Robertson to build bridges with Russia

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THE DEFENCE Secretary,George Robertson, spoke yesterday about the delicate diplomatic balancing act he will have to perform as he takes the helm of Nato going into a 21st century of " trouble and turbulence".

Mr Robertson, unanimously approved as the new Secretary General by the 19 member nations of the alliance, said he would help develop a coherent defence strategy for Western Europe which would not alienate the US. At the same time, he will have to ensure that Russia does not feel threatened.

The appointment represents a triumph of lobbying by Tony Blair on his minister's behalf. It follows the failure to get the post of UN Kosovo administrator for Paddy Ashdown. Mr Robertson said that he believed he got the job because of his experience but that his blunt style also played a part. "A combination of straight talking, plain commonsense and a dogged determination to get to where I think is the right place to go was an attraction," he said.

He acknowledged that one of his priorities would be to allay Russian apprehension about the expansion of the alliance. He said: "Obviously we shall have to address some of the misconceptions the Russians have about Nato. We shall have to ensure that they understand that Kosovo was not some sort of a marching station towards Russia - we went there for humanitarian reasons.... We shall have to reach out to Russia, Ukraine and Russia's other neighbours in the search for a safer continent."

Mr Robertson's advisers say he will also have to address the issue of relations with America's defence establishment following the public revelations of clashes between Lt-Gen Sir Mike Jackson, the British commander of Nato's Kosovo Force, and the US General Wesley Clark, the alliance's supreme commander. It has emerged that during the crisis, Gen Jackson refused Gen Clark's orders to send assault troops and helicopters into Pristina airport to block Russian forces, saying: "I am not going to start the Third World War for you."

Mr Robertson's task should be made easier by the fact that he has enjoyed a good relationship with Washington for some time and was a trans- Atlanticist even when the Labour Party was flirting with unilateral nuclear disarmament. His Nato candidature had received the strong backing of the US.

Mr Robertson said there was a need to strengthen the European input into Nato, adding: "The European countries spend about two-thirds of what the United States of America spends on defence but we do not have anything like two-thirds of the capability," he said. "That is because we compete with each other, we duplicate each other: that era is now over." This did not mean spending more, he said, but nor did he want to see further big cuts in defence spending. "You cannot keep taking a peace dividend if there is no peace,"

He insisted that Nato remained as relevant to the security of Europe as it was at its birth. "In Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, Nato showed it was as needed as it had been in the four decades before," he said. "My job now is to take the 20th century's most successful security alliance and fit it for the turbulence and troubles of the century ahead of us."

Mr Robertson refused to rule out a return to domestic politics once his four-year term was over, saying he would hardly be an elder statesman when his appointment came to an end. "You would be well advised not to rule out anything in politics," he added.

Mr Robertson's appointment was welcomed by all the major political parties. The Prime Minister said: "George Robertson has all the qualities to make a success of this important job. Nato could not be in better hands as the alliance enters the new millennium." Iain Duncan Smith, the shadow Defence Secretary, said: "It is good to have a British politician as secretary general, as the UK is crucial to Nato." Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, Menzies Campbell, said: "There is a strong feeling that the UK has been missing out on important international positions. This appointment, which is eminently deserved, will redress that balance and extend British influence."