WITH NATO at a crucial junction, caution is the operative word as Western leaders mull the selection of a new secretary-general for the Atlantic alliance.
Virtually all those involved in the selection process agree that it will be difficult to replace Manfred Woerner, who died on Aug. 6. ``The task [of secretary-general] required strong and creative leadership. Manfred provided both, in full measure,'' US Secretary of State Warren Christopher said at an Aug. 19 memorial service for Woerner.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officials say formal talks on Woerner's successor are not likely to begin until September, giving members of the 16-nation alliance a little breathing space for private consultations.
Names mentioned as likely secretary-general candidates include: Thorvald Stoltenberg, the United Nations chief peace negotiator in the Bosnian crisis; former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers; former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato; and Belgian Foreign Minister Willy Claes.
NATO leaders are anxious to avoid a repeat of the messy selection of the European Union's commission president earlier this summer. That process was marred by public airings of differences, creating a perception that the EU lacked unity and focus at a time when the organization is going through a critical stage in its development.
Woerner's death occurred at a time when NATO also finds itself at a difficult stage: It is still searching for a post-cold-war raison dtre, while constantly having to prove itself as an effective force for providing security.
During such a period, it is most important to demonstrate that NATO is firmly united, officials suggest.
They reason that any exposure of internal divisions might complicate the toughest problem the alliance now faces, namely bringing a quick end to the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
But some diplomats counter that NATO's hesitation on naming Woerner's successor only reduces the alliance's credibility as a deterrent force in the eyes of the combatants in Bosnia, especially the Bosnian Serbs.
NATO's involvement in the Bosnia imbroglio could be significantly increased in coming months, some observers contend. President Clinton has threatened to exempt the Muslim-led Bosnian government from an international arms embargo against the former Yugoslav republic if the Bosnian Serbs remain intransigent to peace proposals.
But lifting the arms embargo for the government could intensify fighting and possibly lead to a withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from the combat zones. If that happens, NATO alone would be left to try to enforce UN-mandated peace efforts. Such a scenario will require decisive leadership of NATO, backed by the unequivocal support of the member states.
``The timing is most unfortunate,'' one Central European diplomat said of Woerner's death. ``There is no time to lose in finding a replacement.''The diplomat expressed consternation that NATO leaders appeared to be taken by surprise by Woerner's death, despite the fact that the former secretary-general had been seriously ill for the last two years.
The delay over naming a new NATO chief also raises concern among formerly communist nations in Central Europe about the effectiveness of the alliance's Partnership for Peace program. The plan is designed to foster a sense of security among nations struggling to transform their economies from the planned communist system to capitalism.