A first for Bratislava - and for Rasmussen

BRATISLAVA was – for just a couple of days – one of the most important and best-protected cities in the world as NATO defence ministers gathered in the Slovak capital on October 22 and 23. The occasion was one of the alliance’s regular informal meetings to discuss current hot topics on NATO’s agenda – including its strategy for the future.

BRATISLAVA was – for just a couple of days – one of the most important and best-protected cities in the world as NATO defence ministers gathered in the Slovak capital on October 22 and 23. The occasion was one of the alliance’s regular informal meetings to discuss current hot topics on NATO’s agenda – including its strategy for the future.

The informal meeting was marked by two firsts: it was the first ever to take place in Bratislava and the first ever to be chaired by the new secretary general of the alliance, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. As he remarked, Slovakia is a significant place for him, because it was the first country he paid an official visit to after becoming prime minister of Denmark, and now it is the venue for the first informal defence ministers’ meeting he has chaired as secretary general of NATO.

The meeting, which was hosted by Slovak Defence Minister Jaroslav Baška and took place in a hermetically sealed Incheba exhibition centre, gathered around 800 delegates, of whom more than 45 were VIPs, including Rasmussen himself as well as defence ministers from NATO members and from other invited countries. More than 300 journalists were estimated to have covered the event. The highest level of security measures were applied in the city during the two-day event.

Every member country organises the event once in 14 years, since there are 28 countries in NATO and the informal meetings take place twice a year.

“For Slovakia it’s an opportunity for the visitors to get to know the country better,” Rastislav Káčer, the president of the non-governmental Slovak Atlantic Commission (SAC), told The Slovak Spectator before the meeting.

“It matters if the impression you have of someone is mediated by the way they behave at a roundtable [meeting] in Brussels. It’s completely different when people come here and see what Slovakia is, what its internal dynamics are and how it has developed.”

Given the informal nature of the meeting – no official communiqué or consensual decision is expected to come out of it – the purpose is for the delegates to interact and get to know each other’s opinions better.

“The inner power and security of the alliance is based on the practice that people regularly communicate with each other and that gives them the possibility to get to know each other perfectly, know each other’s intentions, and make common plans,” Káčer said. “This creates the inner power, the inner cohesion thanks to which NATO has been successful.”

Rasmussen’s premiere

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the new secretary general of NATO, who took office in August 2009, gave one of his first key speeches on October 22 at the New Challenges, Better Capabilities conference which was organised by the SAC as an accompanying event to the NATO meeting.

In his speech, Rasmussen presented the vision of the alliance for the future to the international security and foreign policy community and journalists, and thus opened one of the most important topics of the accompanying conference as well as the meeting itself – the new strategic concept of NATO which the alliance wants to approve next year as a response to the challenges of the changing security environment.

Rasmussen listed five issues that he believes will require particular attention in the future work of NATO, starting with its core task, the defence of its territory and its populations.

“However, we must also realise that territorial defence very often starts far from our own borders, like in Afghanistan,” Rasmussen stressed, referring to Afghanistan, the number one topic of debate in Bratislava.

He also addressed the financial crisis and budgetary problems of all the NATO members, which are having an impact on defence spending, something that Rasmussen said only makes continued military transformation and closer cooperation between member states a more pressing priority.

“We have to make efficient use of our resources: through better cooperation, through better coordination and through collective solutions,” he said. He added that there is also need for a comprehensive approach because NATO cannot deal with the new challenges, which also require political and economic measures, alone.

“NATO’s open-door policy will continue, because it contributes to Euro-Atlantic security and it provides a strong incentive for aspirants to get their house in order,” Rasmussen said about the potential admission of new members.

He also addressed relations with Russia, which according to him should not be ruled by the differences between Russia and the alliance.

“After all, NATO and Russia also have many common interests – in Afghanistan, in fighting terrorism and in implementing nuclear non-proliferation,” he said. “And so what we need is a relationship that allows us to pursue these long-standing common interests and which will not be derailed every time we disagree.”

As a first step towards a new beginning NATO and Russia together should assess what the new security threats are, which Rasmussen himself promised to discuss during a planned visit to Moscow.

Wider public involved

“One of the main priorities Rasmussen has established is that the new strategic concept should be prepared with absolute public transparency and with maximum possible integration of a wide community of people,” Káčer explained to The Slovak Spectator. “So not only experts at secret meetings, but also civil society, NGOs, the wider expert community which deals with questions of security, and people who provide solutions in the areas of cyber-security, transit systems, energy transmission and so on.”

Responding to this priority, the SAC took the opportunity provided by the fact that all these experts would be meeting in Bratislava to organise the accompanying New Challenges, Better Capabilities conference, which was intended to serve as a forum to discuss the issues on the agenda of the ministers’ meeting itself.

Apart from Rasmussen, the list of keynote speakers included names such as Alexander Vershbow, the US Assistant Secretary of Defence, who discussed the US anti-missile defence strategy, Ivo Daalder, the permanent US representative to NATO, and Jaak Aaviksoo, the Estonian defence minister, who addressed cyber-terrorism.

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