Manfred Wörner was a visionary who led NATO through radical changes: the end of a divided Europe with the fall of the Berlin Wall, partnership with former adversaries and new military missions beyond Alliance territory. Totally dedicated to the Organisation, he served as Secretary General from 1 July 1988 until his untimely death on 13 August 1994. On NATO’s 40th anniversary, he stated:
NATO REMAINS THE BACKBONE AND LIGHTHOUSE OF MANKIND’S FUTURE IN FREEDOM AND PEACE.
When the Berlin Wall, symbol of the East and West divide, was torn down on 9 November 1989, Wörner, a German himself, jumped in his car and drove to Berlin to be a part of the celebrations. In his rush, he did not even tell his staff where he was going!
Wörner was no stranger to being in a hurry as he often left late for events. He would instruct his chauffeur to drive fast, frequently surpassing the speed limits.
CHAUFFEUR: "YOU’RE GOING TO BE LATE AGAIN SIR." WÖRNER: "IF I CAN’T BE LATE, I’M NO LONGER A CELEBRITY."
Extending a hand of friendship to Eastern Europe also meant reaching out to Russia. Wörner made a historic visit in July 1990 becoming the first Secretary General to walk across Moscow’s Red Square. As the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced reforms, Wörner encouraged Allies to support them. The Soviet Foreign Minister made a reciprocal visit to headquarters a year later indicating that the offer of cooperation was well received.
Even as he strove to build consensus, Wörner was not afraid to take an independent position when he believed it was the right thing to do. He was one of the rare Secretaries General who could be critical of Allies on an issue and not be ostracised for it. In addition to his native German, Wörner spoke English and French fluently. Using all three during meetings, keeping a German to English dictionary beside him, was a tactic which helped bolster his relationships with the Ambassadors. He was also a father to the International Staff working at NATO Headquarters and was accessible and humane, speaking to people at all levels of the Organisation.
No matter which language he spoke, Wörner’s passion on the need to confront human rights violations and instability in the Balkan region was evident.
WE ALL WISH THAT DIPLOMATIC MEANS ALONE WOULD SUCCEED. BUT DIPLOMACY NEEDS TO BE BACKED UP WITH A DETERMINATION TO USE FORCE IF IT IS TO BE CREDIBLE… AS FREDERICK THE GREAT USED TO SAY: ‘DIPLOMACY WITHOUT THE SWORD IS LIKE MUSIC WITHOUT INSTRUMENTS.’ – speech on 10 May 1993
Ever the workaholic, even while undergoing cancer treatments, Wörner remained engaged in NATO business regarding Bosnia as much as possible. NATO used force for the first time on 28 February 1994, shooting down four Bosnian Serb planes that had breached a UN imposed no-fly zone. He was in his hospital bed, but insisted on holding a press conference.
Wörner also returned to Brussels to chair a Council meeting on 22 April 1994. The Allies were in deadlock over whether to respond to attacks launched by Serbian forces on a UN declared safe zone. With his doctor sitting behind him as the meeting ran into the late hours of the evening, Wörner’s presence pushed NATO to expand the no-fly zone and accept a broader role in Bosnia.
Wörner passed away on 13 August 1994, a year before NATO would launch Operation Deliberate Force and deploy a peacekeeping force to Bosnia and Herzegovina.