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George Robertson

The Scottish Bridge Between The Two Ends of NATO

April 15, 2001|Robin Wright

WASHINGTON — Lord George Robertson has come a long way from the days when he attended a three-room school on the Scottish island of Islay, which has fewer than 4,000 people but more than 40,000 geese.

He's also come a long way from the days when he was a union organizer for Scotland's famed whiskey industry, working at local distilleries on the island of Islay.

And he's come a very long way from his days of youthful demonstrations against the first Polaris submarine in Scotland's Holy Loch. "Och, och, och, there's a monster in the Loch--we dinnae want Polaris," he once recalled singing in his rhythmic Scottish burr.

Today, Robertson is secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the world's most powerful military alliance. Since the former British defense secretary was selected in 1999, the British press has nicknamed him "NATO's Robocop."

For all its prestige, the job of building consensus among 19 diverse member nations speaking a dozen different languages is among the toughest in international diplomacy. "I'm the chairman of a board of 19, every one of whom has a veto on everything," he said last year.

It's also a dangerous job. After NATO's controversial bombing of Serbia during its military intervention in Kosovo, he was reportedly the target of a Serbian assassination plot uncovered by the CIA. There have been other threats. He now travels with bodyguards.

As NATO settles into peacekeeping roles in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, one part of Robertson's past does seem fitting. His grandfather, father, brother, son and nephew all joined the police. Robertson grew up living in quarters above the police station.

Although he now works out of NATO headquarters in Brussels, Robertson still tries to get back to Scotland as often as possible. His home is in Dunblane, a Scottish town made famous when a gunman killed 16 children and a teacher at a primary school in 1996. All three of Robertson's now-grown children attended the school.

Almost two years ago, the world's most famous Scot was made a peer of the realm. His full title is Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, after the island of Islay's main city. In his limited leisure time, Robertson's primary interests are photography and golf.


Question: George W. Bush and his advisors said things during the presidential campaign that sounded as if they were going to take the relationship with NATO, and especially peacekeeping, in a new direction. What's your assessment of where the administration is and how much of your job is going to be bridging the gap between the two ends of NATO?

Answer: Frankly, holding the two sides of the Atlantic together is not a big job because the alliance is now 19 strong. On troop levels in the Balkans, the Americans are not alone. Practically all NATO countries want troop reductions, when it's safe to do so. A lot of countries are struggling much more than the United States to get the correct troops to go there.

In Bosnia, we went from 65,000 to under 20,000 in five years, so it's not an impossible thing. We have six-month reviews, which is the way we judge what is necessary. There will be troop reductions in Bosnia in the next six months, but I also predict that there won't be any troop reductions in Kosovo.

Q: U.S. forces have been concerned about protection. Are U.S. commanders insisting on a greater level of caution?

A: The Americans are much more into protection than other allies. Force protection tends to be in terms of wearing heavy Robin Wright is The Times' chief diplomatic correspondent and the author of four books on international affairs.

body armor, going around in armored vehicles. So they stand out, especially in the summer--the poor guys, sweltering. The American flag does tend to be more of a target than some of the more obscure flags. But there is no greater affection for body bags in Britain or in France or in Germany than there is in the United States.

Q: How open-ended do you think the deployment in the Balkans is? How long will U.S. troops be there, either for practical purposes or for symbolic reasons?

A: NATO is there until the job is done, until it's safe to withdraw. That will be longer than the optimists think, and shorter than the pessimists think. Look at Bosnia-Herzegovina. Think what it was like in 1995. Srebrenica took place there; 7,000 people butchered. Hundreds of thousands of people dead in that tiny country. Millions displaced. Three ethnic groups [divided by] bitter, long-lasting and deep hatred.

But only five years on, they've got the first non-nationalist government in Sarajevo. Civic institutions are being created. Sarajevo is rebuilding. There are some bombed-out buildings that have been kept as sort of memorials, but, by and large, it is getting back to normal. We won't be there forever.

Q: Do you share the same kind of optimism for Kosovo?

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