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NATO chief: Alliance still vital

Editor's Note: CNN Access is a regular feature on providing interviews with newsmakers from around the world.

George Robertson: "A summit of fundamental transformation"

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BRUSSELS, Belgium (CNN) -- NATO Secretary-General George Robertson recently spoke with CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley about the Prague summit. Here is a transcript of the interview:

Oakley: This could be described perhaps as a make-or-break summit for the alliance. NATO has been derided in some quarters as standing for Now Almost Totally Obsolete. How are you going to redefine NATO's mission in the world?

Robertson: This is going to be a summit of fundamental transformation for NATO, because we are going to bring in new members and we are going to analyse new capabilities and of course our new relationships like the new NATO-Russia Council that was created earlier this year.

The organisation is going to be more flexible, more rapidly deployable, but it's going to maintain the very strong political role that it has developed over recent years, and its political influence depends very much on its military capability.

Oakley: NATO's role so far in the worldwide war against terrorism has been a very peripheral one. How is that going to change as a result of the decisions in Prague?

Robertson: The summit is really going to endorse a number of new positions, including a military concept for defence against terrorism. But more than that, it's going to endorse the idea of a NATO Response Force.

That is a very sharp new military tool in the NATO toolbox, able to go very quickly and to hit very hard where there is a security interest. And it's also going to streamline our command structures in order to be able to handle some of the new threats and new challenges that will be posed to us over the coming years.

We also have to design the way in which we handle consequences if there is a terrorist attack, so we've got to be ready for chemical, nuclear, radiological and biological attack and be able to protect forces and add value to the civil machinery.

So there is a whole range of new capabilities designed to flexibly handle challenges that are now posed to us in addition to existing problems. We are going to have the problems of instability and of terrorism to face up to.

Oakley: But you are going to need special forces and smart weapons for this new 20,000-strong NATO Rapid Response Force. Where they are going to come from? The Americans have that kind of equipment but Europeans don't, do they?

Robertson: Europeans are developing very quickly capabilities to take on the new role. Special forces have been developed in most of the NATO countries, and indeed some of the likely new countries to the alliance also have capabilities in that direction.

But that's where the new multinational forces come in with some strength, because the NATO Response Force will bring highly trained, highly flexible and very ready troops into the equation , and they will be available then through new mobile headquarters with all the equipment that we intend to make sure that the Europeans deliver in the very near future.

So we have to be ready for a range of challenges. That's why we have to have the range of capabilities. We can no longer say "here is the threat and here is the tank." We have got to be able to say there is a range of threats and here is a range of capabilities and military information that we have to handle them.

Oakley: It's been said, Lord Robertson, that there is a lot of tension between American and European members of NATO these days -- Americans depicted as warriors and Europeans as wimps. It's said the Americans do the fighting and the Europeans wash the dishes. Is there that much worry among Europeans about the so-called American unilateralism, that it's going to make it difficult to get agreement in Prague?

Robertson: I think the Europeans recognise that against the accusations of American unilateralism President Bush formed a coalition to take on the Taliban in Afghanistan and used the U.N. route in his concern over Iraq. But of course in any organisation with 19 democracies -- and that number by at the end of the week will have gone up substantially -- you are going to have tension and disagreements within the organisation from time to time.

There are many disagreements between some of the European countries, and (between) some European countries and the U.S., but there is still a fundamental unity and a fundamental realisation that the trans-Atlantic relationship is absolutely vital, whether you are in Chicago or you are in Rome. That is going to be the key message that comes out (in Prague).

For all the trans-Atlantic disagreements that might take place, NATO is an organisation which is available and ready to defend the values which the alliance stands for, and it's as important and as vital now as when it was created in 1949.

CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley

Oakley: Perhaps the biggest irritation of the Americans, though, is with defence spending levels in Europe, and you yourself have been trying to ginger up European governments to spend more on defence. You said $150 billion spending in Europe on defence at the moment is a waste of money. How is that going to change -- is there going to be a new political willingness to spend?

Roberston: You are going to see on Thursday the publication of a new prior capabilities commitment, which is going to be a catalogue of what we have been able to get in response to the very specific request that I have made as the secretary-general of NATO.

And I think you are going to see an impressive package of capability improvements -- still not the end of the story, and still not the end of the deficits, but it's going to mean the Europeans in particular are going to be contributing much more in the way of essential capabilities then before.

Because I think people have now woken up to the fact that a lot of what they spent on is not strictly relevant to current or future security threats, and secondly that we have got to make the investment in security now rather than waiting for the crisis to come along. So although there are some exceptions to that generalisation, the fact is that most countries are now reviewing what they do in the present moment in defence to get better value for it.

They are also investing in the capabilities that we all know are going to be required for security challenges of the future, and I think we will begin to see major investments taking place. Because populations will demand to be safe and to feel safe, and the only way that could be done is to have the right defences in place now.

Oakley: And finally, Lord Robertson, are we going to see involvement from NATO as NATO if any military action is required in Iraq if Saddam Hussein does not comply with UN resolutions there?

Robertson: The U.N. leaders will meet around the lunch table on Thursday, and I know that they are going to talk about Iraq. They will first of all express solidarity with the U.N. and the tough resolution that was passed. They will also be certainly demanding that Saddam comply with the international community. If he does, then the military action won't be necessary.

But I have no doubt as well that there will be some discussion about how the NATO countries either individually or collectively can contribute to a situation that may apply if Saddam defies the international community. But we are not at that point yet. We must all hope that Saddam will see sense and comply and disarm as he has been told by U.N. Security Council.

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