From Cronkite to Korea: Lessons learned

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Ambassador Alexander Vershbow is the first Deputy Secretary General of NATO in modern times who is an American. Having been at NATO during the Bosnia crisis, the Kosovo campaign and shortly before 9/11, he has extensive experience of the organisation. NATO Review asked him about how he became interested in defence, what he has learned in his other posts, and how he feels NATO has changed.

NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow was surprised to be called for a third term at NATO. Here, he outlines what's changed since he was last here and where he sees the Alliance headed.

You are an expert in Russian studies. How did you become interested in the country?

I grew up as a child of the Cold War. I think one of the first experiences that I remember, was watching the evening news during the Cuban missile crisis, when my parents started running Walter Cronkite during dinner. And so, the confrontation with the Soviet Union was a formative factor for me, and it led me in fact to pursue International Relations and Russian studies in college and university. No one in those days could imagine that the Berlin wall would come down and that the whole nature of European security would change.

What lessons did you take from your experience of dealing with Bosnia in the 1990s?

I was involved in Bosnia both here at NATO in the early '90s and then in Washington, when the decisive action was taken that led to the Dayton Accords. And then I was here again as ambassador in the lead-up to and the actual conduct of the campaign in Kosovo. Those were, I think, cases where the Alliance took longer to get its act together, and may have hesitated to grasp the nettle and act, but in the end achieved success. And I think that created a sense of confidence that NATO could address problems on its periphery - which were of more political or humanitarian character - and get the job done effectively and contribute to European and regional security. So I think it was that experience that made it easier to get the rapid decisions that we needed in Libya.

Did lessons from NATO's Kosovo campaign also play out in the recent Libya operation?

I think the Kosovo experience taught us to never assume that the adversary is going to fold in two days. You have got to be patient, steady, stick with the mission, continue to day by day carry out the mission. And, ultimately, you will succeed. Remember, it was 78 days for Kosovo. People thought it was going on forever. Libya took a little longer, but, in historical terms, it was a pretty quick and effective operation.

You spent time in South Korea. How key do you see the US' pivot to Asia?

Well, the Korean Peninsula is sort of the last front of the Cold War, where you still see this confrontation, this standoff dating back to the '50s, almost preserved under glass. But there's a real, ever-present danger to South Korea posed by the military capabilities and the aggressive ideology of the North. So we have to remember that some old threats haven't completely disappeared and they are not irrelevant to European security. The North Koreans are not only developing their long-range missiles to go with the nuclear capability that they have demonstrated, but they export missile technology to Iran and to Syria, countries that could pose a direct threat to European security. So the fact that the United States has decided to put more emphasis on the Asia-Pacific in its strategy, I think, is very much in Europe's interest and it shouldn't be viewed as a zero-sum game. Finally, this is your third tour in Brussels.

What did you miss about it and how is it to be back?

I've missed the continuing political debates that go one here, whether you are at the office or at a dinner party or just hanging around in Brussels. There's a certain buzz to this place, maybe because not only NATO, but also the European Union are headquartered here. And so a lot of the big issues of our time are being discussed. I didn't have quite as much of that in South Korea or in my last assignment in Washington. So I'm glad to be back in this milieu at a time of tremendous challenges, particularly with the financial crisis, but also tremendous opportunities. But NATO itself, even though it has more members, seems like a very familiar place to me.

- NATO Review Magazine
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