How times change. Willy Claes, the shrewd Belgian politician who has just taken over the job, faces a daunting agenda.
Two key questions for the present 16 members of Nato are the involvement of the United States and the military relationship with France. American interests still span the Atlantic, but in Central Europe they are less tangible. President Clinton and his team think that the Europeans should take more responsibility for their own defence. The Europeans want to strike a balance between American protection and American influence.
That debate is complicated by the role of France. Charles de Gaulle pulled the French armed forces out of Nato's integrated military structure in 1966. Reintegration still constitutes a 'red line' in French politics, whether for the Gaullist right or the left. A compromise on 'joint task forces' is in the works, but it is subject to French approval. Here is a suit
able case for Mr Claes to mediate.
In the east, Nato must soon make up its mind whether to admit Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The German defence minister was right to insist last week upon the urgency of this decision - delicate because Russia must be given a hearing but not a veto.
Then there is the crisis in the Balkans, which has divided the US from France and Britain. Arguments over pragmatism and the use of force have tied Nato up in profitless, even dangerous, disputes among members. Relations between the alliance and the United Nations have been strained and must be repaired.
Lurking to the south is the Islamic uprising in Algeria, which may one day overshadow everything else. It has potentially dramatic consequences for Mediterranean security. France sent its defence minister to a Nato ministerial meeting last week for the first time in 28 years, partly because of it. In Paris they recognise that the fumbling policy over Bosnia sent all the wrong signals to those who would challenge international order. The whole focus of Nato may one day shift from east to south.
Willy Claes honed his talent for compromise in successive Belgian coalitions. Let us hope that it is up to the demands of a grand alliance.