Under the guidance of Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, NATO has undergone an extensive transformation. It has opened its doors to seven of its former adversaries, has secured better relations with Russia, and has initiated necessary internal reforms. But analysts say the military alliance is still facing dwindling relevance in the world's evolving security environment. To survive, they say, NATO must improve its military capabilities and its ability to respond swiftly to global threats.
Prague, 28 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- George Robertson, NATO's outgoing secretary-general, says disagreement between the United States and some of its allies on the question of Iraq has not caused a rift within the 19-member alliance. Addressing the World Business Forum in Davos yesterday, Robertson said the alliance is united in having "absolutely no doubt" that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein must disarm in a way that is clear to the international community. He said remaining differences of opinion between the United States and European allies France and Germany are more "a matter of timing than substance or principle."
But despite Robertson's mollifying words, a U.S. request for NATO help in the event of a war with Iraq has been blocked since last week by France and Germany, which both strongly oppose the proposed military action.
The current dispute has again raised the issue of NATO's identity and role in the post-Cold War era.
The alliance has undergone considerable transformation over the past four years, from fighting its first-ever war in Yugoslavia in 1999 to inviting seven former Soviet-era adversaries to join the bloc in November last year. Throughout that time, it has also improved relations with both Russia and the European Union.
Despite such accomplishments, however, NATO's future remains uncertain. Pointing to the sweeping enlargement, which will literally take the alliance to Russia's western frontier, analysts say a larger NATO will also mean a militarily weaker NATO, even as its instrumental peacekeeping operations in the Balkans continue.
Military analyst Alex Nicoll of the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies said that NATO can still argue "that it is very relevant and, for example, it had peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and in Kosovo, and Lord Robertson also performed a very important role in preventing major hostilities in Macedonia. I still think [NATO] can make a strong argument that it's highly relevant. Nevertheless, the accession of new members will inevitably make it more of a sort of political organization than a military organization, and the question of its military relevance will keep on coming back."
The U.S. administration has already underlined the problem in opting to sideline NATO during its operations in Afghanistan. Washington defended its decision by pointing to the fact that the alliance's European members are not capable of responding effectively to post-Cold War security issues, so-called asymmetric threats like the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States.
Robertson, a staunch Atlanticist, responded by initiating internal reforms, as well as the inception of a 20,000-strong rapid-reaction force, which could be deployed quickly anywhere in the world.
But the force is only set to become operational next year, and internal reforms have yet to be completed as well. Furthermore, without support from the 19 NATO member countries, Robertson's powers are limited.
Analyst Geffrey Gedmin leads the Berlin branch of the Aspen Institute, a U.S. think tank. He told RFE/RL that Robertson is taking the proper steps but that transforming the 54-year-old military alliance remains difficult, a condition, he said, for which both Washington and Europe are to blame. "NATO still has yet to cohere, still has yet to rally around the common purpose in a post-Cold War, post-9/11 world, in facing up and owning up to the twin threats, the two pillars of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and the potential for these two things to marry and do enormous damage. [Robertson] tried to move NATO in that direction, tried to grapple with this problem. But NATO as such is still coming along slowly and in some cases kicking and screaming, but I don't think that's George Robertson's failure. I think that's the failure of American leadership and a lack of maturity on the part of some of our allies," Gedmin said.
Gedmin said the United States would welcome NATO's involvement in the event of a war against Iraq. But he added that if NATO, as an alliance, chooses not to play a formal role, the United States will have to accept that.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, irked by France and Germany's opposition to a U.S.-led war against Iraq, last week called both countries "old Europe." He added that NATO's center of gravity is shifting to the east, referring to the alliance's new and future members from the former Soviet bloc, most of which stand on the U.S. side of the Iraq issue.
Gedmin said that while such countries have limited military capabilities, their political influence is growing. "Having just come from their own history of living under tyranny, I think they have a different appreciation for the values side of the alliance, not just the [military]-hardware side. Can I tell you that these countries have the power to flip the switch and change the direction of NATO? No, they don't. But I think their voices will be heard, and I think they'll be important in shaping the contributions about these topics you and I are discussing and people will listen to them. They'll listen to them in Berlin and Paris, but they'll listen to them in Washington, too," Gedmin said.
But analyst Daniel Keohane of the London-based Center for European Reform said that NATO's new members might reconsider their pro-U.S. stance once they become actual members of the European Union, where France and Germany dominate. "While they are now considered to be very pro-Atlanticist, will they continue to be pro-Atlanticist as [U.S. Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld suggests, or will they -- also through their membership of the European Union -- become more Europeanized in the "old European" sense, as Rumsfeld put this? I think that this will be one of the interesting political games in the years ahead," Keohane said.
Gedmin believes NATO's future could head in either of two directions. One envisages the alliance turning more and more into a regional, political alliance -- somewhat like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- with its military role reduced to small-scale operations.
The other scenario, Gedmin said, sees NATO joining the United States in tackling global threats, as an instrument of the community of democracies, based on what he calls "shared threat assessment" and an increased response capability.
But analysts agree that in order to maintain both its military and political relevance as an organization, NATO must rethink its global role, beef up its defense capabilities, and enhance its mobility to respond to today's security threats.