April 27, 2018 / 4:11 PM / 3 months ago

Moving home, NATO closes door on storied decision-making "Room 1"

* Council room witnessed key decisions in Western policy

* NATO HQ moving from 1960s structure to new glass palace

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS, April 27 (Reuters) - Its tobacco-brown chairs were worn and its beige carpet was old-fashioned, but NATO bid a nostalgic farewell to a decision-making council room on Friday as it moves to a new headquarters.

From a 1967 call for detente with the Soviet Union to more recent decisions for military interventions in the Balkans, Libya and Afghanistan, Room 1 at the NATO headquarters has been at the centre of the West’s foreign policy.

Before the move next month to a new glass-and-steel palace nearby, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg likened it to taking a warship out of service.

“Today, we decommission this chamber,” Stoltenberg told 29 foreign ministers that included new U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his first visit to North Atlantic Treaty Organisation headquarters.

While the new NATO home features an amphitheatre-like council room, with sleek black-and-grey cladding and the latest audio-visual technology, it will struggle to match its predecessor for post-Cold War drama.

In 1990, then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl rushed by car from Bonn to Brussels to make an unexpected, three-hour plea to assembled ambassadors in the room for German reunification.

A year later, Vaclav Havel, the anti-Communist playwright who became Czech president, gave an extraordinary defence of NATO to the chamber, a harbinger for the enthusiasm that former Soviet satellites showed for joining the alliance.

ROOM 16

In one dramatic moment, then NATO Secretary-General Manfred Woerner, who was dying of bowel cancer, addressed the council room while just out of hospital and still attached to a medical drip, pushing for NATO support of U.N. forces during the break-up of Yugoslavia.

As NATO’s role shifted from home defence to expeditionary missions abroad, the forum served as the political control room for bombing campaigns to stop ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and as part of the West’s attempts to counter Islamic militants.

Another secretary-general, Javier Solana, won a rare standing ovation in an otherwise sombre chamber after convincing Russia to sign a cooperation treaty in 1997, although the agreement was undermined by Moscow’s seizure of Crimea in 2014.

A day after the 2001, Sept. 11, attacks on New York and Washington, in the same room the alliance triggered its Article 5 mutual defence clause for the first and only time.

Arguably the most dramatic moment in NATO lore was not in Room 1, but in a larger meeting room called Room 16, which, diplomatically at least, signalled the end of the Soviet Union.

During a policy meeting in that room in 1991 between NATO envoys and Moscow, the Soviet ambassador interrupted proceedings to take a phone call from President Boris Yeltsin.

He returned half an hour later to request that his country’s flag and name plate be replaced with those of the Russian Federation because the Soviet Union had just been dissolved. (Reporting by Robin Emmott Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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