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U.S., Europe Wrestle with NATO's New Challenges. - 2003-12-02

For more than five decades the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been a key to the security of the Euro-Atlantic area. NATO remains a fundamental pillar of U.S.foreign and defense policy, but Europe is sending signals it wants to take a different path. A recent Parliamentary Assembly showed the alliance at a crossroads. It faces new missions, a split with the United States and the challenge of dealing with a competing military program from the European Union. VOA’s Lilica Kitanovska reports.

The 49th Parliamentary Assembly was the last for Lord George Robertson as General Secretary. There he reported: “The Alliance is in a good shape.”

But how healthy and relevant is NATO today? That was the major question before the three hundred delegates who gathered in Orlando, Florida to debate the impact of the war in Iraq on transatlantic relations and the new type of terrorist threats.

Lord Robertson told a story from the last ministerial meeting in the U.S. state of Colorado, where he presented the organizer with a bottle of fine malt whiskey. In return he received a T-shirt with the slogan: "This ain't your daddy's NATO." That was a fair exchange, said Lord Robertson, recognizing that in the 21st century "we can't go with the same standards of fifty years ago."

The North Atlantic Alliance was founded in the Cold War to deter a possible Soviet invasion. Today, NATO's primary mission remains collective defense, but now extended farther east. Seven more countries are scheduled to join NATO next year.

The President of the Parliamentary Assembly, U.S. Congressman Doug Bereuter, says these new countries will contribute more to the Alliance than just military assets: “When these nations join NATO next spring, I am confident that they will reinvigorate the alliance, and in fact, that new vigor has already been felt.”

This pending enlargement will be the fifth and biggest in NATO history. It will also dramatically change the structure of the organization, with former communist countries now comprising 40 % of its membership. As Lord Robertson puts it, instead of going out of business, NATO has gone "out of area."

Coming to the doorstep of Russia, NATO has also reached out to its Cold War adversary. A new NATO - Russia Council has been created to let Moscow participate in decision making in areas of common concern.

NATO has also developed a relationship with Ukraine, with the possibility of its joining the alliance once it shows sufficient democratic progress. NATO is working in similar fashion with the countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia, which have contributed to the war against terrorism as well.

NATO's involvement in Afghanistan was its first operation outside Europe. But last winter's U.S-led invasion of Iraq split the alliance. General Wesley Clark, former NATO Commander and now a Democratic Presidential Candidate, blames U-S unilateralism for bringing on the split: “It started when President Bush said to the world, ‘You are either for us or against us.’ And as a result, even some of those who were with us are now against us, and those, like Tony Blair, who are still with us pay a political price for it.”

Now critics on both sides of the Atlantic argue that Europe and North America have separate destinies, conflicting interests and incompatible world views. Some even say this could spell the end of an organization struggling to define itself since the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

NATO General Secretary Lord George Robertson strongly disagrees: “The truth is, however, that we have a unique partnership born in common philosophies of freedom and democracy. A partnership forged during half a century's fight against tyranny, a partnership that now stands as a beacon in a world faced by extremism and instability, a beacon of democracy, toleration, plurality, openness and candor.”

Another key topic at the NATO conference was the European Union plan for developing a military arm. NATO fears this new European Security and Defense Policy has potential to undermine the alliance. NATO does not object to an EU military within limits, but is wary of overlapping. Mr. Bereuter makes this point:

“More and more it appears that the EU is duplicating many of the mechanisms, devices, responsibilities and mission of NATO, the most controversial now being a pending element in the proposed European Union Constitution, which would make the EU a mutual defense organization which would, of course, exactly replicate the fundamental reason and the most important reason why NATO was formed in the first place.”

Participants at the Orlando meeting debated whether or not the proposed EU military force would have a separate headquarters outside Brussels and whether it should have a separate planning organization. The United States worries in general about an enlarged European military that would rival its own.

NATO is encouraging the European Union to focus on its existing Rapid Reaction Force with a limitation of 60,000 that can be deployed for crisis management, peacekeeping, rescue and humanitarian operations. Furthermore, under the so called "Berlin Plus" agreement, the European Union can use elements of NATO when the Alliance as a whole decides not to be engaged.

Twice so far the European Union has had a chance to test its military force: once in Macedonia, taking NATO's place in a peacekeeping mission after an inter-ethnic conflict in the country. The second occurred in Congo, where EU intervened under French leadership to prevent escalation of a civil clash. The European Union also plans to take over the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia after NATO departs, possibly in 2004.

The Permanent U.S. representative to NATO, Ambassador Nicholas Burns, offers another argument against an EU military branch: “Are there billions of Euros available to build an entire military apparatus to support autonomous operations? Our view would be that the autonomous operation of the type you undertook in Congo would be rare and that much more common would be a Macedonian operation where you borrow NATO assets. The EU already said that if EU goes into Bosnia, it will not do it autonomously. It will go under ‘Berlin Plus.’ Does E-U really need more headquarters or does Europe need more capabilities? Our answer would be the latter.”

NATO does not have a problem with these more limited EU military operations. In fact, they can contribute to strengthening both NATO and Europe.

U.S. Ambassador Burns is convinced the dispute over the European Union military plans will be settled to the benefit of both sides: “What has kept the peace in Europe for the last sixty years since May 1945? It has been our partnership. It has been our alliance in NATO that has allowed the European Union to grow in peace, allowed the European countries to live in peace, and that that transatlantic partnership has to continue in my view in the future.”

Development of EU military capabilities and aspirations can either hurt or complement NATO. Diplomacy and compromise are obviously required.