Leading Article: Nato's chance to forge a new future

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The Independent Online
THE 16 nations of the Atlantic Alliance are said to agree on the need to move swiftly to fill the void left by the death of Manfred Worner. This solid German conservative's tenure as Nato Secretary- General encompassed the West's triumph in the Cold War and its muddle over Bosnia. Now that due tribute has been paid to Mr Worner, the implications of those two developments remain to preoccupy his successor, for Nato stands at a critical juncture in its existence.

The choice of a new secretary- general offers an opportunity to reassess what the alliance is all about. Big decisions in Nato are normally reached by consensus and options constrained by political tradition. But it is desirable that the process should generate debate about the future and that the new secretary-general should take office with a mandate both renewed and refreshed. The alliance has yet to redefine its European and American components with precision. The United States wants influence with the minimum commitment, while most Europeans prefer American resources accompanied by a light political touch. It is still hard to work out quite what France wants. Perhaps, in the post-Mitterrand era, Paris might move to reconcile the contradiction inherent in its adhesion to the North Atlantic Treaty and its simultaneous abdication from Nato's integrated military structure.

These old problems require new thinking, all the more so because historic change is upon the alliance. Soon Nato must decide whether to invite four key nations - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia - into a closer relationship than is implied by their membership of its Partnership for Peace programme. Nato's military posture was set by a defunct adversary, the Soviet Union. Now Nato soldiers need to worry about regional wars, not global conflict. Instability looms in the east and on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.

So the secretary-general should ideally be a person possessed of diplomatic instinct, strategic insight and a certain amount of chutzpah. It is unlikely that the members of the alliance are ready to entrust the job to a heavyweight political figure, although it is provocative to imagine what Baroness Thatcher, Lord Owen or James Baker might bring to the job in Brussels.

Lord Owen's long-suffering partner in Balkan mediation, Thorvald Stoltenberg, is among the more realistic contenders. A former foreign minister of Norway, he displayed stamina and patient intelligence during an impossible set of negotiations. In the wars of former Yugoslavia, he has seen both the new face of conflict and the mistakes made in handling it. Mr Stoltenberg's merits seem more evident than those, say, of the former Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato. His experience seems of greater relevance than that of the Dutch European Commissioner, Hans van den Broek.

The question is whether Mr Stoltenberg's Scandinavian virtues of stoic decency and a faith in reason embody all that Nato demands. The alliance is badly in need of vision. The secretary-general should communicate that vision, but only the member states can provide it.