- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 30, 2002

With all eyes focused on the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Somalia and whatever other points south or east to qualify for the second stage of the war fears are rising in Europe over a new threat to NATO. No, it is not Islamic militants on the march or the Russian bear showing its fangs. It is the possibility that NATO is facing an existential threat, that it no longer has a meaning. That these fears arise at the same time NATO is preparing a round of enlargement that likely will take in its first three former Soviet republics, is indeed supremely ironic. For those of us who have long held that NATO is a cornerstone of the post-Soviet order in Europe, it would also be a very serious development, another tragic casualty of September 11.

The danger signs are plentiful. As noted by Celleste Wallander of the Center for Strategic and International Studies at the center's seminar on New Approaches to Russian Security, "After September 11 … NATO's relevance to its core mission is in question. NATO faces irrelevance. We face a new security world, with a new security mission. NATO invoked Article 5 after the September attack, but NATO is not the instrument on which the United States has chosen to rely to defeat the threat it faces."

Take a look at the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan. NATO has been conspicuously absent from the picture for several understandable reasons. What the Bush administration needed for the war was a political coalition, not a military one, and this it deftly put together including countries around the world, not just in Europe. We simply did not need the Europeans.

Secondly, even if we had needed them, NATO countries, with the exception of Great Britain and Turkey, would not have had the capacity to keep up. No one else has the airlift capacity and the high tech weapons systems needed for the air campaign. Thirdly, there is the question of control, and here the military campaign in Kosovo remains a cautionary example for U.S. military planners. The Bush administration did not want to wait for the unanimous approval of other NATO governments to go ahead.

Or consider for a moment the Bush administration's ill-considered overtures to the Russians. In a recent interview with The Washington Times, Secretary of State Colin Powell listed U.S.-Russian relations, and particularly the proposed joint NATO-Russian Council, as the foremost foreign policy success of the Bush administration. The idea is to "identify and pursue opportunities for joint action at 20" that would be 19 NATO members plus Russia acting in partnership. The concept of NATO at 20 represents Mr. Powell's victory over Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who was dead set against it. If there is any way for NATO at 20 to avoid becoming a version of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a political bureaucracy, it is hard to envision.

In other words, the alliance is facing several hard questions as we move closer to the NATO Prague summit in November. Can a two-tier NATO work, a NATO in which Americans fight the wars, and the Europeans do the peacekeeping? Which nations are to be invited to join the alliance? And is NATO capable of redefining its mission?

Current thinking in Europe favors an expansion to include five new members Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania plus Slovenia and Slovakia. The Bush administration seems to think that a southern flank is needed, which would bring in Romania and Bulgaria, as well. But will further enlargement eviscerate the alliance? If Russia is included that becomes almost a foregone conclusion.

No matter how you cut it, the questions have to be answered: What kind of NATO these countries will be part of, and what its purpose is meant to be? If the problems of Europe have been more or less permanently "fixed" the Balkans being arguably the last area of Europe that needed sorting out after the two world wars of the last century can NATO reorient itself to deal with the new threats arising outside its territory?

The best bid so far to crystallize these issues has come from Sen. Richard Lugar, who threw down the gauntlet to NATO planners in a major speech in Brussels on Jan. 19. "As important as they are, neither NATO enlargement nor NATO-Russia cooperation is the most critical issue facing our nations today," he said. "That issue is the war on terrorism. NATO has to decide whether it wants to participate in this war. It has to decide whether it wants to be relevant in addressing the major security challenge of today." So very true.

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