Accessibility links

1999 In Review: New Challenges As NATO Moves East

  • Jeremy Bransten

For the North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- NATO -- the year now ending was historic. The alliance marked its 50th anniversary, which it celebrated with a new eastward expansion followed by a lavish summit in Washington. But NATO also faced a considerable challenge in mounting its first military campaign. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten examines the challenges faced by NATO in 1999 and what lies ahead in 2000 and beyond.

Prague, 20 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The past 12 months have seen an unprecedented change of mission and adjustment for NATO, marking one of the biggest years for the alliance since its founding in 1949.

In March, after years of preparation, the alliance took in the Central European states of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Representatives of the three countries, which just a decade ago were members of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, all stressed that NATO membership meant a return to their rightful place at the heart of Europe and that decades of domination by Moscow had been an aberration. This is Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi, at the accession ceremony in Independence, in the U.S. state of Missouri:

"The decision was not only about security. NATO accession is also about returning Hungary to her natural habitat. It has been our manifest destiny to rejoin those with whom we share the same values, interests and goals."

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who presided over the occasion, made it clear that the alliance intends to further expand, gradually taking in more former Soviet allies:

"Today, as NATO embarks upon a new era, our energy and vision are directed to the future. It is our common purpose over time to do for Europe's East what NATO has already helped to do for Europe's West. Steadily and systematically we will continue erasing, without replacing, the line drawn in Europe by Stalin's bloody boot."

The Soviet Union may be gone but NATO's eastward expansion remains bitterly opposed by Russia. Moscow, which witnessed the demise of its Warsaw Pact, sees the Western alliance's expansion as a betrayal and direct threat. Officials from President Boris Yeltsin on down have repeatedly warned it could lead to a renewal of the Cold War. But what Moscow sees as Washington's bid to carve out new spheres of influence is viewed by Western nations and NATO aspirants as a broadening of the circle of democracy and stability in Europe.

Herein lies the fundamental crux of the dispute. Both positions appear for now to be irreconcilable. In March, Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek emphasized that NATO must play a pro-active role in shaping a new international order. His words are anathema to Moscow, which says it wants a 'multi-polar' world:

"NATO must promote values appropriate to democracy, stability and peace. The challenge facing us in the coming century, the challenge of creating a new international order, must be an indispensable and inseparable part of our agenda."

At its 50th anniversary summit in Washington, at the end of April, NATO leaders approved an amended strategic concept, redefining a basic tenet of the alliance. NATO, under certain circumstances, would now move beyond being a purely defensive organization, to taking a more active role in promoting security. In essence, the term 'defense' was reinterpreted to allow the alliance to launch missions beyond the immediate borders of member states -- in the interest of promoting stability.

Although NATO troops had been deployed for more than three years in the former Yugoslavia as part of the UN peacekeeping force, it was the crisis in Kosovo which provided the true test of NATO's new strategic concept. The allies' air campaign against Yugoslavia proved a military success. Serbian troops were forced to pull out of Kosovo and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees -- expelled by Belgrade's forces -- were able to return, albeit to a devastated province.

But military success came at the cost of a break with Russia and the risk of long-term damage to East/West relations. Paradoxically, the campaign also laid bare the military weakness of many of NATO's European members. Ian Kemp, an analyst at the British-based Jane's Defense Weekly, made the point to RFE/RL:

"The one thing the [Kosovo] campaign did reveal was the wide discrepancy among the NATO allies in terms of military capability. The alliance has to rely on a number of high technology, high-tech systems from the United States -- such things as satellite surveillance, AWACS airborne command aircraft, and of course the huge American airlift capability. And another area that the Kosovo air war disclosed as being a major weakness for the European members of the alliance was their lack of so-called 'smart munitions' which meant that the United States had to bear the brunt of the campaign."

The Yugoslav campaign gave impetus to the idea of boosting Europe's defense capabilities, to allow Europe to shoulder more of the military burden of any future campaigns, and even to undertake some on its own, without the United States. The European Defense Initiative was officially launched at the EU's Helsinki summit this month, with agreement to assemble a 60,000-strong rapid reaction force by the year 2003.

NATO officials, especially U.S. politicians, have welcomed the move but caution that a new European force must work to strengthen Trans-Atlantic cooperation, not undermine it.

For now, the project is in its infancy. Key questions, such as how the new initiative will be financed and how the chain of command will function, need to be resolved. The role that non-EU NATO members -- such as Turkey, Norway, Iceland, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- will play still needs to be determined.

Kemp says training European forces for combat missions outside their home countries will take time, as will acquiring new, expensive hardware to deploy those troops without U.S. assistance. He cites Germany -- Europe's largest economy, and thus a pivotal member of any new European force -- as a test case:

"There are a number of trends taking place among the European members of NATO. The first has been the transition, since the end of the Cold War, when European members were organized primarily to defend their own territory -- Germany is probably the best example. German forces were always organized, equipped and trained to defend Germany and of course the other NATO allies were trained and organized to reinforce the defense of Germany and also the flanks -- Norway and Turkey. So, it's a major change and it's going to take many years and a considerable investment for the German armed forces, for example, to organize their forces so that they will be able to project power. The sort of things they'll need to acquire will be sea-lift ships and heavy transport aircraft which will be capable of moving forces over a considerable distance. And certainly this is one of the litmus tests of Europe's determination to develop its own defense capability."

NATO faces many challenges as it embarks on its second half-century. The paradox is that in order to remain a guardian of stability, NATO itself must continue to change and adapt to changing geo-political conditions.

How fast the alliance will continue its eastward expansion will depend on the geo-political climate, as well as the speed with which its three new members adapt to their new status. Again, Kemp says this will take time:

"I certainly think everyone in NATO appreciates that it is going to be some time before the armed forces of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are going to be able to fully participate in NATO military operations. It's going to take some time for those forces to complete their modernization, to move away from old Soviet equipment such as the MiG-21 and the MiG-29 fighter aircraft, to Western equipment. And even more importantly, it will be the training of an entire generation of officers and soldiers in those three countries, within the NATO and Western command philosophy."

In addition to all the other changes at NATO, this past year saw the alliance changing its leadership. Former British Defense Minister George Robertson -- one of the most vocal hawks of the Kosovo operation -- is now Secretary General, taking over from Javier Solana. Robertson is certain to promote an active role for NATO in maintaining European security. And as the European Union's new High Representative for foreign policy and security, Solana remains at the center of efforts to shape an autonomous European defense capability.