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1998 In Review: NATO Focuses On Balkan Conflicts, Future Strategy

  • Jan de Weydenthal

Prague, 11 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Balkan conflicts continued to affect NATO throughout 1998, but the overarching issue of preparing the Alliance's strategy for the new century also captured a great deal of attention.

NATO troops stayed in Bosnia throughout the year, helping to maintain a fragile peace, but a conflict in the Serb province of Kosovo emerged as a particularly dangerous one. It involved fighting between the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), which began a campaign for independence, and Serbian police and military troops ordered to preserve Serbia's control over its rebellious province.

Fighting started in late February and by the end of the year had killed hundreds of people and driven a quarter of a million from their homes.

NATO found itself hampered by the lack of a mandate for a military move, owing to opposition within the U.N. Security Council. And at first, preference was given to diplomatic rather than military actions. NATO continued, however, to exert pressure on both the ethnic Albanian rebels and the Serbs to end the conflict.

By June, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana declared that NATO might consider intervening militarily on humanitarian grounds, even without a UN mandate. He said a "suitable mandate" could be provided by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

And by autumn, all 16 NATO member states united in a joint decision to use all available means, including military, to stop the conflict. A last-minute mission to Belgrade by U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke succeeded in averting a NATO strike.

The Kosovo conflict highlighted NATO's role in coping with a humanitarian crisis that threatened to destabilize Europe's southern flank. And it showed that the Alliance needs a clear definition of its role in a world in which the Soviet challenge has been replaced by threats from resurgent nationalism, rapacious tyrants and proliferation of arms of mass destruction.

Two years ago the North Atlantic Assembly, which groups parliamentarians from NATO's 16 members and 16 partner East European countries, initiated a study projecting the Alliance into the next century. A report on the study was made public in October.

The report envisages a future NATO able to defend and promote "allied security, democratic values, the rule of law and peace." The emphasis on the defense of "values and interests, not just a territory" is particularly important because it would significantly expand the scope of NATO's prospective operations.

Since its establishment in 1949, the Alliance has been limited by its founding treaty to the territory of its member states. And its principal mission has been to serve as a collective defense pact against a direct outside military threat. But the report proposes that the Alliance be prepared to respond to challenges beyond the territory of its member states.

The report further says that "NATO must preserve its freedom to act" to promote stability in Europe, deal with proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, respond to terrorism and other threats "that arise beyond NATO borders."

The report notes that the allies must "seek to act in unison, preferably with a mandate from the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)," but it adds that "they must not limit themselves to acting only when such a mandate can be agreed."

This month, at the Alliance's annual foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels, Secretary General Javier Solana pointed out that NATO this year focused much of its activities in Bosnia and Kosovo, both non-Alliance members. Solana stressed that this was crucial for the long-term security interests of the Alliance and he denied that it meant a major change in its collective defense mission.

"NATO is already acting out of area, so let's not dramatize what we are talking about. NATO is acting out of area. Bosnia, as you know very well, is out of area. And Kosovo is out of area. So there is nothing dramatic in the fact that NATO will continue acting out of area and that should be in the Strategic Concept."

At the Brussels meeting, Alliance ministers and Solana confirmed that the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are to gain full NATO membership by the Washington summit in April 1999, at the latest.

"The ratification process of the allies has just finished and we do hope to have the three invitees, after they finalize their work... welcomed as members at the Washington summit. And I hope very much that they will be able to be part of the Alliance even before the Washington summit."

Solana and the ministers also emphasized that the door will remain open to other future members from the East.

As NATO looks ahead to 1999, several members are actively working to giving Europeans a greater input into the Alliance's decision-making. At a Franco-British summit this month, the leaders of both countries agreed to begin work on forging an autonomous European defense arm to supplement NATO's current structure. NATO and the United States have officially welcomed the step, saying a stronger Europe should help strengthen NATO. More details on the proposal are also expected at the Washington summit.

In the meantime, there will be no shortage of debate among Alliance members as to the future goals and shape of NATO. Much of the debate so far has focused on the issue of expanding the scope of NATO's mission beyond the UN or OSCE-prescribed mandates. Some countries, particularly France but also Germany, have expressed concern that such a move could involve NATO in various non-European conflicts. Russia has said that any NATO military action taken outside its original treaty area without a UN or OSCE mandate should be regarded as a totally "unacceptable act of aggression."

Other controversies include the pace and direction of NATO's future enlargement and the scope of the Alliance's cooperation with Russia and Ukraine. There is also a disagreement, expressed at the Brussels meetings, between Germany and NATO's nuclear powers --the United States, Britain and France-- about the alliance's first-strike nuclear deterrent policy.

All eyes will be turned to Washington in April when NATO's new strategy is due to be finally announced.