CHAIRMAN OF THE MILITARY COMMITTEE: THIS IS A LIVING DOCUMENT. LORD ROBERTSON: LIVING? YOU MEAN…LIKE YOGHURT?
The Rt. Hon. Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, NATO’s 10th Secretary General, was known for his humour and quick wit, which he used to lighten up sometimes tense situations. And indeed, Lord Robertson came across many challenges during his tenure.
He was at the helm of NATO when the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States drastically changed the international security environment. He found himself presiding over huge decisions such as the Alliance’s first ever use of Article 5.
Lord Robertson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the United States for the way he steered the Alliance after the shock of the attacks.
Meanwhile, he was close to his staff, graciously offering treats to his entourage when they worked late hours, taking the time to meet every single member of the International Staff in their offices, and often having lunch in the cafeteria - where he was once reprimanded by a dinner lady for not clearing his tray properly! Lord Robertson had to adapt to the NATO ways of doing things. Initially he escaped from his body guards, seeing no use for them, then eventually had to give in and accept the presence of Doug, a retired policeman who came over from Scotland. He set his mind on learning French – one of NATO’s two official languages - and followed lessons religiously every week. Sometimes, he also had trouble with NATO-isms:
I ALWAYS WONDERED WHAT ‘YOU HAVE THE FLOOR’ MEANS. THEN, ONE DAY, JUST AS THE CONFERENCE CHAIRMAN GAVE ME THE FLOOR, MY CHAIR BROKE AND I WAS LYING ON MY BACK LIKE A BEETLE. WELL, THE FLOOR WAS ALL MINE.
When the day was long and the pressure high, he would walk around the Private Office in socks. His consideration for staff went as far as sending hand-written letters to colleagues with whom he travelled on mission. He even went out of his way to help staff produce communication material when his input was needed, spending time in the recording studios.
Like most dignitaries, Lord Robertson received many gifts. Some were more original and personalised than others.
Lord Robertson’s concern for people also brought him to get involved with a school in Kosovo. He entered into correspondence with a boy a little older than his grandson who had to write an essay on what he would do if he were the NATO Secretary General. In his letter, the boy writes, “Today’s world is full of blood and hatred.” When NATO was criticised earlier on for its intervention in Kosovo, Lord Robertson would answer:
TODAY TO THOSE WHO FIND IT FASHIONABLE TO (…) DOUBT WHAT THE AIR CAMPAIGN ACHIEIVED, I SAY THIS: CONSIDER FOR A MOMENT WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF NATO HAD NOT ACTED.
Lord Robertson also supported the late President Trajkovski in avoiding civil war in his country - the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia1 - and maintained consensus within NATO during the lengthy debates on Iraq. These events, in the United States, in the Balkans and Iraq reinforced Robertson’s view that it was crucial for NATO to adapt to meet new security challenges. A former Defence Secretary of the United Kingdom, he felt strongly that increasing Allied defence spending and military capabilities was critical to this goal. A forceful presence during meetings of the North Atlantic Council, Robertson was unafraid to make his personal views known on an issue. At the end of his mandate, his mantra was: “Capabilities, capabilities, capabilities”.
In August 2003, four months before leaving his post, Lord Robertson guided the Alliance towards the biggest operational commitment it had ever undertaken: assuming command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
Despite the gravity of the issues Lord Robertson dealt with from October 1999, when he arrived, to the time he left in December 2003, he found time for one of his favourite hobbies: photography.
1 Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.