Where to, NATO?

Its seven new members make NATO stronger, but to what end?

| Wed Mar. 31, 2004 1:00 AM PST

For the first time, Balkan and Baltic states joined a military bloc of their own accord rather than at gunpoint. President Bush, at the White House, welcomed seven former Soviet-dominated nations into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, saying that NATO would be strengthened because "tyranny for them is still a fresh memory.''

Decoded, this appeared to mean the new members could be counted on to stand with the US against the "tyranny" of fundamentalist terror. But whether NATO -- an alliance, after all, premised on the bipolar dynamics of the Cold War world -- is the most effective mechanism for the fight against multipolar, nonstate terror is a question that dogs the organization, and has dogged it since 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved.

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Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Romania, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia bring the membership of NATO -- formed 55 years ago by the United States, Canada, and ten European nations as an counter to an expansionist Soviet Union -- up to 26, and shifts the organization's center of gravity somewhat eastward. All the new members but Slovenia had been part of the Warsaw pact - aligned with the Soviet Union during the cold war, This is the second expansion in five years to admit members of the old Soviet aligned bloc. In 1999 the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland became members.

NATO membership requires "adhering to sustainable democracy, a functioning market economy, ethnic stability, the recognition of international borders, and civilian control of member countries' defense forces." In practice this has meant a bedrock commitment preserving and extending security in Europe. Members must now also look beyond Europe -- "out of area" in NATO jargon -- to new challenges as far afield as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Why do countries -- and in addition to the new batch, other nations, like Serbia, Macedonia, and Albania have expressed an interest -- want to join NATO? Balkan and Baltic newspapers used an umbrella metaphor to describe their new membership in NATO. The Pravda newspaper of Slovakia described NATO inclusion as a kind of insurance. Robert E. Hunter, NATO ambassador under President Clinton, furhter explains in an online forum at the Washington Post's site:

Their reasoning is the same as that of the countries that have already joined: to "bring history to an end," in the sense of being the playthings of the Great Powers; to have an association with the EU (with tends to follow) and with the US; to have an added incentive domestically to put down deep democrtic roots; and to gain -- they believe -- the benefits in terms of foreign investment and confidence that can come with NATO. membership.

But expansion brings its challenges. Says Hunter, "one has to ask just how big NATO can become and still retain a sense of common purpose, and also a willingness of each of its members to give security guarantees -- and NATO's security guarantees must always be real -- to farflung states." There are also questions about whether the new members can carry their weight militarily (Slovenia's Delo journal reminded readers how big an effort it took to mobilize just 18 troops to Afghanistan); and whether more members will make it more difficult for NATO to reach a consensus on how to act. (NATO decisions are always taken by consensus, rather than by formal vote.).

Russia, with some justification, eyes the eastward push of NATO as a potential threat to its own security. New NATO members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, once home to more than 100,000 Red Army forces, have been eager to participate in European security institutions. The Russian government in recent weeks has demanded explanations for the presence of NATO troops in the Baltic republics. The Russian Duma scheduled special meeting of the Security Council of Russia with NATO expansion on the agenda.

In theory, Russia could join NATO, but in practice it is unlikely to want to, and current members would in any case be cool to the idea. Instead, there is now, thanks to a 2002 treaty, a NATO-Russia Council, which brings Russia into NATO deliberations when its interests are engaged, to build cooperation.

Most crucial, perhaps is the question of what role NATO can be expected to play in combating terrorism. Here's Roger Cohen in the International Herald Tribune:

This was long the elusive dream of the patient builders of Europe's postwar order. So where is the joy?
...

[T]his European spring is a heady one, at once an end and a beginning. Europe has overcome its 20th-century nightmare only to find itself confronting threats for which its painstakingly constructed institutions were scarcely prepared.

Can those institutions, the European Union and NATO, adapt? On the one hand, the bombs in Madrid have provided a powerful spur to an acceleration of EU integration. In the outrage from Valencia to Vilnius, a common European identity was felt and forged. It became clear as a cloudless Madrileño dawn that a divided Europe - its police, judicial and intelligence resources scattered - would be more vulnerable to further attack.

Hunter points out that NATO has a role, of a very specific sort, in counter-terrorism.

Counter-terrorism is most about non-military activities -- as Secretary of Defense and others have said. It is about intelligence, policy work, border control, etc., etc. -- most of which are activities carried out by other institutions and relationships, both singly and in groups. There is also the task of trying to "dry up the sea within which the terrorist fish swim," which, if anything, is the task of institutions like the European Union (in a new strategic partnership with the US).

Militarily, there is work to do, of course, and most of that is in the realm of either special forces or of the kind of "reconstruction" and "stabilization" work that is being done in Afghanistan and Iraq (which becamse a terrorism problem only after the war). This is not about high intensity warfare, except in rare circumstances (such as the anti-Taliban period after 9/11).

Thus NATO has already assumed command of ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, and it is developing Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Indeed, if NATO gets more deeply engaged in Afghanisan to do what is needed so that it will cease being a base for the export of terrorism (if "cease" can be achieved, which is a daunting task), then this could become the most ambitous task the Alliance has undertaken since the end of the Cold War. Similarly, NATO is likely to take over major responsibilities in Iraq, which have their own counter-terrorism aspects.

Thanks to porous European borders, some fear that the merging of 10 new nations into the European Union in May will open entry portals for an unprecedented number of far-flung extremists and refugees.

Cohen explains:

In ways both intended and subliminal, the escape into anti-Americanism is an attempt at false bonding with the peoples of Islam. Give the Arabs--and the Muslim communities implanted in Europe--anti-Americanism, give them an identification with the Palestinians, and you shall be spared their wrath. Beat the drums of opposition to America's war in Iraq, and the furies of this radical Islamism will pass you by. This is seen as a way around the troubles. But there is no exit that way.

Whether terrorist threats are more dangerous within E.U. borders or elsewhere in global hot zones remains to be seen, but Cohen describes the likely reaction:

Already, European leaders, broadly reprising NATO's central Article Five, have pledged that a terrorist attack on one EU member will lead to a mobilization of all. That is a significant declaration of EU purposefulness. Polish and Spanish objections that have held up the adoption of a European constitution are being resolved, almost certainly allowing the treaty to be adopted in June in another demonstration of European cohesion.

... NATO is in the midst of a transformation from a static, defensive alliance to a mobile force with a mission of bringing security to countries from Central Asia to North Africa. It is already in Afghanistan; the Bush administration would like to see it in Iraq soon.

Eighteen countries currently have forces in Iraq through NATO. The alliance's Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer suggested this week that the forces, with U.N. backing, might provide military support in Iraq despite French, German and growing Spanish opposition.

Ambassador Hunter thinks there's a strong and obvious role for NATO in Iraq -- a role through which the organization might refind itself.

I predict that, within a year, NATO will have taken over responsibility for much if not all external military engagement in Iraq, under a UN mandate. This is a logical extension of what NATO has already done successfully in the Balkans (neither Bosnia or Kosovo is yet successful politically and economically but, except for the recent violence in Kosovo, neither has experienced the conflict of the pre-NATO period), and is beginning to do in Afghanistan. ... At heart, whether or not we should have gone to war in Iraq, it is over. The old security system has been shattered. Both we and the Europeans have a vital interest -- vital self-interests -- in putting something viable in its place. And how better to do that, from the point of view of all concerned, than through NATO?
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