NATO, the Atlantic Alliance set up to fend off Soviet expansionism during the Cold War, has been casting around for a new role since the collapse of the Soviet Union ten years ago. In the ensuing period, it has successfully taken on missions in the Balkans. But the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and Washington's single-handed management of the war in Afghanistan have left the 19-member alliance sitting on the sidelines.
What role can be left for NATO when its military machinery has not even been cranked up for the first war of the 21st century? Is it set to become an umbrella organization for political consultation instead of a military alliance prepared to wage war? Does the American decision to make bilateral arrangements with its allies instead of calling on NATO for military support in the war on terrorism signal a new trend? Will Washington's new focus on homeland defense and on its own military capabilities bring pressure for a reduction of U.S. forces in Europe?
These are the questions most frequently asked at NATO's Brussels headquarters and at defense ministries across Europe. Most NATO diplomats acknowledge that the United States learned during the 1999 Kosovo conflict that waging war by committee was not the way to achieve its military objectives. NATO is a consensus-based organization, and, as a French diplomat puts it, governments want to ask questions and control what targets are hit. This time, Washington chose to send its own troops and warplanes to Afghanistan, with just a sprinkling of help from individual allies, mainly Britain.
NATO did invoke its mutual defense clause for the first time ever following the September 11 attacks, declaring the terrorist strikes on New York and Washington an attack on all the alliance's members. And along with that move came the over-flight rights and port privileges that the United States needed to proceed with its retaliation against the terrorists and their supporters in Afghanistan.
But the question remains, how can NATO get involved in meeting the new threat? U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for one, believes the alliance does have a role to play and that the allies should start by beefing up their capabilities to meet the new threat. "The reason we are not attacked by armies, navies and air forces is because we have effective armies, navies and air forces," he said. "It's perfectly logical that we're going to be attacked, therefore, by people who will look for vulnerabilities. They'll look for vulnerabilities, for example, in our dependency in various types of communication. They'll look for vulnerabilities by using cruise missiles, or ballistic missiles or weapons of mass destruction. That requires that we address those threats that run across that so-called asymmetrical spectrum. But it does not suggest that it allows one to simply forget more basic threats."
Mr. Rumsfeld suggests that NATO should slash its peacekeeping force in Bosnia by up to one-third before the end of next year. That, he says, will help Washington and the allies prepare for whatever new front may open in the war on terrorism. Some allies, like France and Germany, are leery about any extension of the war beyond Afghanistan and have specifically rejected the idea of attacking Iraq.
NATO Secretary General George Robertson, who has made a point of stressing the alliance's relevance despite the changing strategic situation, said after a recent NATO defense ministers' meeting that the allies are prepared to abandon their reluctance to extend NATO's operations beyond Europe. "This is a changed world, with a premium on political and military agility," he explained. "We agreed to increase the proportion of forces that can be deployed and sustained in operations far beyond alliance territory. We agreed that our concepts, our policies, our structures, and, most importantly, our defense capabilities must be adapted to the new security environment."
But NATO officials say it will take time for the allies to reshape their militaries to counter the terrorist threat and come up with ways to pay for it, especially at a time when European defense budgets are low and the public desire to spend more on defense is simply not there.
In the wake of September 11, NATO has also sought to bring its old adversary, Russia, into the fold, not as a member of the alliance but as a full partner in deciding major European security issues. Some NATO officials say this is partly a repayment for Russia's cooperation on the war against terrorists, but others say Russian and NATO interests have come together on the issue of terrorism.
European security expert Jerome Sheridan, of American University's Brussels Center, says Moscow's reaction to Washington's announced pullout from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and NATO's determination to expand to include countries bordering Russia has been remarkably muted. "Russia is just as afraid as anybody of its southern border," he said, "and that is the region where instability is emerging, or terrorists have their base. And to the extent that NATO's interests and Russia's interests have converged on this fight against terrorism, then Russia is going to look at issues like the abrogation of the ABM treaty and NATO enlargement more benignly than it otherwise would."
Some of the allies, notably those in Central Europe, liken NATO's cuddling up to Russia as akin to letting the fox in the hen house. But Secretary-General Robertson says Moscow is not being given the chance to paralyze the alliance. "Everyone will benefit from this initiative," he observed. "We and Russia are not abandoning our own principles and our own prerogatives. No non-member can veto the alliance's decisions. Nor can NATO veto Russia's right to take independent decisions. This is about working together more effectively when it is in all of our interests to do so."
Alliance officials say NATO still provides a structure and a planning capability for an array of operations that might be useful in future hot spots. And it provides an American guarantee of help if European security is in danger. But they admit that uncertainties over U.S. policy and Europe's own defense capabilities and ambitions could result in the alliance becoming another political talking shop like the United Nations or the European Union. Preventing that from happening is Mr. Robertson's biggest challenge in the foreseeable future.
Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001