ms Devold would have brought charisma to the alliance, Mr de Hoop Scheffer was the "safety first" candidate. One Nato diplomat said yesterday: "He is straightforward, experienced and judicious. He may lack the excitement some people were looking for but, when you look at what qualities are needed, he has most of them."

Lord Robertson said that his successor "has impressed all his colleagues with his judgment and grasp of the issues". There was a limited pool of possible successors since many nations were barred by convention from putting up a candidate. The secretary general is traditionally a European, and countries which have recently filled the post, such as the UK and Spain, are disqualified.