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2002 In Review: Seven New NATO Members End 'False Balance Of Fear'

  • Jeremy Bransten

In what was dubbed a "transformation summit," NATO leaders met in Prague in November to approve the alliance's largest expansion in its 53-year history and to begin reorienting the organization toward new missions. Having received their invitations to join, full membership for Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania, Slovenia, and Bulgaria should become a reality in 2004. What kind of an alliance they will be joining, however, is still being determined. RFE/RL looks back at this year's momentous events and the challenges facing the alliance in the years ahead.

Prague, 12 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When the long-awaited moment finally came, it lasted all of 30 seconds, punctuated by the sound of NATO Secretary-General George Robertson's gavel. "I, therefore, put it to the heads of state and government of NATO meeting here in the North Atlantic Council that we invite to accession talks with NATO the following nations: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. I take it that this is agreed. [Sound of gavel.] Thank you very much. The council has so decided," Robertson said.

But the brevity of the announcement by NATO's leaders that they had approved the alliance's largest expansion in its 53-year history in no way diminished its significance to invitees. In the history books of the alliance's seven new members, 2002 will be remembered as the year when the artificial division of Europe finally came to an end.

Czech President Vaclav Havel, as host of the summit, declared NATO's further enlargement a signal to the world that the era when countries were divided into spheres of influence had ended. Havel said Europe could look forward to a future whole and united and that NATO's enlargement "reaffirms the right of nations to choose which alliances they wish to establish and nurture."

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, whose own country joined the alliance in 1999, also summed up the meaning of enlargement in historical terms. "We are making a decision that will finally put an end to the era of Yalta and Potsdam divisions, the evil of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the Cold War, and the false balance of fear," Kwasniewski said.

Those words had special resonance for the three Baltic states, the only NATO invitees to have spent decades both occupied and annexed by Moscow. U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking in Vilnius the day after the Prague summit, recalled the Baltics' subjugation and promised "never again." "The long night of fear, uncertainty, and loneliness is over. You're joining the strong and growing family of NATO. Our alliance has made a solemn pledge of protection, and anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America. In the face of aggression, the brave people of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia will never again stand alone," Bush said.

The Baltics will no longer stand alone but they, and the other NATO invitees, may not find themselves fully comfortable in the middle of an increasingly warm embrace between Moscow and NATO.

Bush presaged NATO's broad second wave of expansion in a Warsaw speech in June 2001, when he called for erasing the old dividing lines in Europe. But the catalyst for going ahead with the plan can be found in the 11 September attacks against the United States, which prompted Washington to seek and reward committed allies.

Moscow's eagerness to join the cause removed any obstacle to including countries like the Baltics in the club. NATO's Robertson, on a visit to Moscow in December, said that, "In many ways, Osama bin Laden was the midwife of an incredible new rapprochement, though I don't think that in his wildest dreams this fanatical criminal would have thought that he would have ended forever the Cold War and brought NATO and Russia so closely together."

The rapprochement is, indeed, hard to believe. In the months following 11 September 2001, Moscow went from opposing NATO's expansion to grudging acceptance -- signing a new cooperation pact with the alliance this past May in Rome and reaffirming the right of every country to choose its own allies. As Russian President Vladimir Putin stated earlier this month: "We would like to see the latest events [NATO enlargement] become a positive factor that would add new quality to NATO-Russia relations, not a factor of tension. As we have mentioned earlier, we intend to increase our representation in Brussels."

Now, say analysts, comes the alliance's true test. Differences with Russia may have been overcome, but will NATO be able to equally elegantly manage its growing internal problems amid competing visions on foreign and defense policy from both sides of the Atlantic?

Some analysts note with concern the growing rift between Europe and the United States on a range of issues and say this could have a profound impact on the alliance.

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.

Alex Standish, editor of the military review "Jane's Intelligence Digest," said that in an ideal world, what the United States would like is for the Europeans to boost military spending so their armies could 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.

European analysts also note that Washington's own preference for unilateralism -- as exemplified by its polite acknowledgment, but decision not to accept, NATO's offer of 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," Dan Plesch, at London's Royal United Services Institute, said the main purpose of a transformed and expanded NATO may one day be to prevent conflict among key member states themselves and to keep the 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.

Even if policy disagreements are overcome, NATO members still face the daunting task of restructuring their militaries to meet new challenges. Steps in this direction were taken at the Prague summit, with an agreement by current and future NATO members to concentrate on building "niche capabilities" while contributing to a new, 20,000-troop rapid-reaction force, which could be deployed in any conflict zone. But the scale of the awaiting reforms is great, as Robertson himself put it at the close of that summit. "We have got far too many tanks. We've got far too [much] heavy-metal equipment and far too many troops and people involved in maintenance with them. We've got far too many fighters and attack aircraft. We don't have the capability of flying in all weathers day and night and delivering position-guided weapons -- and these are just two examples. And we have, of course, far too many troops that are not deployable within the ambitious timescales that have been laid down by the NATO response force and indeed by the European rapid-reaction force," Robertson said.

On the military and political fronts, 2002 was a big year for NATO. But far greater changes await if the world's longest-lasting, largest voluntary military alliance is to continue to prosper.