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NATO: Analysis From Washington -- Competing Visions Of Alliances's Future

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 15 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Last Friday's celebration of the formal inclusion of Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic into NATO highlighted the existence of three very different views among alliance members about the nature of the challenges they face and about the proper role of the Western alliance in meeting them.

The first view, articulated most strongly by the leaders of the newest members of the alliance, might be called the traditional one. It identifies Russia as the most likely potential threat. And it presents NATO as a guarantee of the independence and security of alliance members precisely because it, unlike all other European institutions, involves the power of the United States in the defense of the continent.

The second view, reflected in the speeches of many European leaders, simultaneously downplays the possibility of a Russian threat but insists that the alliance not expand its mission beyond its traditional one as a defense pact. Some of those who hold this view stress the role of the alliance in maintaining a link with the U.S., while others see it a security system that will permit the gradual expansion of Europe itself.

And the third view, presented primarily by U.S. officials, shares the assessment of most Europeans that Russia is no longer a threat but argues that other threats to the security of the continent, such as the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, mean that NATO must assume a new and more active role, even if that means the alliance must redefine itself as something other than simply a defensive one.

As they have in the past, spokesmen and commentators in alliance countries insisted that these views did not reflect any fundamental divisions in the alliance. Instead, they said, such variations in view were simply matters of differing emphasis on parts of a common agenda.

But in the absence of a common threat which all members agree upon, these differences are likely to grow. And to the extent that happens, they are thus likely to have a profound impact on those who have joined or want to join the alliance, on links between European members of the alliance and the United States, and on relations between NATO, its particular members, and the Russian Federation.

The most immediate impact of these divisions within the alliance may be on those countries who have just become members and on those who want to join as soon as possible. All of these countries want to join NATO because they see the Western alliance as the best means of protecting themselves from a new Russian threat. If they discover that the alliance now has a different agenda, they may find themselves in some difficulty.

The governments of these countries have justified the financial costs of NATO membership in terms of popular expectations that NATO has not changed. If it becomes too obvious that the Western alliance has, at least some portions of their populations may be less willing to pay those costs.

And these regimes have counted on the alliance precisely because of its American dimension. If they decide that Europe and the United States are moving in different directions on security questions, that too may lead some to question the value of alliance membership.

The impact of these differences on ties between NATO's European members and the United States, however, is also likely to grow. Not only are Europeans seeking to play a larger role in a grouping long dominated by Washington and thus prepared to play up divisions that earlier they would have suppressed, but the U.S. also appears to many of them divided on the future role for NATO and thus open to pressure.

Both Europe and the United States downplay any immediate Russian threat. Indeed, both appear to want to include Moscow in ever more alliance councils. But they openly disagree on what Europeans call "out of area" activities and what Americans stress are the major challenges facing the West now -- the violence in the Yugoslav successor states.

But the greatest impact of these differences within the alliance is likely to be on relations between the alliance and its individual member, on the one hand, and Moscow, on the other.

The Russian leadership not only opposes the expansion of the Western alliance to the east but also believes that NATO, which it describes as a "relic of the Cold War," should cease to exist. Consequently, it is almost certain to seek to exploit these differences in approach in at least three ways.

First, it is likely to try to avoid any step so overtly threatening that it would unite the alliance once again. Second, it is likely to continue to reach out to European countries, such as Germany, that appear most opposed to American efforts to redefine the mission of the alliance.

And third, Moscow is likely to try to play up the notion of a special relationship with Washington, something that may anger Europeans and restrict U.S. efforts to overcome these divisions within the alliance itself.

Fifty years ago, one observer commented that NATO existed to "keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." Now, both the divisions within the alliance and the policies of its members could create a situation in all of these would be reversed -- with the Russians increasingly inside Europe, the American role there reduced, and the roles of individual European states far larger and more unpredictable.