Published: February 14 2005
Gerhard Schröder, German chancellor, shocked American and European defence ministers at the weekend by proposing a far-reaching review of transatlantic relations, with a particular focus on the Nato alliance.
The German leader said, in comments delivered on his behalf to a security conference in Munich, that Nato had ceased to be “the primary venue where transatlantic partners discuss and coordinate” the most important strategic issues of the day.
Mr Schröder, who was prevented by illness from attending in person, made clear that he would use a summit in Brussels next week with President George W. Bush to propose the establishment of a high level panel to review the relationship, reporting to Nato and EU leaders by next year. Senior officials said he envisaged the panel consisting of former heads of government or foreign ministers.
However, the substance and the timing of the chancellor's idea shocked Nato loyalists because it appeared to suggest the need for a fundamental rethink of the organisation's role as the primary forum for transatlantic relations just when great efforts are being made on both sides to heal the wounds caused by the Iraq war. Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, doubted the merit of high level panels and said Nato was already the “forum to discuss important issues”.
“There is enormous value in Nato.” Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Nato secretary general, said new debates over the transatlantic relationship would not be fruitful. “Nato is functioning fine and it doesn't need a panel of experts to analyse and advise on what we are doing,” he said.
German officials acknowledged that they had mishandled the proposal's announcement and said Mr Schröder's inability to appear prevented him explaining his message more clearly. However, they stood by the initiative, saying Mr Schröder had raised concerns because many issues bedevilling transatlantic relations, including the EU's plans to lift its arms embargo on China and negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme, were not brought before Nato.
Nato's formal discussions focus on its military operations and reform of its defence capabilities. But there was concern among some foreign ministry officials in Berlin that the abrupt manner of Mr Schröder's comments and lack of consultation could sour bilateral relations with Washington after the successful visit to the German capital this month by Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state. Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, was forced on the defensive over the proposal, insisting Mr Schröder had not meant to disparage Nato, but to re-energise the relationship.
“The chancellor gave an excellent speech that said we are not aiming at the end of transatlanticism, but at its renewal,” Mr Fischer said. Mr Bush will visit Germany to see Mr Schröder on February 23, the day after the Brussels summit.
Additional reporting by Hugh Williamson in Berlin