- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009




Thirty years ago, I found myself on a NATO tour for American journalists in West Germany and, through a throw of the dice, I was chosen to go on a helicopter ride over East Germany. Wow! At least I could say I had been over, if not in, the forbidden communist kingdom.

But the brief trip was far more revealing than I could have imagined. Supposing myself well-informed, probably like most persons, I had thought that “the wall” was the Berlin Wall - dividing prosperous West Berlin from miserable East Berlin. How wrong I was!

From the air and flying low over our side of the border, I could see that the real “wall” the East had created against the West actually stretched 1,000 miles - from East Germany’s meeting with the Baltic Sea to then-Czechoslovakia in the south. There was a wall, yes, but there were also broad stretches of minefields, ever-watchful machine-gun towers, men patrolling with huge dogs and layer upon layer of barbed-wire fencing.

Unsurprisingly, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s policy was to be ready for a Soviet tank invasion across Central Europe. Founded urgently in 1949 on the heels of World War II, NATO was totally into “big wars” of that magnitude.

NATO is celebrating the 60th anniversary of that historic founding in another historic meeting. It is, in many ways, as unlikely to succeed as the first. For instance, it will be held jointly in Strasbourg in France and Kiel and Baden-Baden in Germany. France will once again formally join NATO’s integrated military command. Members - now including most of the Eastern European countries formerly under Soviet occupation - will now soar to at least 27, the newest one to be taken in being Croatia.

But today’s NATO, while it has its moments of confusion about all this birthing, is much more than a military partnership. As the brilliant political scientist Charles A. Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations recounted at a recent comprehensive NATO conference here:

“Over the course of its history, NATO has become much more than an alliance of the political and security communities. It has become part of an institution known as ‘the West.’ It is a community based on values, more than an alliance based on a common threat.” It is “one of the anchoring institutions of the West.”

Strangely enough, this weekend of historic celebration and intellectual inebriation will find NATO again focusing on Russia, this time in dramatically different ways.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and all that implied, NATO’s intention was to bring Russia into the alliance, and a NATO-Russia Council - created in 2002 to formalize ties between the alliance and its former major adversary - still exists, but largely only on paper. Today, the question between the two is whether the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine should be actively courted by NATO - and the surprising answer now seems to be “No.”

Throughout the 1990s, enthusiasm bubbled up in Washington and even the European capitals over Georgian and Ukrainian “freedom.” Dreams of an “East-West corridor” tying Georgia to the West, instead of to the old Russian North and South axis, predominated in Tbilisi.

But as Russia regained strength through its energy riches after the turn of the century, things changed - and after the small but nasty Georgia-Russia war of last year, plus the Ukrainian government’s rather obvious attempts to free itself of its big Muscovite neighbor, NATO finds itself at a bedeviling new point of hesitation over expanding too close to the again-growling Russian bear.

Speaking of this weekend’s meeting, Steven Schrage of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said at a CSIS meeting last week on the subject, “There will be some effort … to discuss the commitment without walking away from it.”

Another major problem facing NATO leaders also involves Russia: How the United States, supported by small numbers of NATO troops, will replace the increasingly dangerous southern resupply routes through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Western troops fighting in Afghanistan. With Taliban and al Qaeda attacks on supply convoys, Moscow, amazingly enough, has suggested the convoys go through former Soviet satellites in the south such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, but also through Russia itself.

In a sense, this development represents a parody of history because, remember, it was Russia that invaded Afghanistan in 1979; it was the United States that supplied the Afghan mujahedeen rebels with the military aid that eventually defeated Moscow in 1989. Those mujahedeen then morphed into the Taliban now fighting us - and now Moscow offers to come to the aid of Washington.

If anybody needs a better example of the absurdities that too often accompany human events, one would be hard put to find it!

So, there we are: faced with both greatness and absurdity in nearly equal measure. There is the need, American analysts say, for a new “strategic concept” for NATO in this new age. Whatever that turns out to be, it will surely be one that takes into consideration the separate existence of Mother Russia - but it should also be one that compliments the Western world on a job extraordinarily well done.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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