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August 5, 2009
Ambitious Dane takes the reins at NATO

New NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (left) with U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Multimedia producer Ben Piven writes about new NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, whom he interviewed last fall.

His youthful chuckle echoed throughout the reception chamber. The premier was delighted that I used the Danish term for “tax daddy” in a question about windmill subsidies.

This was September 2008. I was interviewing then-Prime Minister of Denmark Anders Fogh Rasmussen. He had just given a speech about energy policy at Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum, in which he emphasized how the U.S. should mimic Danish initiatives. Even with a barrage of tough questions, the seasoned political warrior appeared at ease.

The charismatic politician’s free market economics and anti-immigration policies have often roused the ire of defenders of the Danish welfare state. Rasmussen also has a history of tense relations with the Muslim world, which will make his new mission in Afghanistan even more difficult.

Known for breaking complex political questions into simplistic statements, Rasmussen has begun his tough work as the twelfth secretary general of NATO, the embattled transatlantic military alliance. Much of his work will involve cosying up with NATO member states from France to Turkey.

During Rasmussen’s second day as NATO chief, he moved to implement a new operational command structure for Afghanistan.

Rasmussen has said that he will enlist the full participation of NATO members in defeating the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Since the ostensible end game is to attain peace and democracy, the real work may involve cooperation with moderate Taliban forces.

Rasmussen recently shared his Afghanistan strategy with the Danish newspaper Politiken:

There’s definitely a hardcore section of the Taliban with whom it’s impossible to reach any kind of agreement…But there are some groups you can at least talk to in an effort to achieve some sort of rapprochement within the Afghan community.

There is also speculation that the charming 56-year-old statesman will attempt to smooth over NATO ties with Russia and seek to expand the alliance to include Australia and New Zealand.

Rasmussen’s eight year reign as Danish prime minister was almost the same time period as George W. Bush’s two terms. The amicable center-right Dane was known as Bush’s best friend in Europe. When visiting Camp David, he often went on rigorous mountain bike rides with the American leader. The pals exchanged thoughts about free markets and the spread of democracy.

The leaders’ similar views on Islam and the West were instrumental in preserving Bush’s tainted image in Europe, given France and Germany’s opposition to Bush’s jingoistic agenda in Iraq. While Italy and Poland were also enrolled in the coalition effort, Denmark’s government often seemed to be America’s most trusty ally on the other side of the Atlantic.

It would seem ironic, then, that it was President Obama who firmed up Rasmussen’s campaign in April to become the NATO Secretary General. Turkey had objected to the appointment of the Dane on the basis of Rasmussen’s support for the free speech rights of the artist who drew the controversial Mohammed cartoons.

Turkey also objected to Denmark’s decision to grant the Kurdish Roj channel rights to air in Denmark. Obama’s compromise deal required that NATO would appoint a Turkish assistant to the secretary general and place Turkish generals in key command posts.

A NATO resurgence will depend upon the skills of the eager new top dog.

– Ben Piven

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Downing Street under a Creative Commons license.

For more Worldfocus coverage of Turkey, visit our extended coverage page: Turkey between East and West.

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