Monday, November 9, 2009

The expansion of NATO and the European Union have brought benefits to former members of the Soviet bloc, but raised new questions about the missions of these institutions and their decision-making abilities.

Over the past decade, 12 former Soviet satellites have joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization first and then the European Union.

The expansion “for a long time left NATO without a very clear role,” said Giles Merritt, director of two Brussels-based organizations — the Security and Defense Agenda and Friends of Europe.

“Who was the enemy? What was the purpose of NATO, now that there was no Warsaw Pact and no great conventional conflict? Everybody was and remains very concerned about that,” he said.

NATO has tried to answer these questions by taking on the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, providing more than 40,000 troops to augment 65,000 Americans. Next to the United States, the largest contributions have come from older members of the alliance, such as Britain, France, Germany, Canada and Italy. Of the newest NATO members, only Poland and Romania have significant troops deployed — 2,025 and 990, respectively, as of Oct. 1.

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NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the new members were making an important contribution in Afghanistan.

“You have to look at the size of their armed forces and remember that in most cases they had Soviet armed forces, which they’ve had to convert, at enormous cost, to the NATO standard at a period of financial difficulty,” he said. “Proportionally, most of them are contributing as much as the long-standing members.”

Mr. Appathurai denied that expansion has made decision-making more difficult, except in one area.

“Enlargement has made for a more complicated decision-making process in NATO with regard to Russia,” he said.

Andrew Wilson, a specialist on the former Soviet Union at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that while Old Europe “wants more out-of-theater operations … there is a preference among New Europe for more traditional forward defense, which is regarded as the main threat from Russia.”

NATO is re-evaluating relations with Russia. Mr. Merritt predicted that the alliance would seek to “mend all the fences with Russia and recognize that Russia’s security threats are almost the same as Europe’s: militant Islam, instability in Central Asia and the Middle East, and energy issues.”

These problems, he said, “can only really be resolved by NATO and Russia’s being on the same page and supporting each other. Iran’s nuclear enrichment is a prime example of that.”

However, several new members of NATO were annoyed by the Obama administration’s decision to scrap a missile-defense plan strongly opposed by Russia and heavily promoted by President George W. Bush.

“The Czech Republic and Poland had made political sacrifices to get the missile-defense shield through, and then it was snatched away from them,” Mr. Wilson said. “If they agreed with the geopolitics or not, it was egg on their face.”

The Obama administration has proposed a different system to deal with shorter-range missiles. Poland and the Czech Republic agreed to participate in the plan after a fence-mending trip by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. last month.

Many East and Central European nations sought NATO membership as a steppingstone to the European Union.

“There was a very strong feeling that NATO membership … was used as a sort of waiting room for people whose real goal was membership of the EU,” Mr. Merritt said.

Indeed, all 12 former East bloc states that have joined the European Union were NATO members first. Four applicants for EU membership — Albania, Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro — are either NATO members or part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace, a program that prepares nations for membership.

NATO also has special programs for Ukraine and Georgia, although they are unlikely to join the alliance soon. In Ukraine’s case, a majority of the population opposes NATO membership and a pro-Western leader faces defeat in upcoming elections. NATO is unlikely to ask Georgia to join because of that country’s still-tense relations with Russia in the aftermath of a brief war in 2008 that led to separation from Georgia of two Russia-backed enclaves, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“I think the new NATO members have been very ambivalent about NATO,” Mr. Merritt said. “They’ve seen it very much as a political club that they needed to be part of.”

Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Carter, said NATO and EU expansion after the collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable.

“It wasn’t so much a matter of the U.S. and NATO deciding to expand,” he said. “It was a response to historical spontaneity. There was no way of preventing these countries from gravitating to NATO and the EU.”

Mr. Brzezinski said the alliance needs to draw Russia “into a closer political and military association with the Euro-Atlantic community” to blunt lingering Russian territorial ambitions. He added that the most important task for NATO will be to reach a “politically acceptable outcome” to its intervention in Afghanistan. A NATO pullout that leaves Afghanistan unstable and open to al Qaeda penetration would be seen as a defeat on the order of the Soviet defeat there in the 1980s, he said.

He blamed decision-making difficulties in NATO and the European Union less on new members than on differences among the key old members: Britain, France and Germany.

“The three most important European countries with a global vocation don’t have a common view of the world or of their relationship with the United States,” Mr. Brzezinski said.

Mr. Merritt said new EU members experience considerable frustration.

“The new member states are the outsiders,” he said. “They have very little clout. They’ve been very dependent on structural aid from the various EU funds, and it’s been made very clear to them that they’re not in the inner circle of old member states.”

At the same time, he said, new members have “not been afraid to ask difficult questions, to challenge the accepted EU consensus.”

“They’re trying to wield a lot more influence than they actually have.”

Amadeu Altafaj-Tardio, spokesman for the European Commission’s Directorate General for Enlargement, said there were fears when the European Union began to expand that cheaper Eastern European labor would swamp Western labor markets.

“It’s true that in the beginning there was a large movement of workers to Ireland and France. In France, there was this myth for a long time that every plumber was Polish.”

However, he said, “the studies that we have carried out show clearly that the enlargement … has been beneficial economically to the old members of the Union. There is sometimes a sense that there’s a gap between sentiments in the old member states and the real economic impact that this has had.”

“Since last year, the European Union is the biggest trade bloc in the world,” he said. “Not so long ago, we were unable to bring peace to the Balkans, and today we are able to provide these countries with a strong perspective. The truth is that the soft power of the European Union still works as a measure of stability. It has a certain weight.”

Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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