02 April 2008

Decision time for NATO

For the first time since NATO’s initial eastward expansion in 1999, the alliance may be forced to say “no”. That is the bad news. In a roundabout way it might be the good news, too.

By Eric Jansson for Balkan Insight

With American power globally in crisis and European power defined as ever by ill-coordinated aspiration, Russian power ascends these days on the strength of natural resources wealth, strategic clarity and Western strategic discombobulation.

Atmospheric conditions do not look favourable for another round of NATO expansion, especially with coalition forces fighting toward an uncertain outcome in Afghanistan.

So should the alliance kick itself for putting the security of five European countries on the line at this awkward time?

Maybe, or maybe not.

As with past rounds of expansion, the choice being considered at this week’s NATO Summit in Bucharest is seen by almost everyone as a test of the alliance’s unity, strength and resolve.

The possibility of a rancorous internal dispute about expansion looks like bad news. However, such a disputatious moment may invite a welcome change in the way NATO handles European security.

The three western Balkan countries in question – Croatia, Macedonia and Albania – do not pose major problems as potential new member countries, even despite Macedonia’s never-ending “name” dispute with Greece.

By contrast giant, politically-fractious Ukraine and spunky, territorially-riven Georgia are tougher calls, their respective “Orange” and “Rose” revolutions notwithstanding. The very real challenges they face within are complicated by the strategic reality that they live in Russia’s shadow, like it or not.

Overt German opposition to the proposal that Ukraine and Georgia be given NATO membership action plans, known as “MAPs”, has created a strained dynamic. This could also impact Croatia, Macedonia and Albania’s prospects amid the diplomatic horse-trading in Bucharest.

Indeed, for the first time since NATO’s initial eastward expansion, in 1999, the alliance may be forced to say “no”.

Neither in 1999 nor in 2002, when the alliance triggered a second round of expansion it ultimately carried out in 2004, did NATO actually turn anyone down. In both these previous eastward rounds of expansion, which together brought ten new member countries in to the alliance, NATO opted against “big bang” expansions yet found ways to renew the hopes of those candidate countries it determined should wait, such as Macedonia and Albania.

This neat scenario is not guaranteed to repeat itself even if all three western Balkan candidate countries this week receive invitations to join. Ukraine and Georgia could still get turned away.

For the two former Soviet republics, denial of MAPs would feel a lot like “no”.

At that point, proclamations of NATO’s love and admiration will mean little. If Kiev and Tblisi come away disappointed, whatever the circumstances, count on Moscow to crow victory.

Kremlin officials make no effort to hide their disgust at the alliance’s consideration of further expansion into what they regard as Russia’s natural sphere of influence, its “near abroad”. The NATO membership since 2004 of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – countries which endured illegal Soviet occupations from the Second World War until 1991 – continues to sicken Russia’s neo-imperialists. Add Ukraine and Georgia, and their condition only gets worse.

Some observers and participants believe this is precisely why NATO must expand as rapidly as possible: Moscow must be shown again that it has “no veto”. Indeed, George W. Bush used the “no veto” language on Tuesday on a state visit to Kiev.

The argument makes some sense. But flip it over and one sees that Kremlin opposition to NATO expansion has itself become the anti-“veto” lobby’s imperative for expansion. Moscow has no veto, and to demonstrate this point NATO must expand, the thinking goes.

By logical extension, if NATO opts not to give MAPs to Ukraine and Georgia, then Russia will have been handed a veto by implication.

This is illusory. Somewhere between the veto Moscow in fact lacks and the imperative for NATO expansion driven by fear of Russian neo-imperialism exist the sober interests of the alliance in its present form – balanced internally by debate, compromise and even disagreement.

These sober interests clearly include the stabilisation of the western Balkans, a region in which the alliance has become deeply involved in its expanded post-Cold War mission. As such, an offer of membership to the western Balkan countries under consideration makes clear sense – especially when one considers the stabilising influence such a move could be expected to have in and around Kosovo.

The alliance’s interests less obviously include eventual NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, though they may include this, too. Deciding whether or not they do is likely to be rancorous business.

Fine. A strong case can be made for rancour as the very basis of NATO’s health.

This is meant to be an alliance of robust democracies in their collective military capacity, not a sissy circle of risk-averse technocrats. NATO is headquartered in Brussels, but it is not the European Commission. Its decisions should be the product of hard disagreements, worked out not through the watering-down of national interests but rather through the testing of national interests in the cold light of reality. Anything less generates distinctly insecure security policy.

If Germany holds its ground and NATO is seen to lack unity and resolve over issues of expansion this week, commentators will opine that the alliance’s fundamental unity and resolve have been imperilled, despite its unrivalled military strength. We should ignore such drivel.
NATO’s fundamental unity, strength and resolve are defined not by what happens in Bucharest but by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. This is the portion of the North Atlantic Treaty in which NATO members agree “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” and, consequently, will trigger “collective self-defence”.

Article 5 “makes” NATO, and were it ever to prove unviable in practice it would break NATO in a way that a poor outcome in Afghanistan could never do. It is also why NATO should expand with care.

While sorting out this week how collectively to take care of members countries’ national interests and considering also those of partners outside the alliance, if NATO cannot agree about all five countries whose security is on the line, an opportunity will have been lost. Differences of opinion in the alliance will appear, but not institutional fissures.

Indeed NATO may prove stronger in the long run if its European member countries become more effective, not less, at forcing fruitful debates rather than partnering passively with the sole superpower on the team, as has sometimes been the case.

It might not make for a happy summit. But for those, including many in Washington, who have long asserted that Europe should take greater responsibility for European security: isn’t that what this is?

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