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NATO: Will A Larger Alliance Be Less Effective?

  • Jeremy Bransten

At NATO's summit in Prague on 21-22 November, seven countries, from the Baltic to the Balkans, are expected to be invited to join the alliance. The United States has been the primary backer of a broad second wave of enlargement. But as the once-compact military alliance grows, questions are being raised about its purpose and what it will be able to accomplish in the future.

Prague, 18 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia have been clamoring for years to get into NATO. And it looks increasingly likely they will get their wish at this week's NATO summit in Prague. But what kind of an alliance are they joining?

The United States and its European allies already are divided on several key defense and foreign-policy issues, and many analysts predict that differences on Iraq, the war on terrorism, military spending, and European security are likely to grow. Will NATO's potentially fragile cohesiveness be weakened further when it absorbs new members? Or would its reason for existing be undermined even more if it failed to meet the challenge of enlargement? Why has the United States become such a strong advocate of maximum possible enlargement, and who is likely to benefit more from the move?

These are some of the questions being asked on both sides of the Atlantic.

Alex Standish, editor of the military review "Jane's Intelligence Digest," argues that the alliance, and especially the United States, has held out the promise of NATO membership to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as a carrot to encourage democratic reforms. Now that many of those countries have followed through on those reforms, NATO has little choice but to reward them, regardless of the strain this may put on the alliance. "One of the issues -- and this has been a common [refrain], if you listen to many of the speeches that have been made supporting the greater enlargement of NATO from the U.S. point of view -- is that it's seen not only in terms of a military alliance but also in terms of expanding stability, as well as an endorsement of democratic reform, in some way. These countries, once they're admitted to NATO, are seen as being part of the mainstream Euro-Atlantic tradition. And I think that this is also something which, perhaps more on an ideological level than on a practical level, is forcing the pace of change," Standish said.

Dan Plesch, a military-policy analyst at London's Royal United Services Institute, went even further, telling RFE/RL that in his opinion, NATO and its most influential member, the United States, have been caught in a trap of their own making. "I think the U.S. has become imprisoned with its own rhetoric, having committed to expanding the alliance, under the old saying: 'Be careful of what you wish for, you may get it.' It is now finding itself enmeshed in an organization of 25, getting on to 30 countries. It's starting to look like the United Nations or the OSCE, which I think some people were concerned about all along. The British in particular have been concerned about the weakening of the core decision making in the alliance. But frankly, I don't think that Washington has enough flexibility, given the political momentum generated by its own rhetoric," Plesch said.

For a U.S. perspective, RFE/RL contacted defense expert Clark Murdoch, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. He pointed out that NATO has for years been moving away from being a purely military organization, and expansion, according to him, should be viewed in this context. "I don't think there's any question that the nature of NATO is evolving in the post-Cold War era and becoming more of a political-military community, say, than strictly a military alliance. The issue of incorporating these new nations is to make clear that they've joined the free Europe that they aspire to be a part of. Clearly, it is less about creating new and viable capabilities that will be integrated into NATO," Murdoch said.

The main goal for new NATO members, according to alliance leaders, should be to develop so-called "niche capabilities" that could be offered to NATO in times of need. The Czech Republic, which has elite units operating along Kosovo's demarcation line with the rest of Serbia, and an antichemical-warfare unit in Kuwait, is often cited as an example, though the overall state of the Czech armed forces, which joined NATO in 1999, remains relatively poor.

Murdoch said fears that an enlarged NATO will no longer be able to reach consensus are overstated. The alliance, he said, will provide a framework for countries from the Pacific to the Baltic to cooperate and ensure their weapons systems and command structures are aligned. "Coalitions of the willing," as U.S. officials frequently put it, will be assembled on a case-by-case basis.

But other analysts note with alarm the growing rift between Europe and the United States on a range of foreign-policy issues and say this could have a profound impact on the alliance.

An issue of particular concern to the United States is the European Defense Initiative, originally proposed by France and Britain, which foresees the creation of a force capable of fielding 60,000 battle-ready troops. Who will command those troops and whether they will be deployed under a central NATO command or separately still has not been resolved.

The United States faces a central paradox. On the one hand, it regularly criticizes NATO's European members for spending too little on their military budgets. But the moment Europe sends a signal that it is willing to take up the defense burden, Washington becomes edgy.

Standish said what the United States wants is for the Europeans to boost military spending so their armies can take over peacekeeping in regions where Washington does not want to commit its troops over the long term, such as the Balkans. But, Standish said, the United States wants to be able to call the shots and to some extent it fears Europe's growing political assertiveness in foreign policy, as demonstrated on the Iraq issue. "There is a feeling that perhaps some of the European countries, France in particular and possibly Germany, are not as reliable. And I think that there is some concern that, particularly as the European Union itself becomes an economic superpower, if not a military superpower, there is perhaps a longer-term concern that the European Union may become far more of a defensive organization in the sense of having a military capability through its membership rather than looking to the U.S. for leadership. So I think there is almost a schizophrenia," Standish said.

Another paradox is that, although the United States has been the main proponent of Eastern European states joining NATO, the prospect of European Union accession acts as an equal if not more powerful force that will in time draw these countries closer to Western Europe, not necessarily the United States.

As Standish pointed out, U.S. worries do have historical justifications. "The last time that there was a strongly Eurocentric policy being pursued without reference to the United States, it led ultimately to World War II. And I think there is some concern in the [United] States that there should still be a very strong Euro-Atlantic link," Standish said.

European analysts note, however, that Washington's own preference for unilateralism, as exemplified by its polite acknowledgment but failure to accept NATO's offer of mutual assistance following the 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, undercuts the alliance's effectiveness as a Euro-Atlantic link and leaves it as little more than a convenient storehouse for weapons and troops.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's statement at the start of the U.S. war on terrorism that "the mission will determine the coalition" and "the coalition must not determine the mission" only serves to drive a further wedge, in many European eyes, between the United States and Europe.

Standing the accepted paradigm on its head, that NATO should continue to exist and expand in order to prevent outside conflicts from spilling over into its own "zone of stability," Plesch, at London's Royal United Services Institute, said a transformed and expanded NATO's main purpose may one day be to prevent conflict among key member states themselves and to keep United States and Europe from drifting too far apart. "To be brutal about it, I think that it's a very good conflict-prevention mechanism between Europeans and the United States. There are very severe underlying tensions and I think that without NATO, we would see these bubbling much more to the fore and I think this fundamental feature of trans-Atlantic cohesion remains essential to the alliance. But I think the problem for Europe and the United States is that the U.S. has defined its foreign policy so much in military terms that it has really tied one arm behind its back in trying to conduct foreign policy, and I think that is to everybody's disadvantage, Americans in particular," Plesch said.

For years, Eastern European countries from Estonia to Bulgaria heard much about the need to reform both their societies and militaries in order to join NATO. Membership, they were told, was about more than defense issues. The question is, have NATO's current members taken the message to heart?

Experts agree that NATO, if it is to remain viable, must be refashioned. Members on both sides of the Atlantic will have to make a conscious choice to have alliance headquarters become a forum where military and foreign policy are both discussed and formulated. If not, NATO risks being sidelined. Decisions will be made separately, at EU headquarters and the White House, and the rift between Europe and the United States will widen.