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Manfred Wörner: NATO visionary

Ryan C. Hendrickson assesses the legacy of Manfred Wörner, NATO's seventh Secretary General, ten years after his death.

Manfred Wörner in Red Square (© NATO )

This year marks the tenth anniversary of former NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner's death. Wörner served as NATO's seventh Secretary General from 1 July 1988 until his premature death from cancer on 13 August 1994. He was the first and to date the only German to lead the Alliance in this capacity. He is also the only Secretary General to have died in office. Remembered and viewed among his contemporaries as one of the most influential Secretaries General, the anniversary of his death provides an opportunity to assess NATO's evolution since his passing, including his vision for how the Alliance should transform itself in the post-Cold War era.

Given the esteem in which Wörner is now held, it is perhaps ironic to recall the initial scepticism about his suitability for the post of Secretary General he had to overcome in his early days in office. While there was no doubting his ability to handle the military aspects of his job, critics questioned the diplomatic and personal skills of an outspoken hawk. Indeed, one German commentator at the time even suggested: "Most likely it will turn out that Wörner is the wrong man at the wrong time."

But Wörner confounded his critics. Today he is remembered for an array of contributions to NATO and his legacy is probably most significant in three key policy areas that he vigorously pursued on behalf of the Alliance. These are NATO's institutional adaptation to the end of the Cold War; the Alliance's constructive engagement of the Soviet Union and later Russia as it underwent political upheaval; and NATO's acceptance of new military missions beyond Alliance territory. Although NATO has faced its share of internal differences since his death, it may be argued that his vision and hopes for the Alliance have largely been realised. In many respects, across a host of policy directions, NATO has moved in the manner he advocated up until his last days, as he struggled against illness to remain engaged in the Alliance's work. Much of NATO's ongoing transformation is rooted in his vision of a robust transatlantic military alliance, willing and able to take on new and challenging responsibilities.

New security structures

To many of his colleagues, as well as to analysts of NATO's post-Cold War transition, Manfred Wörner is viewed as a leading catalyst for change in the Alliance. As the Berlin Wall crumbled, he was one of the first to give concrete expression to the historical opportunity that this presented both to transform relations with former members of the Warsaw Pact and to create new security structures to deal with what was a political revolution affecting all of Europe. While some analysts suggested that the end of the Cold War heralded the Alliance's demise, Wörner called for the integration of the new European democracies into the transatlantic community and set about transforming NATO to meet this fundamental change in the balance of power.

Wörner was an early advocate of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) - later transformed into the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) - that was created in 1991 to give real meaning to the Alliance's offer to reach out to its former adversaries and to work with them to overcome past divisions. The EAPC today, like the NACC in Wörner's day, performs a vital function for NATO and its Partner countries, in that it serves as a catalyst for improved communication, diplomacy and understanding between the Alliance and Europe's newly independent states. Moreover, it remains the primary forum for political dialogue for a host of countries across Southern Europe and the Caucasus.

The NACC's creation was essentially the first step at the organisational level towards opening the Alliance's door to its former Cold War rivals. It also served as the building block for NATO's Partnership for Peace programme, which today is widely credited with having assisted many of the new democracies in professionalising their militaries and enhancing democracy through improved civil-military relations. Since its creation in 1994, the Partnership for Peace has also helped improve military cooperation and increase military interoperability among Partners and Allies. (For an assessment of the Partnership for Peace, see Continuing to build security through partnership by Robert Weaver in the spring 2004 issue of NATO Review.)

Wörner was one of the first at NATO Headquarters to recognise the potential benefits of extending Alliance membership to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In his public addresses, as well as behind the scenes, he did much to place NATO enlargement firmly on the transatlantic agenda. Although the necessary consensus for enlargement had yet to materialise by the time of his death, Wörner's early support for the principle helped establish the political foundation for the rounds of enlargement that followed the Madrid and Prague Summits in 1997 and 2002 respectively. Since Wörner's death, new security structures have been built, Alliance membership has increased from 16 to 26 and NATO has forged effective partnerships with almost all former Soviet republics. But the groundwork for this process was accomplished during Wörner's tenure in office and under his leadership.

Relations with Russia

Much of NATO's ongoing transformation is rooted in Wörner's vision of a robust transatlantic military alliance, willing and able to take on new and challenging responsibilities

Besides pushing forward the integration of Europe's new democracies into the Alliance and helping to create new security structures for NATO, Wörner was also influential in encouraging NATO support for Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet leader introduced his domestic and foreign policy reforms. Through much of his career, Wörner was viewed as a fierce advocate of strong defence policies to protect democracy, keenly aware of the ongoing threat of a military confrontation with the Soviet Union and the risk of nuclear escalation. Yet as Gorbachev softened his stand toward the West, Wörner also openly and aggressively encouraged the Alliance and the rest of the international community to support Gorbachev's reforms. Immediately after NATO's London Summit in July 1990, Wörner made an historic trip to Moscow to convey the Alliance's message of friendship and used the occasion to voice his personal support for enhanced cooperation between NATO and the Soviet Union, and for the "building of new structures". The following year, visiting NATO at Wörner's invitation, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze showed that the offer had been taken seriously.

Today, much of the basic vision of NATO's relationship with Russia formulated by Wörner seems to have been realised. In 1997, NATO and Russia signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act. After political differences over Kosovo, NATO and Russia agreed to the creation of a new NATO-Russia Council in Rome in May 2002 in what Paul Fritch has described in NATO Review as a "second marriage". This partnership has experienced difficulties along the way, but the NATO-Russia Council has also made progress on a number of diplomatic, military and educational fronts (For an assessment of the NATO-Russia Council, see Building hope on experience by Paul Fritch in the Autumn 2003 issue of NATO Review).

Russian soldiers were engaged for more than seven years in the NATO-led peacekeeping operations in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo, serving alongside their peers from Alliance countries. Moreover, Russia has become an increasingly committed Partner for NATO in the effort to combat terrorism. While many individuals deserve credit for the successful integration of NATO-Russian relations witnessed today, Wörner helped to start the dialogue and encouraged any movement towards heightened cooperation between NATO and the Soviet Union and Russia.

New missions

While Wörner's legacy is clearly cemented through his efforts to reform NATO's structures and to engage the Soviet Union as it moved towards democracy, many will remember most vividly Wörner's desire for NATO to confront human rights violations and political instability in the former Yugoslavia. It seems that he used every possible venue - whether presentations at academic conferences, speeches while travelling to meet with Allied leaders or the private Tuesday luncheons with NATO ambassadors - to push Allies towards military engagement in the Balkans. As both the NATO Allies and the United Nations struggled to find common and meaningful responses to Yugoslavia's dissolution in the early 1990s, Wörner used his position as Secretary General to urge the Alliance to confront what he considered a threat to the political stability of Southern Europe.

Not only was this crisis the greatest humanitarian tragedy witnessed in Europe since the Second World War, it was also one which led many observers to question NATO's legitimacy. Wörner foresaw both the moral implications of NATO's inability to act, as well as the institutional need for the Alliance to respond meaningfully. Although the Allies' unwillingness to act frustrated him, he continued to exercise leadership in a statesman-like manner, up until the last days of his life from his hospital bed. In quoting Frederick the Great as the Balkan crisis deepened and as NATO failed to respond, Wörner noted that: "Diplomacy without the sword is like music without instruments."

Often, Wörner found himself isolated in such calls for military action. Yet it was under Wörner's leadership that NATO used force for the first time in its history - on 28 February 1994 - shooting down four Bosnian Serb war plans in breach of the UN-imposed no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although NATO's military options were used sparingly during his tenure, he never retreated from calling for tougher stands from the Alliance. Arguably, some of his bravest moments at NATO came while chairing sessions of the North Atlantic Council that focused on the Bosnian crisis, when ignoring the risk to his own health, he worked to foster consensus among the Allies for the necessary military action. The Allies' decision to launch NATO's first air campaign, Operation Deliberate Force, on 30 August 1995 intervention helped push all the warring factions to peace negotiations in Dayton, Ohio, and resulted in the deployment of a NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia and Herzegovina that continues to build peace and stability there to this day. This groundbreaking intervention occurred a year after Wörner's death, but he deserves much of the credit for preparing the groundwork for the operation, which he felt was not only morally justifiable, but an appropriate role for the Alliance if it was to be able to meet new security challenges.

In all probability, Wörner would also have argued for robust military intervention in Kosovo as the security situation there deteriorated in the course of 1998 and 1999, much like his successor as Secretary General, Javier Solana. Although Wörner died more than four years before Operation Allied Force, the precedent for NATO military action in 1999 had already been set in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this regard, his vision for NATO was again realised in the Alliance's response to human rights abuses in Kosovo.

Given Wörner's determination to see NATO act in terms of its "global responsibilities", he would no doubt also have approved of many of the policies that the Alliance has since adopted towards the wider world. These include NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue, the South East Europe Initiative, the Alliance's conflict-prevention activities in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* its peacekeeping role in Afghanistan, and its involvement in Iraq. Wörner wanted an Alliance that would leave the status quo behind and demonstrate its continuing relevance. Since 1994, this has occurred on multiple fronts.

Recent challenges

Part of Wörner's reputation is based on his willingness to speak openly for what he believed was right. As a Secretary General, whose role is to build consensus in the North Atlantic Council but cannot take the Allies' decisions for them, his readiness to take independent positions and to argue forcefully for them was exceptional. While he is remembered as a first-rate diplomat, who maintained excellent relations with all members and ambassadors, he was not afraid personally to challenge member states to compromise, adapt and evolve for the good of the Alliance. In this regard, like his successors, he would have urged improvement and investment in Allied defence capabilities. Both as Germany's Defence Minister between 1982 and 1988, and as NATO's Secretary General, he was a vocal and consistent supporter of defence modernisation. When states decreased their defence spending, a suitable response from Wörner was sure to come.

Transatlantic differences over Iraq in recent years would no doubt have been deeply disconcerting to Wörner, just as NATO's divisions over Bosnia and Herzegovina frustrated him a decade earlier. Whatever his personal position on Iraq (which he would have made clear), he would undoubtedly have campaigned for a common transatlantic position at every opportunity, as he did during the 1991 Gulf War. Without question, his forceful, unapologetic and sometimes independent views would have been a factor in the debate. As a champion of NATO and its historic partnerships, he would have led the cause for transatlantic unity, as he did for so many other difficult questions NATO faced under his leadership.

Now, ten years on, NATO has adapted, evolved and progressed along many of the lines that Wörner sought. His vision of NATO, although realised only in part prior to his death, has had a lasting impact on the Alliance's ongoing evolution. Most importantly, NATO has made peace with its former communist rivals, and has accepted new missions that extend its role well beyond its traditional boundaries. While political challenges and differences remain within NATO, as they always will in an alliance of 26 sovereign states, Wörner's legacy and vision offer a key to understanding the role of the Alliance at the beginning of the 21st century.

* Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.

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