British Defense Minister George Robertson, a strong advocate of the view that Western Europe should take more responsibility for its own defense, was chosen today to be the new secretary general of NATO.
The 53-year-old political veteran, who speaks with the broad brogue of his native Scotland, was confirmed by ambassadors of the 19 NATO countries and will take over from Spain's Javier Solana in October as the 10th leader of the world's most powerful military alliance.
As a young man growing up near the Polaris submarine base at Holy Loch, Scotland, Robertson joined his neighbors in anti-nuclear demonstrations, chanting "Och, Och, there's a monster in the loch!" But as defense minister for the past two years, he has developed a close working relationship with the military and a fascination with high-tech weaponry.
During the Kosovo war, Robertson and Britain's top-ranking military leader, Gen. Charles Guthrie, held joint news conferences nearly every day. They were so closely in sync, both on policy and personality, that the military veteran and the Labor Party politician seamlessly finished each other's sentences.
A practical, down-to-earth figure, Robertson was outshone by some of his flashier colleagues in Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet during his first year in office. But his stature rose sharply this spring, when he took on the role of outspoken champion of NATO's air offensive against Yugoslavia. His nomination to the NATO post has won virtually unanimous praise in Britain's newspapers, which rarely find any topic to agree on.
Robertson, a native of the isle of Islay, is the son and brother of policemen and began his career as a union organizer in the Scotch whisky industry. That job got him involved in Labor Party politics, and he was elected to Parliament on the Labor ticket in 1978.
Until the sweeping Labor victory in 1997, Robertson was best known in Britain as an anti-gun campaigner. His district includes the town of Dunblane, and his three children had gone to the elementary school where a crazed gunman killed 17 people in 1996. Robertson then led the successful drive to ban handgun ownership in Britain.
As defense minister, however, he has shown a genuine interest in weaponry, and he has pushed for a new generation of portable, multipurpose weapons for post-Cold War forces. He has been a designer and advocate of Blair's European Security and Defense Initiative, an effort to encourage Western Europe to beef up its defenses and reduce its dependence on the American nuclear deterrent.
During the Kosovo conflict, there was controversy in much of Europe about the dominant role played by U.S. forces, even in a domestic European theater. Speaking with reporters today after his appointment was confirmed, Robertson said he wants NATO "to learn the lessons of Kosovo . . . and one is that Europe must do more for its own defense."
Solana has been named coordinator of foreign and defense policy for the European Union secretariat, whose headquarters is down the road from NATO's in Brussels. When Solana's imminent departure became known, Blair proposed Robertson for the NATO job, a nomination quickly supported by the member nations. State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said, "The United States is pleased that he has been chosen."