U.S., Europe gulf opens at NATO summit

European objections keep Georgia, Ukraine off membership track, but US plans for missile-defense program in Europe gets an endorsement.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Afghan President Hamid Karzai (l.) met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the NATO meeting Thursday.
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Vladimir Putin, who will be the first Russian president to set foot at a NATO summit, arrives Friday at a meeting where basic differences among Americans and Europeans emerged more openly and sharply – partly over how to deal with Russia's rise under Mr. Putin.

The White House scored success in two crucial areas – troops for Afghanistan and an agreement to move forward on a missile-shield defense. French President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to send a battalion – 700 soldiers – to eastern Afghanistan; the Americans promised to rotate some of their troops from the east into the south, where the heaviest fighting is, satisfying the Canadians, who had promised to pull out their troops if not given greater backup. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the meeting expressed "real confidence" that the issue has been solved.

NATO members all supported the US position on missile-shield defense, which is to be deployed in the Czech Republic and Poland. "There is a threat … and allied security must be indivisible in the face of it," read the statement on missile defense.

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Yet the alliance firmly rejected a very late US push to bring Ukraine and Georgia into the NATO fold. And basic disagreements deepened. How to engage with a more openly belligerent Moscow, conceptual differences over the "war on terror" as Americans describe it, and longer-term combat participation in Afghanistan were dissonant undercurrents in an organization examining its basic meaning and mission. During the cold war, NATO never fought; today, it is deployed in two theaters, Afghanistan and Kosovo.

"There were no real winners at this summit," says Ronald Asmus, director of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels. "Pandora's box was opened, and a lot of problems were put out on the table. Maybe that's good in a way because the issues are real. Now they will have to be addressed."

For the Bush team, a last-minute, pull-out-the-stops effort to invite strategically important Ukraine and Georgia into NATO was met with resolute opposition by many of the oldest NATO allies, including France and Germany.

One German diplomat said the White House had not decided even in January its position on Ukraine, and that the alliance had not done its "homework" on the thorny problem of inviting a sensitive new member so close to Russia's heartland.

"The Americans suddenly crashed the gears on Ukraine and NATO," says François Heisbourg, head of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. "They went from neutral to fourth gear in one shot, and the noise was pretty awful. Why Bush and his advisers thought they could pull this off is a mystery to me."

But the summit final press statement, given by NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, states that the allies "agree today that these countries [Ukraine and Georgia] will become members of NATO," and that their cases will be reviewed at a 2008 meeting of foreign ministers.

Such final language keeps the door open to NATO enlargement and will probably be discussed between President Bush and Putin when they meet this weekend in Sochi.

Thursday, Mr. de Hoop Scheffer announced that Croatia and Albania were accepted as new NATO members and that Bosnia and Montenegro would be invited to join. NATO acceptance of the two Balkan states is part of an effort to bring shared values and Western rule of law to an area that has succumbed to what de Hoop Scheffer called "sullen nationalism."

The decisions are "far reaching," said de Hoop Scheffer in announcing them from an ornate theater in the cavernous palace built by Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's last dictator. "They will substantially change the alliance and its Euro-Atlantic relations."

Macedonia, which has worked for 15 years to join NATO, was not accepted – a result of its dispute with Greece involving the name "Republic of Macedonia," which Greece claims represents a territorial threat.

Macedonia will be able to join as soon as the name issue is resolved at the United Nations, NATO officials stated. The question is a volatile one and could destabilize the small state, experts say.

A stress by European states to rebalance military and political aid to Afghanistan and to shift toward further training Afghan forces is considered by some analysts to be a major innovation in the 2008 summit.

President Sarkozy said Thursday that France would fully rejoin NATO's military command by the end of this year. France left NATO in 1966, but in the late 1990s, under former President Jacques Chirac, it began a path of reintegration. Sarkozy set a deadline for France – by the end of its six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, set to begin in July.

After the cold war and under the rule of President Boris Yeltsin, the expansion of NATO eastward into Russian spheres of influence took place with scant thought for Moscow's opinion. Yet Putin has so changed this position that East European members of NATO, who feel they understand the Russian bear better, are critical of what they often term NATO's "appeasement" of Moscow by older NATO states who are wary of allowing Ukraine and Georgia to join.

"We seem to want a strategic partnership with a country that targets us every time we say we disagree with it," said Estonian President Toomas Ilves, whose country recently endured a cyberattack from Russia that shut down the Internet for a week. "I think we should take Russia more seriously."

NATO officials agreed to set up a cyberattacks defense group, along with an energy-security team, a result of concern over Russia.

Strains continued over what Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticized as a "two-tiered" alliance system, in which some nations can pick and choose when and how to defend each other. Germany has been singled out for refusing to deploy troops in combat areas in Afghanistan and the French and Canadians have also been critical. Yet Berlin has countered that the Afghan mission it originally undertook was a rebuilding and civil-society mission that did not involve combat.

Mr. Heisbourg argues the alliance was always multitiered, but the fact that NATO was never deployed hid this fact.

Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski responding to the question of such hard fighting in the summit hallways, said that vigorous debate and disagreements were perfectly acceptable if not desirable inside NATO. "It is an alliance of free nations….In the Warsaw Pact we had no disagreement."

Macedonia's lack of an invitation is expected to play badly in Skopje. "I have a bad feeling in my gut," said a senior political figure contacted by phone from Bucharest. Greece did change its position to allow the name Macedonia along with another adjective, like New Macedonia – but Skopje insists on the Republic of Macedonia, "because no one can tell you what you should be called," the political leader said. Heisbourg blames Athens, saying that "Macedonia is an incredible success story ... how the Greeks could further instability on their own northern border, in the Balkans, is incredible. They are acting as if this is 1912."

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