- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Most people get over their growth spurts in the teen-age years. This week, however, the very mature North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is set to grow considerably. By week's end, the roster of potential new members may bring the alliance to 26 from the current 19. If the three Baltic countries are included as they are expected to be, along with Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania NATO will even extend beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union.

Tomorrow, heads of government from current and aspiring NATO countries will gather in Prague for one of the most important meetings of the 53-year-old defense alliance. Though the envisioned second round of post-Cold War enlargement of NATO has taken shape with remarkably little controversy, the upcoming meeting will be an existential moment of extraordinary important for the alliance and by extension for the troubled trans-Atlantic relationship.

In the age of global terrorism, NATO desperately needs new ways to remain relevant, indeed viable. The terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11 and their aftermath were a shrill but much-needed wake-up call for NATO planners.

For the first time in the history of the alliance, the members invoked Article 5 of the NATO treaty promising collective defense of a member under attack only to find this offer of assistance politely ignored. Instead, the United States went to war in Afghanistan largely on its own. With the capabilities in place and a time frame of mere weeks, Gen. Tommy Franks did not have the time to wait for NATO allies whose force projection abilities were extremely limited anyway.

President Bush goes to Prague with a specific agenda that includes three items. First, there is the enlargement itself. By being included in NATO, these members of the defunct Warsaw Pact become further grounded in European institutions, members of the democratic West. It will bring Europe closer to realizing the vision of a continent that is "whole, free, and at peace," as Mr. Bush promised in Warsaw in the summer of 2001.

Secondly and crucially, there's the job of transforming NATO into the kind of alliance that can strike against the enemy of the future, very possibly far from its own borders. We no longer face the threat of massive armies contending for the Central European plains, the Cold War model of military conflict in Europe. Rather, today, NATO members face common threats deriving from terrorists and state sponsors of terrorism. "Operation Enduring Freedom" in Afghanistan, in other words, is likely to be the model. These threats require a different kind of military force, a force that is lighter, more agile and more flexible.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently proposed just such a model, a NATO Response Force for expeditionary missions, a technologically high-end force consisting of some 21,000 NATO troops supported by state-of-the-art sea and air power. It could consist of "coalitions of the willing," which would eliminate the all-or-nothing approach to NATO missions that has hamstrung the alliance in the past.

Some Europeans have grumbled that this idea could rival their planned, but not yet existing, European Rapid Reaction Force meant for peacekeeping tasks in and around Europe. Still, reactions to the American proposal have largely been positive, particularly because it shows a commitment to the alliance. Even the French have declared their support.

Finally, the Bush administration will seek to build on its budding relationship with Russia. In May, NATO institutionalized a new relationship with Russia through the consultative NATO-Russia Council. It is one of the reasons that Russian opposition to the second round of enlargement has been muted to nonexistent, which marks a great difference from the first round in 1999, which brought in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. From Prague, Mr. Bush will travel to Moscow for a summit with the Russian leader. It is expected that terrorism will be featured prominently in their discussions, particularly the influence of terrorist elements in Chechnya.

Privately, the Bush administration is expected to lobby for support for action against Iraq, which is currently opposed by the German government and approached with reluctance by many other NATO members. The administration can also be expected urgently to ask for Europeans to reform and invest in their defense forces. Right now, 85 percent of total NATO capability rests with the United States. That is a clearly unsustainable situation.

After last September, many were ready to write NATO's death certificate as an alliance that had outlived its usefulness. The Prague summit will indicate whether NATO will have a new lease on life.

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