Delays in the agenda are part of the routine at NATO summits. When it comes to ending them, though, countries tend to be very punctual. By the last day, most are keen to return home and meetings are shortened and important issues sometimes delayed until the next summit.
On Saturday, though, the decision to be made was too important -- and the summit was forced to go into overtime. Instead of holding a joint press conference at 1 p.m. as originally planned, Secretary General Japp de Hoop Scheffer was only able to appear before journalists after a two-and-a-half hour delay. It was easy to guess what he was going to say, too, given that has successor, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was already standing next to him.
Scheffer and Fogh Rasmussen both beamed from the stage. Scheffer said he was proud. Fogh Rasmussen congratulated his predecessor on his work. A short time later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy also joined in. Sarkozy grinned broadly and could hardly contain his excitement. For her part, Merkel smiled a bit more reservedly.
The reactions underscored what a tour de force NATO had just undergone. By Friday evening, when Turkey repeated its threat to veto any decision to appoint Fogh Rasmussen as the next secretary general, it became clear that a NATO summit being held to celebrate its 60th anniversary threatened to end in fiasco.
But Turkey had been the only country that objected to Fogh Rasmussen's selection to head the trans-Atlantic military alliance. Detractors of the Dane, led by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, felt Fogh Rasmussen was unsuitable for the post because he had been unyielding in the dispute over the Muhammad caricatures and preferred to defend the right to free speech rather than apologize. In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten sparked outrage in the Muslim world after it published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad -- an act considered to be blasphemy by Muslims. Fogh Rasmussen's unbending stance made it easy for Erdogan to foment criticism against him in Turkey.
The remaining 27 NATO members, especially Germany, France and the United States, all offered their clear backing for Fogh Rasmussen, but the summit remained a suspenseful one. The reason being that one of the many peculiar rules of the alliance is that the secretary general must be unanimously elected, meaning that Turkey actually did have the power to reject the choice.
For quite some time at the summit, it looked like it might not be possible to persuade Turkey. Before dinner in Baden-Baden on Friday, US President Barack Obama, Merkel and even Fogh Rasmussen himself each spoke again to Turkish President Abdullah Gül without success. The leaders had hoped to persuade the politically moderate Gül.
For the chancellor, the summit being held in her own country had threatened to become a disaster. On Friday afternoon, Merkel publicly stated, and with unusual clarity, that Fogh Rasmussen should be appointed the new NATO chief by evening. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier also joined ranks and repeated the clear-cut demand.
Without the surprising about-face that took place in the extended negotiations, the summit would have ended up a complete embarrassment for Merkel. In the bizarre logic of NATO summits, where leaders can tend to complain about each other more than negotiate, Merkel miscalculated -- very unusual for a cool tactician like her who normally has a tendency to wait an see than to courageously press ahead.
Just how the breakthrough was achieved is difficult to say. As is the case at most such summits, the leaders immediately hurried off to the airport. Diplomats only said that the US, Germany, France and still-NATO General Secretary Scheffer gathered together in a mini-summit to find a way forward.
According to diplomatic sources, the decisive impulse came from the US. Obama spoke with Gül and telephoned with Erdogan -- and was able to assuage their concerns. Erdogan said that Obama offered him certain unnamed guarantees -- allegedly they had to do with the Denmark-based Kurdish broadcaster Roj TV as well as with top NATO posts for Turkey.
Neither report could be confirmed by the end of the summit. Both Merkel and Sarkozy, though, praised the result, saying it was demonstration of the alliance's strength. The French president said that the "resoluteness" of the other NATO member states played a major role. "In the end, strength won out," Sarkozy said.
Once the drama had come to an end, Fogh Rasmussen immediately sought to ease the tension, saying he would do "his utmost" for the partnership with Turkey. Relations with the Muslim world, he said, were decisive, and he even promised a review of the television station Roj TV -- a pledge apparently made at the request of Erdogan. Previously, Fogh Rasmussen had been unwilling to stop broadcasts in his country of the satellite TV channel.
Despite the relief in NATO, particularly in Berlin and Paris, the butting of heads with Erdogan left a bitter aftertaste. Once again, the US proved the only ally capable of solving fundamental differences within the alliance. Without Obama's telephone diplomacy, it is hard to imagine the summit having reached a satisfactory conclusion.
Indeed, the US president, whose initial goal at the summit had been to soothe trans-Atlantic relations, seemed at times like a marriage counsellor mediating between the different NATO members from the Continent. At the end of the summit, Obama congratulated Fogh Rasmussen and praised him as the ideal candidate for the job.
Obama said nothing about his role in the ultimate success of the conference. He modestly thanked Turkey for expressing its "important" concerns. But Obama, as became clear in Strasbourg, is an exceptional political talent -- also when it comes to international relations. And Merkel and Sarkozy owe him one.