The Riga summit of 10 NATO candidate countries ended 6 July on an optimistic note, with many hopefuls confident of getting an invitation to join the alliance this November. But as NATO prepares for the biggest expansion in its history, experts say it has yet to form a clear strategy for its future role.
Riga, 9 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders of 10 NATO candidate countries -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia -- concluded their meeting in the Latvian capital feeling certain that as many as seven of them will be invited to join the military alliance at its November summit in Prague.
The three Baltic states, along with Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania are likely to get a formal invitation. Two other hopefuls, Albania and Macedonia, might still have to improve their political and military credentials to be granted NATO membership. Croatia's prospects for joining NATO are still considered distant.
With so many countries lined up to join the bloc, and the new NATO-Russia Council already a reality, the alliance is experiencing the most-sweeping changes since its foundation in 1949. A much stronger challenge, however, lies in NATO's need to define its future role in the world.
In Riga for the summit was Ron Asmus, a senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy assistant secretary of state charged with coordinating U.S. policy on NATO expansion. In an interview with RFE/RL, Asmus said the alliance must decide whether simply to continue maintaining peace in Europe or to begin countering new global threats. "The big question now is: Once NATO has succeeded, or if NATO is now close to succeeding, in making Europe essentially whole, free and safe, what is it for? And that is the question that will be front and center at Prague. Prague is not only a summit about NATO enlargement or NATO-Russia. It's about what is NATO going to become. And the question we all face, including Latvia, as it joins the alliance, is, should NATO just remain the manager of peace in a pretty secure and peaceful Europe, or should it think about dealing with the new threats, most of which come from beyond Europe? And I'm, of course, of the view that it should," Asmus said.
It is widely agreed in the United States and Europe that the major threat now is global terrorism, and, as Asmus put it, "a terrorist attack can be financed in Saudi Arabia, planned in Afghanistan, refined in Hamburg, and carried out in New York."
To deal with the risks coming from outside Europe, Asmus said NATO has first to finish consolidating peace in the region. Then it must assume a new task of promoting a political transformation in the greater Middle East, from North Africa to Afghanistan, where the new threats are coming from. "I think the real question is -- and this is a question that goes beyond NATO -- as you look at these threats in the greater Middle East -- that poisonous combination of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, the fact that Saddam Hussein is a modern Stalinist dictatorship in the greater Middle East -- we have to realize that, just like the way to deal with communism was eventually a political transformation, the problem in the greater Middle East is also one of political transformation. At the end of the day, it is change, it is movement in the direction of reform, civil society, and democracy. We need to think about working together to help militarily defeat the terrorists, [to] get rid of Saddam Husseins there, but [also] to make sure the regimes there ultimately become more democratic, accountable societies," Asmus said.
But attempts to implement reforms in the Middle East and elsewhere might prove difficult if the two sides of the Euro-Atlantic community, the United States and Europe, can't agree on this as a common goal and fail to take joint action. The U.S. and Europe have recently differed on a range of issues, including the International Criminal Court, climate change, biotechnology, a possible military invasion of Iraq, and the Middle East crisis. But according to Asmus, the main problem is not the disagreements, but the lack of will to act together. "I don't think the big problem is that the U.S. and Europe are drifting apart. I think the problem is a fundamental political one, that in the late 1940s and early 1950s we had realized we are in this together, and today we are not sure we are in this together. We are not sure we want to be in this together. I think it's fundamentally a question of political leadership. I don't think, personally, the differences that we have on Iraq or even on the Middle East, which is probably the most emotional issue, are really fundamentally greater than some of the differences we had in NATO about how to deal with Moscow. What was different then was that our leaders said we've got to figure this out, we've got to do it together, we've got to harmonize our policies. We had that commitment, and we don't yet have that commitment today. I think the real question is whether we, on both sides of the Atlantic, can produce that kind of leadership," Asmus said.
If the U.S. and Europe recognize that they have a common problem and succeed in at least setting a joint strategic direction during the NATO summit in Prague, that would be as important a step as the establishment of the alliance more than 50 years ago, Asmus said.
With NATO trying to reorient its mission, will there be any more enlargement rounds? Two of the candidate countries attending the Riga summit, Macedonia and Albania -- which are not yet considered ready to join the alliance -- warned of risks that might arise in the Balkans if NATO expansion halts after the Prague summit.
For his part, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski urged the seven NATO hopefuls likely to receive invitations this fall to help those countries looking forward to a third expansion round. Kwasniewski cited Ukraine as an example of a vital partner that deserves to receive NATO membership in the future.
Asmus said NATO is not likely to close the door on further expansion following the Prague summit in November, although the next round of enlargement may take longer. "I think that the door is still open. As you know, Ukraine has said that it now aspires to join NATO. There may be other countries of the former Soviet Union that aspire. I think what's happened, though, is when I was at the State Department I often said to my staff: There is the 10-year plan, the 25-year plan, and the 50-year plan. The 10-year plan is Baltic to the Black Sea, the 25-year plan is Westernizing and integrating Ukraine, and the 50-year plan is Westernizing and integrating Russia," Asmus said.
Ukraine declared its intention to seek NATO membership in May, after maintaining an official policy of neutrality for years. NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, in Kyiv today for meetings with Ukrainian officials, reviewed the country's contributions to regional security and peace.