Willy Claes was the only musician who had ever been at the helm of the Alliance. He was also the shortest serving Secretary General at 13 months, but presided over a critical period in NATO history.
During his tenure, NATO engaged for the first time since the end of the Cold War in a military operation – Operation Deliberate Force – a bombing campaign against the Bosnian-Serbs in August-September 1995. His refusal to call a meeting of the North Atlantic Council until after Operation Deliberate Force had begun, deftly steered NATO in its adaptation to the post-Cold War environment and remain a relevant player.
During his speech at the Munich Conference in February 1995, he had already made clear that NATO’s core function was indeed the defence of the member countries’ territorial integrity and political independence:
BUT THE MOST PRESSING ISSUE THAT HAS TO BE RESOLVED URGENTLY IS BOSNIA. WE MUST NOT ALLOW IT TO FESTER AND POISON THE RELATIONS BOTH WITHIN AND BEYOND THE ALLIANCE.
It was during Council meetings that Claes displayed his authority. Meetings were orderly yet he was not above using temperamental outbursts to get consensus. He once had to preside over a meeting of the North Atlantic Council on the situation in the former Yugoslavia that lasted 13 hours (25 July 1995).
Despite his strength of character, Willy Claes was very friendly and generous with his staff. His wife was known to prepare sandwiches for everybody in the Private Office or alternatively, he always paid for their lunches when they ate together.
He was an avid reader of the works of French author Max Gallo, who inspired him for his speeches, his all-time favourite being “La Baie des Anges”, which he took with him on holiday.
An accomplished musician, he had a grand piano at the Secretary General’s Residence to keep in practice and continued to play the piano in the Willy Claes Quartet after having left NATO.
Willy Claes was a Belgian politician and member of the Flemish Socialist Party. His term as NATO Secretary General was overshadowed by his involvement in a bribery scandal over Belgian defence purchases – the Agusta Affair - and he was forced to resign.