- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2003

The common security interests of the United States and Europe are increasing rather than decreasing, both in scale and geographic range. Europe and America need each other as we confront common threats like international terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The world is a dangerous place, and we can only deal with its dangers by working together, not against each other. To effectively counter the threats facing us, coalitions of the willing may be sometimes necessary, but longer-lasting structures are preferable. Ad hoc coalitions lack the transparency, stability and continuity that only a permanent international organization can provide. This is where NATO fits in as an essential component of international cooperation. Far from being a remnant of a bygone age, it is the most effective option. But we must guide it through another transformation.

Since the end of the Cold War, we have worked hard to adapt the alliance to new circumstances. NATO has played a vital role in stabilizing and democratizing countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and is cooperating with Russia in many spheres. In the Balkans, NATO has helped to restore peace and reconstruction is underway. In all these efforts, the Netherlands is doing its part. We are one of the main contributors to the stabilization force in Bosnia, and last year the Netherlands led the NATO force in Macedonia. But our business in the Balkans is not over. NATO and the European Union must work hand in hand to achieve their ultimate goal for the region: lasting freedom, stability and full integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. The EU has taken over from NATO in Macedonia and is willing to do the same in Bosnia. But while the EU plans to shoulder its responsibilities, continued American engagement in the region remains vital.

Now, in an age of global instability, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, we are transforming the alliance for a second time. NATO is taking on responsibilities beyond Europe, wherever instability is threatening us. Fortunately, the debate on out-of-area operations is part of the past. With its unique capacity to organize and carry out demanding peace operations, the alliance can and must go where it is needed most. In August, NATO will take over the peacekeeping operation ISAF in Afghanistan, which is currently under joint command of the Netherlands and Germany. Until recently, NATO would not have contemplated operating so far from home, but now it is a logical choice. We agree that our security interests are directly affected by threats far from our borders. NATO has unmatched experience and an organizational structure that has stood the test of time.

NATO’s member states have now decided to support the participation of our Polish allies in the stabilization force in Iraq. The situation in Iraq warrants NATO’s support: Stability is in the common interest of the NATO allies, and NATO’s experience with multinational operations would be a valuable asset. The Netherlands will soon decide its own military contribution to the stabilization force.

There is no reason to assume that NATO’s activities elsewhere should be limited to these two cases. If the international community can bring peace to the Middle East, it will be logical for NATO to help preserve it. The alliance could offer to provide a peacekeeping force as part of a political process agreed to by both Israel and the Palestinians. It would be a great challenge and one fraught with risk, but we should not pass up a unique opportunity to help bring stability to the Middle East.

Twenty-first-century military operations require flexible, modern, rapidly deployable armed forces. This is why, at the NATO summit in Prague in November, the member states decided to set up a NATO Response Force. This force of 20,000 to 30,000 troops will have air, land and sea capability, and it will be deployable worldwide at short notice for the most demanding tasks. We should make it operational as soon as we can.

Being part of NATO is not always easy. But beyond merely reflecting the shared interests of nations, NATO shapes those interests, enabling us to find common ground, as we did in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq. Prior to the onset of the war in Iraq, some member states disagreed on the need for NATO support for Turkey, but we managed to overcome our differences. The Netherlands readily deployed Patriot anti-missile systems in eastern Turkey to assist our ally.

NATO is not outdated. Every international crisis creates new opportunities. The alliance stands for the political will to pursue common security interests collectively. That collective effort requires, as circumstances change, a constant investment of political and military capital to ensure stability and security in the 21st century. NATO is a unique instrument for developing common responses to new threats. What we now need is less megaphone diplomacy and more dialogue and joint analysis.

Earlier this month, the Senate ratified the accession of seven Central and East European countries to the Atlantic alliance. Those countries made the right choice. They will take part in NATO’s second great transformation, ensuring that it remains the most relevant and effective alliance for peace and stability ever.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is minister of foreign affairs of the Netherlands.

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