Chirac presses further Europe-US dialogue at NATO

22nd February 2005, Comments 0 comments

BRUSSELS, Feb 22 (AFP) - NATO vowed Tuesday to boost its role as an "essential forum" for political ties between Europe and north America, playing down discord about the ex-Cold War bloc's future after the Iraq war crisis.

BRUSSELS, Feb 22 (AFP) - NATO vowed Tuesday to boost its role as an "essential forum" for political ties between Europe and north America, playing down discord about the ex-Cold War bloc's future after the Iraq war crisis.

The pledge by NATO leaders came amid a debate sharpened by recent remarks by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder questioning NATO's strategic role, challenged by Washington's use of "coalitions of the willing."

"We are committed to strengthening NATO's role as a forum for strategic and political consultation ... while reaffirming its place as the essential forum for security consultations between Europe and North America," they said.

French President Jacques Chirac, attending a NATO summit along with his Iraq war foe US President George W. Bush, also weighed in with his hopes for the alliance which was almost torn apart by the 2003 conflict.

NATO's transformation from Cold War monolith to a meaningful strategic player in the post-Soviet era was accelerated by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Since the attacks, NATO forces have taken charge of a peackeeping force in Afghanistan - the United State's first target after the World Trade Centre and Washington attacks - and last year agreed to train officers in Iraq.

But while its boots-on-the-ground operations are expanding far beyond its traditional European theatre of operations, an expanded political role for NATO throws up more problems.

In particular the 2003 Iraq crisis - which at one point paralysed NATO, with a group of anti-war countries led by France and Germany blocking action by the United States - raises questions about the alliance's need for consensus.

NATO chief Jaap De Hoop Scheffer acknowledged such questions, but said Tuesday that NATO must press ahead with expanding its political role.

"Just as we strive to have more deployable and effective forces, we should strive to ensure that this council (of NATO leaders) is the most effective forum for political discussions and decisions," he said.

Afterwards President Bush confirmed that the NATO chief had been tasked with drawing up an "action plan" to formalise his proposals for a greater political role for the alliance, which he has championed since taking office last year.

Bush acknowledged the debate was ongoing. "Everybody heard Chancellor Schroeder loud and clear, everybody hear the secretary general loud and clear," he said.

But he denied that Washington sees NATO simply as another tool in its military tool box. "I think it is the vital relationship for us when it comes to security," he said.

The comments came after Schroeder earlier this month unveiled controversial plans to reform NATO, which he said "is no longer the primary venue where transatlantic partners discuss and coordinate strategies".

The German press hit out at Schroeder for, in its view, jeopardising warming ties with the United States just as Bush prepares to visit Brussels next week for summits with the EU and NATO.

France's President Chirac seemed to back the NATO chief's views Tuesday, saying: "Europe and the United States are true partners. So we need to talk and listen to each other more."

Schroeder also sought to downplay suggestions of tension.

"I made it clear that the transatlantic relationship is of primordial signficance, in the past, now and in the future ... and NATO is is one of the important places where these transatlantic ties will be discussed," he said.

"Fundamentally there is a great deal of agreement .. that political dialogue must be strengthened .. but on the form it will certainly be discussed further," he added.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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