Cold war won, can NATO fight terror?

The alliance begins a partnership with Russia, as it searches for a new role.

As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization finally digests its former arch enemy, Moscow, at Tuesday's first meeting of the NATO-Russia council, a specter stalks the feast.

Does the alliance that has guarded the Western world's safety for the past half century still have a military job to do, now that the cold war is over? Can it muster the political will (and cash) to join the US in the "war on terrorism" – against Iraq or others that may threaten to use weapons of mass destruction?

With its old work done, what is NATO for?

"We have the best alliance in the world to deal with the least likely threat, and we don't have an alliance to deal with the most likely threat," says Ron Asmus, deputy assistant secre- tary of State under the Clinton administration.

President Bush, on a weeklong European tour that ends today in Rome, has urged Washington's NATO partners to re-tool the alliance for new missions further afield. But the organization's future is clouded by twin doubts.

While US planners fear European governments won't spend the money to make their armies effective allies in battle, European leaders wonder how deep Washington's commitment is to NATO, in light of its decision to run the war in Afghanistan itself.

US officials insist that they still see NATO as the cornerstone of US-European relations and of Western security. One hundred thousand US troops are stationed in Europe, they point out, and Washington has been the driving force behind NATO's enlargement to include former Warsaw Pact countries in Central Europe. The alliance "remains a fundamental pillar of our foreign and defense policy," Under secretary of State Marc Grossman told a Senate committee earlier this month.

In the Pentagon, however, some senior officials appear to harbor doubts about this. They recall laborious NATO meetings during the Kosovo war to decide on strategy and to choose bombing targets, which led to complaints about the difficulty of waging war by committee.

Those voices prevailed when it came to fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Although NATO invoked Article V of its founding treaty – calling an attack on one member an attack on all – Washington chose to wage war on its own terms. US military planners have used troops from 14 NATO allies in Afghanistan, but they have operated under US command, not as a NATO force.

"NATO should be the place where the Americans and Europeans coordinate their security and defense policy, but that is not what the Americans have been doing," complains François Heisbourg, head of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. "They have been coordinating military operations in Afghanistan from (US Central Command HQ in) Tampa. NATO has been sidelined."

NATO leaders hope that the Afghanistan war is not a blueprint for the future. "The fact that NATO has not been in the lead in Afghanistan should not be taken to mean it will not lead in other military operations in the future" said NATO Secretary General George Robinson last month.

Officials say NATO is readying itself to fight terrorism and those who might use weapons of mass destruction: NATO foreign ministers agreed at their recent Reykjavik summit that the alliance "must be able to field forces that can move quickly to wherever they are needed, sustain operations over distance and time, and achieve their objectives."

Some European observers wonder whether NATO is the right vehicle for the fight against terrorism, which they see as a police problem more than a military one. "The notion that NATO will be the place where the security services and police trade information and coordinate policy is not serious," says Mr. Heisbourg.

Rather, he argues, NATO should concentrate on ensuring stability in Central Europe by bringing in new members there, and developing new relations with Russia, while managing military operations in Europe's 'near abroad,' such as the Balkans.

NATO's expansion, which is expected to include up to seven new members at the alliance summit next November in Prague, encourages the idea of NATO as more of a political organization than a military one, says Daniel Keohane, a security expert at the Centre for European Reform in London. "Some of the new countries are not exactly boosting NATO's military capabilities," he points out.

But at Prague, US officials say they want NATO to adopt new missions to match the new situation in the wake of 9/11. "Just as the US is transforming our national defense to meet these deadly new threats, so, too, must we transform NATO and our allies' thinking about transatlantic defense" said Nicholas Burns, US ambassador to NATO, in a recent speech.

Such transformations are likely to be at the heart of transatlantic debate over the coming months, say analysts. But Washington must convince Europe it is serious, says Mr. Asmus.

"Europe is more prepared than ever to go down that path (to a wider geographical role for NATO) but they won't give the US a blank check," he argues. "If the message from the US is that we'll do most things ourselves and won't use NATO any more, why should they spend more on it? The US needs to come up with a clearer vision of its role for NATO."

Getting European governments to spend on defense is a tough sell. Amid tight budget ceilings regulating their common currency, they all find spending on health or education more popular with voters. Since 1986, defense spending as a proportion of GDP has fallen from 5.3 percent to 2.5 percent in Britain, from 3.2 percent to 1.5 percent in Germany and from 3.9 percent to 2.7 percent in France. The $48 billion increase in the Pentagon budget that Congress approved recently is more than the total defense budgets of 12 NATO allies.

Nor has 9/11 changed European minds as it has in the US, where defense budgets had also been falling. After six years of dithering, European governments are still squabbling over how to fund construction of a military transport plane to meet one of their most glaring needs, heavy airlift. "It will require a lot of effort by European statesmen to persuade their public to increase military spending," British Foreign Minister Jack Straw told reporters in Reykjavik.

Without such an increase, however, European armies will find themselves unable to fight alongside high-tech American forces, military analysts predict.

"The growing capabilities gap between the United States and Europe is the most serious long-term problem facing NATO and must be addressed," Mr. Grossman said in his Senate testimony. "Unless the disparity is substantially narrowed, NATO will be increasingly less able to play its part in countering the threats that now face us."

That could be the death of the alliance. "If we succeed in enlargement, but there is a breakdown in US-European cooperation in dealing with the Middle East and Afghanistan, people will ask what the alliance is for," Asmus says.

NATO at a glance

The new NATO-Russia Council gives Russia an equal voice at alliance meetings that set policy on counterterrorism, tactical missile defense, peacekeeping, management of regional crises and other issues. NATO leaders say it does not give Moscow veto powers.

In November, NATO is expected to invite Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia, and possibly Slovakia to join.

Current members are:

Belgium Canada Czech Republic

Denmark France Germany

Great Britain Greece Iceland

Italy Hungary Luxembourg

Netherlands Norway Poland

Portugal Spain Turkey


– The Associated Press

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