- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

Weeks before former President Bill Clinton left office, his secretary of defense, William S. Cohen, warned that the European Union might soon displace NATO, rendering the Cold War-era alliance a “relic.”

Nine years later, Mr. Cohen says his worries are diminished if not totally gone.

“I don’t think [EU nations] have established any separate capability or anything that would remotely be something competitive to NATO,” said Mr. Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine who heads his own global consulting firm.

As President Obama heads to the NATO summit this weekend on the occasion of its 60th anniversary, some say the organization is more relevant than ever as a partner that provides military capabilities for operations in places such as Afghanistan and is also a crucial instrument for U.S. engagement with Europe and Russia.

Others see an aging coalition that has outlived its purpose of countering the long-defunct Soviet Union, meaning the alliance is no longer needed or at least won’t be around for much longer.

But NATO continues to grow. Albania and Croatia became its newest members on Wednesday, expanding the alliance into the volatile western Balkans. That brings NATO’s membership to 28 nations.

NATO, which was formed in 1949 to guarantee protection for all members against the Soviet bloc, recognizes that there are existential questions about its future.

The alliance is moving to address some of these questions by launching a task force focused on asymmetrical threats that can’t be tackled directly by military force, such as energy security, Islamic terrorism, climate change and mass migration.

The other fundamental question - whether NATO can deliver on troop commitments to nations such as Afghanistan - is more complicated.

European countries have been unwilling to send large numbers of additional troops beyond what they already have committed to Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama heads to the NATO summit in Strasbourg-Kehl, on the Franco-German border, having recently announced sending 21,000 additional U.S. troops to the war against Taliban and al Qaeda militants.

With those additional forces, the Afghan coalition will be overwhelmingly American, with roughly 57,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan compared with 32,000 from other countries.

“You can’t have the United States and a few others bear the brunt of the war fighting,” Mr. Cohen said.

Advocates of a stronger EU defense establishment bristle at this charge, arguing that 45 percent of the coalition deaths in Afghanistan have been suffered by non-Americans.

“You can argue about whether or not European troops are effective or not, but you can’t argue that those people haven’t been willing to pay a price,” said Andrew Moravcsik, director of the European Union program at Princeton University.

“The general American perception that Europe has been unwilling to engage on Afghanistan, I think, is insulting to them,” he said. “I think it’s parochial for Americans to talk that way.”

Beyond the question of whether Europeans should commit more troops to Afghanistan, huge challenges to coordination between NATO and the EU remain.

Many say Afghanistan is a perfect venue for the two overlapping organizations to work together, with NATO providing the military planning and force structure and the EU kicking in diplomatic and civil-service resources as well as money.

“The rise of the EU is an important supplement and complement to NATO. It is a way of rallying nonmilitary instruments of power and influence,” said Robert E. Hunter, the U.S. ambassador to NATO in the Clinton administration.

But British Gen. John McColl, deputy supreme allied commander in Europe, said at a recent forum that “the two organizations do not regard themselves as essentially complementary.”

NATO-EU cooperation in Afghanistan also has been held hostage by Turkey, a NATO member that has used the organization’s requirement that each decision be approved by all members to block information sharing and coordination with the European Union, which Turkey has long tried to join without success.

“It would clearly make sense for the two organizations to be able to coordinate, cooperate and function as a partnership, particularly on the ground,” said Gen. McColl, who is rumored to be the choice for Britain’s “superenvoy” to Afghanistan. “NATO is restricted in its ability to pass information to the EU. And the result of that is extremely debilitating.”

This issue will be on Mr. Obama’s agenda during his visit to Turkey early next week. Mr. Hunter said the president can get Ankara to back off its resistance to NATO-EU cooperation in Afghanistan by promising U.S. help controlling Kurdish rebels on the Iraqi-Turkish border and by promising to squelch any prospect of a resolution in the U.S. Congress declaring the slaughter by Turkey of thousands of Armenians in 1915 a “genocide.”

The other major issue facing NATO is Russia. There, what a difference one year makes. Last April in Bucharest, Romania, then-President George W. Bush pushed as hard as he could for former Soviet bloc countries Georgia and Ukraine to be admitted into NATO’s membership process.

Mr. Bush brought the issue to a boil but eventually was blocked by resistance from Germany and France, which feared inciting the Kremlin, which controls pipelines carrying much of the natural gas that heats and powers Europe.

This push for NATO expansion up to Russia’s borders, as well as the U.S. plan for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, is seen by critics of Bush policy as part of the Kremlin’s reason for invading Georgia in August following provocations by both sides.

The likelihood of NATO expanding to include Georgia and Ukraine is now barely even discussed, a major victory for Moscow.

“I believe we should maintain the Bucharest consensus, namely that countries will join when they fulfill the criteria. But at the same time, after Georgia we have to acknowledge that the Russians have imposed a greater discipline on us in thinking about this,” said Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. “The previous grounds of enlargement were done in the … pretty safe conviction that they would not have to be paid up. And we now have to think about it in a more disciplined way.”

The Obama administration has backed off of publicly calling for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO and has signaled openness to reassessing whether Poland and the Czech Republic should be the sites for a missile defense system that the United States says is to protect the region from attacks by a nuclear-armed Iran.

A major joint communique issued Wednesday after Mr. Obama had his first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in London suggests that the United States and Russia are on a path toward a more cooperative relationship.

“Obviously, the atmospherics around our relationship with Russia have dramatically improved in the last several weeks,” said Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough.

Russia continues to see NATO as a threat, however.

“The NATO strategy to expand is an instrument of U.S. policy to dominate and to encircle or surround Russia,” said Konstantin Remchukov, with the Nezavisimaya Gazeta Newspaper, a Russian outlet controlled by the state-owned energy company Gazprom.

This likely means the Obama administration will go outside NATO - which has a forum for dialogue with Russia - to engage with the Kremlin on issues such as preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and mutually reducing nuclear arms stockpiles.

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