- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2006

London. — Recently, the people of the relatively quiet capital of Latvia have been preoccupied with preparations to host NATO’s eighth post-Cold-War summit, which will take place in two weeks’ time. It seems that the results of the U.S. midterm elections are unlikely to stir any interest in the town of Riga. Yet, when NATO finally does come to town, this is unlikely to be a showcase as were previous summits.

There will be no public embracing of new members like the Washington summit of 1999. No ambitious comprehensive programs for radically transforming the alliance like the Prague summit of 2002. But the Riga summit comes at a time when NATO is badly in need of clarifying the nature of its ongoing missions and its future agenda. Then what impact can a democratic victory in the U.S. midterm elections have on how NATO shapes up?

Unlike previous national elections, in this one foreign policy is a big deal, because of the Bush revolution in foreign policy and the deepening controversy over Iraq. However, apart from controlling the purse strings, it is unlikely, given the nature of the U.S. presidential system, that a Democratic majority in Congress would influence the direction of the current administration’s foreign policy in the last two years of its tenure. However, a Democratic-led U.S. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (PA) could have an impact on the public debate over the alliance’s future.

The NATO PA is a place where parliamentarians from NATO countries have an informed public debate and the opportunity to relay alliance issues back to their national legislatures. This influences national foreign policy as well as NATO’s public image. This process is made more acute when inspired by the leadership of one particular group. In the early days of the post-Cold War era, such leadership came from the U.S. delegation to the PA.

A good example is the Rose-Roth initiative of 1990, which started a program of seminars to deepen cooperation with the parliaments of Central and Eastern Europe. It enhanced and complemented NATO’s outreach to the former Warsaw Pact countries over the next decade, culminating in the accession of most of those states as full members of the alliance. The fact that Sen. Bill Roth of Delaware was a Republican and Rep. Charlie Rose of North Carolina was a Democrat reflected the truly bipartisan leadership that a U.S. delegation could have over the Parliamentary Assembly.

Because with this election, foreign policy is a big deal, it is more than likely that those elected will energize foreign policy issues. A new U.S. delegation to the NATO PA can inject a vigorous debate about the future of the alliance. This could be a timely opportunity to address the three most pressing issues facing the alliance today.

First, NATO has to make it clear that although it has global missions, it has no aspirations to become a global alliance. While global partnerships with countries such as Japan, New Zealand, Australia and Israel are necessary to augment and support military operations that have an increasing global outreach, it is inconceivable that these partnerships should extend to full membership. An alliance, by definition, has to be against something. The creation of a global alliance of like-minded democratic countries, as suggested recently by some scholars, would create a global zone of exclusion and seem threatening to any country that did not fit the criteria of a long-established democracy.

Second, NATO needs to clarify the increasingly apparent differences between the NATO mission in Afghanistan and the Western embroilment in Iraq. In Afghanistan, NATO is continuing its core function of collective defense. Nowadays this requires the deployment of forces to areas geographically beyond the Euro-Atlantic area in order to combat non-state-centric threats such as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. If these are indeed “threats that know borders” then NATO has to engage in a borderless collective defense. On the contrary, NATO was not involved in the decision or conduct of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since 2004 it provides a modest training program for Iraqi security forces. NATO’s role there is only part of a larger international community effort in post-conflict reconstruction.

Third, there is a need to set up a mechanism for common funding, one which will address the issue of shortfalls in getting additional helicopters and boots on the ground to successfully complete the Afghanistan mission. Yet, it seems that lately these essential questions are being buried under the day-to-day preoccupation with the pressing issue of Afghanistan and the trans-Atlantic fallout after Iraq.

The solemnity of Riga will make it apparent that an invigorated debate about these issues will need to be set into motion soon after the summit. There is only one crucial question that determines if a new U.S. delegation to the NATO PA can have this impact, and that is whether the Democrats are truly interested in the future of the transatlantic alliance. For if they are, this is an opportunity they must seize without further ado.

Gulnur Aybet is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Kent and a senior associate member of St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. In 2004, she completed a British Academy project on nation-building at Johns Hopkins University.

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