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NATO: Alliance And EU Forming Separate Rapid-Reaction Forces

  • Jeffrey Donovan

NATO's summit this week in Prague will do more than invite new members. The military alliance is expected to unveil plans for a new 20,000-man rapid-reaction force to counter terrorism. But Europe is already well into the process of building up a rapid-reaction force of its own. It's not clear yet whether these forces will complement each other or overlap.

Washington, 18 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- NATO is expected to do more at its Prague summit this week than invite seven ex-communist states to join the trans-Atlantic military alliance.

NATO looks set to use the 21-22 November summit to usher in a revolutionary overhaul of its mission in hopes of transforming the defense alliance into a cutting-edge force to fight terrorism and other "asymmetrical" threats around the world.

A key part of that transformation is the creation of a 20,000-man rapid-reaction force to be able to respond to threats anywhere -- even beyond the European continent. The changes would mark a radical break from NATO's 1949 founding mission: to protect Western Europe from the Soviet threat and another war.

But news of the new force comes as the European Union is well under way in building up rapid-reaction capacities of its own. Led by France, EU countries hope to deploy a 60,000-man force next year.

European Union states that are members of NATO would presumably contribute to both, but it's not yet clear how the two forces would interact.

Michael Brenner is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a consultant to the Pentagon. He said he sees no conflict of interest between the EU force and NATO's plan, which he said is designed to draw in European assets to what is, in effect, a U.S. strategy. "What the [administration of U.S. President George W. Bush] wants to do is increase the assets available to the U.S. and to the alliance in general for dealing with a whole range of potential threats, regional conflicts, terrorism, [and] rogue states outside of Europe. And in the process, it wants to commit the European allies to participating in what is really an American-designed strategy, that is, the new strategy of preemptive action," Brenner said.

Brenner said the changes are driven by U.S. demands to enlist Europe in the global antiterrorism war and to transform NATO to meet the new challenge. The U.S. also wants Europe to embrace the United States' aggressive new security policy, which seeks to anticipate threats and eliminate them through preemptive strikes.

Although Europe appears to be following the United States, Brenner said it has some doubts about the assumptions that underlie U.S. policy. "All three of these challenges have placed the United States' European allies in a rather difficult position. For the most part, they either disagree with the strategic premise that underlies them, the notion that preemptive action is essential to deal effectively with these new threats, or the allies are unprepared to take on the military responsibilities, financial allocations, and the risks that they imply," Brenner said.

Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former member of President Richard Nixon's National Security Council in the 1970s, suggested that the United States, through NATO, has marginalized the EU's force, which would have the explicit tasks of humanitarian and rescue missions, peacekeeping, and crisis management.

Sonnenfeldt, now a fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution, suggested that the NATO force, by contrast, would be a fully fledged combat unit capable of fighting under any circumstances.

The degree to which the two forces would interact -- and, in general, how close NATO's and Europe's security policies should be -- is causing some tension within the EU itself.

Britain, the United States' staunchest ally in Europe, has long sought to tie the European Union's emerging security policy to NATO. In contrast, France has sought to create a separate European defense identity.

The split surfaced earlier this year when British Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged "frustrations" with France over the future of European security.

Brenner said Blair's comment was significant as it signaled Britain's clear choice to side with the United States on security issues rather than investing in a new, separate European defense policy.

Analysts also see another split within Europe: this one between the older members of NATO, like France and Germany, and the new members, the former communist states. The latter, still with strong memories of the Soviet occupation, have been far more supportive of U.S. plans.

Radek Sikorski, former deputy foreign and defense minister of Poland, told RFE/RL that support for the United States within the alliance is likely to strengthen after the entry of possible new members Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, and the three Baltic states. Sikorski, now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, observed that, "As long as in those countries that used to be captive nations you have, in power and in active life, that generation that remembers communism, those people are likely to be more pro-American than Western Europeans simply because we [Eastern Europeans] remember who it was who stood up, also on our behalf, to the Soviet Union."

Sonnenfeldt said he is confident that NATO will survive these tensions, but he said its fate will depend on dealing with them effectively. "NATO, in particular, will have to adjust to the fact that people are coming into the alliance -- some are already there -- who have this special interest in a security relationship with the United States, while there are others in that alliance -- the old members of that alliance -- who have reservations about whether the Americans are using their power in the right way," Sonnenfeldt said.

Brenner said that in spite of the parallel military efforts, the older European members, like France and Germany, still must be counted as strong supporters of NATO. He suggested that they see NATO as performing the same function of the United Nations, as a way to temper the U.S. impulse to act unilaterally.

In that light, Brenner said Paris and Berlin can only hope that Washington implements its military plans through NATO, which operates on the basis of consensus. But Brenner said that's unlikely. "I don't think that the Bush administration has a clear idea as to what NATO's future shape and role is going to be. And I think that's because NATO has become simply one instrument of American strategy, of American international security policy. That policy is much more unilateralist in its impulses than any administration that's gone before it," Brenner said.

That tendency toward unilateralism, Brenner said, could ultimately determine the alliance's future, more so, perhaps, than any transformation NATO itself may undergo.

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