NATO foreign ministers meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, today saw renewed pressure brought to bear by the United States on its European allies to pull their weight in the alliance. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell spelled out an ambitious reform plan needed to revitalize NATO and cut the increasing defense capabilities gap between the United States and Europe. NATO ministers also discussed preparations for enlargement and approved a plan to set up a joint NATO-Russia Council, which will first convene in summit format in Rome on 28 May.
Reykjavik, 14 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- At a meeting today in Reykjavik of NATO foreign ministers, the United States confronted both its allies and would-be critics across the Atlantic head on, setting out in no uncertain terms what is needed to keep the alliance relevant and the European allies credible partners in it.
The two-day meeting was expected to have been dominated by enlargement issues and the impending inclusion of Russia in some NATO decisions -- both widely seen as potentially eroding the strength of the alliance.
Yet, reversing expectations, at the insistence of the United States the lion's share of discussions in Reykjavik so far have dealt with the painful issue of defense reform in Europe.
Recounting the meeting, a senior U.S. official -- who asked not to be identified -- left no doubt that Washington had presented its allies with a clear list of reforms and changes of priority essential for a sustained trans-Atlantic relationship.
The official said it is "very important" for the United States that the final communique of the meeting acknowledges the need for NATO to adapt to new threats. The draft document says this requires new capabilities within NATO, which the official identified as more mobile and flexible forces, greater pooling of specialist assets by allies, increases in precision-strike capabilities, securer communications, improved intelligence gathering, and greater preparedness to attacks by chemical and biological weapons.
The U.S. official said the European allies had displayed a "huge amount of consensus" at today's meeting, but acknowledged that most of them face intense domestic reluctance to bear the costs these reforms entail.
NATO ministers also discussed enlargement issues, although -- in the words of another U.S. official -- the debate was on the "how rather than who." The ministers agreed that the aspirants invited to join in Prague in November would be required to continue current reform projects -- known as "Membership Action Plans" -- until accession and beyond. NATO now expects to conclude technical talks with the Prague invitees by next spring, after which accession treaties would need to be ratified by present member states in one single package.
As regards the "who" of enlargement, it now appears that most European allies support the U.S. preference for a "vigorous" and expansive accession. Asked whether this would weaken NATO, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer made it clear that enlargement is the best way to ensure stability and security in Europe, which he said clearly contributes to the security of the alliance.
A Romanian diplomat -- who asked not be named -- said his country has received "positive" signals for its entry not only from the United States, but also from Britain, Germany, and France. Romania and Bulgaria are widely regarded as the least-prepared candidates for NATO accession.
The third major theme of talks in Reykjavik was the setting up of a new joint council with Russia. NATO ministers approved the deal, expected to be endorsed later today by Russia's Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and signed at the end of the month in Italy at a special NATO-Russia summit. NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said, "We'll be finalizing our work on the agreement between NATO and Russia to create in two weeks' time in Rome a new council where NATO member states and Russia can sit together as 20 equals, to discuss and decide the issues of common concern."
Robertson called the deal "revolutionary."
"This initiative is, quite simply, historic and even revolutionary. In its symbolism, the new level of practical cooperation between the 19 NATO nations and Russia illustrates how far we've already come in putting the divisions of the past behind us."
For his part, Ivanov was a bit more cautious in his assessment of NATO's continued expansion to include countries of the former Soviet bloc. "We think that the mechanical expansion of NATO does not meet the security interests of either NATO members or countries that may want to join it. We have to think in a new way, in accordance with today's situation in the world, and look for common answers to the challenges and threats that the world faces today."
A senior U.S. official said today the deal has been widely misunderstood by the media when it is described as giving Russia an automatic say in wide areas of NATO activity. He said the initial focus would be on "concrete, pragmatic" projects intended to "develop patterns of cooperation." The official said the United States has learned "lots of lessons" from the largely failed attempt at consultation in the past five years, adding that it was much easier to deal with Russia "in practice rather than theory."
The list of cooperation projects involving Russia that NATO will try to "make work" will be attached to the Rome document. It will include, among other things, the fight against terrorism and the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
NATO foreign ministers today also said they want to give "new impetus and substance" to working more closely with Ukraine through intensified political, economic and defense cooperation. Both Russia's and Ukraine's heads of state have been invited to attend the Prague summit.
Finally, NATO said it welcomes the interest displayed by Yugoslavia in joining its Partnership for Peace program, on the condition that Belgrade continues to cooperate with the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, that democratic reforms continue and that the implementation of the Dayton peace agreement is implemented "transparently."