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Joseph Luns

Jamie Shea reflects on the life and career of Joseph Luns, NATO's fifth secretary general.

(© NATO)

The death of Joseph Luns marks the final passing of that generation of European political leaders that built the Atlantic Alliance and launched the process of European integration after the Second World War. The uninitiated sometimes mistook him for Charles de Gaulle for the two men were of similar height and both had long, narrow faces with protruding aquiline noses. But Luns had none of the General's nationalism nor his suspicion of the United States. He was both a committed European and an Atlanticist in an age when many European intellectuals believed that a strong US-led Alliance would inevitably weaken European political union.

Joseph Marie Antoine Hubert Luns was born in Rotterdam in 1911. He studied law at the universities of Leyden and Amsterdam and political economy at the London School of Economics and the University of Berlin. After his studies, he joined the Dutch foreign ministry and spent part of the Second World War with the Netherlands government in exile in London. He stayed on as ambassador at the Court of St James after the war, from where he moved to the United Nations in New York.

In 1952, Luns became joint foreign minister of the Netherlands in the wake of an electoral tie between the Labour Party and the Catholic People's Party, to which he belonged. Four years later, he took sole charge of the Netherlands foreign ministry where he remained until 1971, the year he moved to NATO as secretary general. His 19 years as foreign minister is a record in modern European politics. During this period, Luns was "present at the creation" of the European Economic Community - signing the Treaty of Rome for his country - and an early champion of close European integration, for which he was awarded the Charlemagne Prize in 1967. He also managed to build an unrivalled network of political friendships and contacts on both sides of the Atlantic which came in useful when he switched from being a minister and politician to an international civil servant at the helm of the Atlantic Alliance.

Luns was a natural choice to succeed the Italian, Manlio Brosio, as NATO secretary general. He not only had all the necessary political experience but also a keen interest in military affairs since the time of his military service in the Netherlands navy in the early 1930s. He specialised in signalling - not a bad skill to have later as NATO secretary general each week having to steer debates in the North Atlantic Council towards consensus - and published several articles on naval tactics. During his thirteen years as secretary general, Luns could never resist an opportunity to escape from his office at NATO headquarters in Brussels to join NATO's soldiers and sailors on exercise, especially at sea.

Being secretary general of NATO in the 1970s and early 1980s was undoubtedly a less hectic job than it is today. The Alliance of the Cold War had fewer members (15 instead of 19, although Spain did come in as the 16th member in 1982) and a mission that was focused on collective defence. Deterring the Soviet Union was in many respects an easier task than deploying forces to help sort out the problems of the Balkans, engaging Russia as a friend rather than an adversary, deciding on enlargement or devising strategies to combat international terrorism. Nor was there any clear desire of the Europeans to play a greater role in an Alliance traditionally dominated by the United States - although Luns tirelessly pushed European governments to spend more on defence. Nonetheless, the job at NATO was far from a sinecure. Luns took on with success the task inaugurated by the Harmel Report in the 1967 of turning NATO into a more political organisation, working for détente as much as upholding military deterrence. Under his stewardship, NATO embraced the Helsinki process of the Conference on Security Cooperation in Europe and began talks with the Warsaw Pact on conventional force reductions in Europe.

The end of Luns's long tenure at NATO was dominated by the Euro-missile saga, when in 1979 the Alliance decided to deploy Cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe to counter the Soviet Union's SS20s. This decision prompted massive street protests by peace movements on both sides of the Atlantic. Several governments, particularly those in Germany and the Netherlands, came under severe domestic pressure. Luns had the difficult job of rallying support for the missile deployments, while convincing public opinion of NATO's sincerity in seeking a "zero-zero" solution through arms-control negotiations. He was helped in this by the robust support of statesmen such as François Mitterrand in France and Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl in Germany. When Luns retired in 1984, the first Cruise and Pershings had been deployed. It took another three years before arms control negotiations finally brought about their removal.

Luns will be remembered at NATO as a colourful character with a regal bearing and an acute sense of humour, which at times could be disarmingly clownish. At lengthy meetings he would sometimes wear his bedroom slippers. Asked how many people worked at NATO, he famously replied: "About half of them". Not one for complex dossiers or technical details in his later years, he would use his inexhaustible reserve of jokes and stories to charm NATO ambassadors into submission. His Anglophilia was manifest in a British racing green Rolls Royce in which he would majestically tour Brussels. Never reluctant to call a spade a spade, Luns was not bound by the modern culture of political correctness. He publicly criticised the United States for its decision to produce the neutron bomb and for not putting the case for arms control with sufficient vigour. This did not stop the United States awarding him the Medal of Freedom shortly before his retirement.

After leaving NATO, Luns chose to stay in Belgium. An inveterate conservative, he found his own country, the Netherlands, too "progressive" and "permissive". This did not stop him, however, slipping across the border frequently to appear as a commentator on Dutch TV talk shows.

Luns's continuing attachment to the Alliance was manifest in regular return visits to NATO headquarters where he regaled former colleagues with croissants and anecdotes. Nearly 20 years of retirement gave him ample opportunity to reflect on NATO's transformation into a pan-European peacekeeping and cooperative security organisation, extending Alliance membership to former members of the Warsaw Pact and even the creation of a joint NATO-Russia Council. As someone who will always be identified with the NATO of the Cold War, one wonders what he made of it all.

Joseph Luns, Dutch statesman and former NATO secretary general, died on July 17 2002 age 90. He was married to Baroness Elisabeth van Heemstra and is survived by a son and a daughter.

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