Munich, 8 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A weekend meeting in Munich of defense experts from the United States, Russia, Ukraine and Western Europe revealed a number of differences on important issues.
U.S. defense secretary William Cohen said after the conference ended today that the NATO alliance would attempt to resolve the differences or find compromises before its 50th anniversary summit in Washington in April.
Cohen spent much of his two days in Munich discussing the differences in private bilateral talks with NATO colleagues and Russian delegates. His spokesman said he also discussed the question of using mostly-European ground forces to support a peace agreement in Kosovo and other immediate problems.
One issue which surfaced at the conference concerns NATO's long-term policy of leaving open the option of making the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict. Cohen and some other speakers said the policy had proved itself over the years as an effective deterrent and should be retained.
But Germany's foreign minister Joschka Fischer called for a discussion within NATO on whether the policy should be continued in view of the changes in Europe. The German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said it was legitimate to discuss dropping the policy in view of the new political situation.
There was considerable discussion on whether the NATO alliance had the right in special circumstances to resort to the use of military force without first obtaining the approval of the U.N. Security Council. A French diplomat said tonight this has been the subject of long talks in the corridors between defense experts with strong arguments on both sides. He said there had been no consensus. "No-one changed their views, " he said.
The diplomat said it was a very sensitive question. Many felt that ignoring the United Nations reduced respect for the world organization which could have unforeseen results in the future. "Once some countries ignore the Security Council then others feel they can do the same," the diplomat said. Others argued that occasions could arise when U.N. action on a particular crisis was blocked in the Security Council for political or other reasons. On such occasions it was legitimate for NATO to consider acting without the approval of the U.N.
The matter was raised publicly by Russian deputy foreign minister Yevgeni Gusarov in an address focussed partly on the new strategic concept now being developed by NATO. It is intended to update the Treaty on which NATO was founded in 1949 and extend its mandate beyond the defense of western countries.
Gusarov said Russia was concerned that the new policy would authorize NATO to resort to military force without the prior consent of the U.N. Security Council. He said the document should contain a clear indication that the U.N. Security Council is primarily responsible for maintaining peace and security.
The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Alexander Vershbow, responded that the Alliance needed an updated mandate to combat new threats such as chemical or biological attacks from rogue nations. Others said NATO had to be in a position to bring pressure on those responsible for humanitarian catastrophes, such as the one in Kosovo.
The conference heard strong support from many delegates, including the U.S. defense secretary and the German chancellor, for close co-operation between NATO and Russia in managing crises. Russia's past contributions were warmly praised.
Most speakers -- including Russia and Ukraine -- said it was important that NATO continue to be active in Europe. However Russia renewed its call for a pan-European system in which NATO, the European Union and the CIS would co-operate under the umbrella of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe.
Russian used the meeting to renew its opposition to the expansion of NATO. Three former Warsaw pact countries -- Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- will join in April and Romania reaffirmed its desire to join as soon as possible.
The Russian deputy foreign minister argued that there was what he called a "red line" around the former Soviet Union and it was inadmissible for former Soviet republics to join NATO. Ukraine's foreign minister Borys Tarasjuk responded that this was an unacceptable attempt by Moscow to speak on behalf of ex-Soviet states. He said only Ukraine could speak about its own security and its own interests.