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NATO: Is The Organization Finished As A Real Alliance?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The NATO alliance is in disarray as disagreement continues over steps to protect Turkey in the event of a war with Iraq. The United States has warned that it will proceed without NATO if necessary by acting bilaterally with other like-minded member states. Does this spell the end of NATO as a true alliance? Is it turning into a mere pool of countries from which short-term partners can be drawn for specific tasks?

Prague, 13 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- NATO, the most powerful military alliance in the world, is going through a difficult moment, one that experts say could change the very nature of the organization.

The 19-member alliance, which defended Western Europe so well during the Cold War, is now divided over preparations for a possible U.S.-led war on Iraq.

NATO's two largest European members -- France and Germany -- as well as Belgium, are blocking the start of planning to secure fellow member Turkey against a possible retaliatory strike by neighboring Iraq. The three say that taking military steps in Turkey now would send the wrong message, namely, that diplomatic efforts to ensure Iraqi disarmament are exhausted.

The importance of using peaceful means was stressed by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in a speech today to the parliament in Berlin. "The most important international obligation is to avoid war. That is what we are orienting our policy toward. No 'realpolitik' and no security doctrine must be allowed to enable us to thoughtlessly accept war as a normal means of international politics," Schroeder said.

The United States has said that military planning for Turkey will go forward even if NATO does not reach agreement. In other words, NATO would be bypassed. Instead of the alliance acting in concert, the United States would simply work bilaterally or multilaterally with like-minded members to achieve its aim: in this case, to organize special defenses for Turkey.

The prospect that NATO as an organization will be sidelined is, in this instance, being caused by the European partners, with their blocking move. But it adds to a development that has been around for some time.

In the 2001 military campaign against terrorists based in Afghanistan, for example, the United States did not call on NATO for help but made arrangements for military and logistical support with individual alliance members.

This was a result of the U.S. experience in the 1999 Kosovo crisis, when most of the military burden of the campaign against Serbia fell on Washington. In that conflict, NATO's cumbersome process of consensus decision making significantly slowed down the conduct of the military campaign.

Washington felt that to have its hands tied in the same way in Afghanistan was unacceptable, so it did not take up the alliance's offer of active support.

Apart from the U.S. reluctance to become involved in NATO's tortuous decision-making process, two other factors have reinforced the difficulties being faced by the alliance. One is an unwillingness on the part of some Europeans to have the alliance involved in military activities outside its own theater. For instance, during the Afghan campaign, France opposed NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson's plans for NATO peacekeepers in post-conflict Afghanistan on the grounds that the operation would take NATO out of its home region. The second factor, likewise stemming from some European states, is the conviction that NATO's role as a defensive organization -- as opposed to an offensive grouping -- must be preserved. The present dispute involving Germany, France, and Belgium illustrates this factor.

James Waltson, a professor of politics at Rome's American University, said that while the request to defend alliance member Turkey appears to be a defensive move, it is part of preparations for a U.S.-led military campaign against Iraq, which the blocking states regard as an offensive act. "The political aim of the three vetoing countries is not to start a war now," Waltson said.

Military expert Charles Heyman of Jane's Information Group, the military publishing organization, does not believe, in view of European opposition, that NATO can be swung around to a role that would include an offensive posture. He said that cracks appear when NATO is asked to be an offensive alliance. "All the military organization of NATO was designed around a defensive alliance and a defensive posture. It's too much of a leap of faith to expect NATO to become an offensive organization," Heyman said.

Taken together, these factors appear to weigh heavily against the alliance retaining the level of importance it enjoyed during the Cold War. The alliance lacks the clear focus that characterized its defense against the Warsaw Pact, and analysts say it is not well-equipped to take on the challenges posed by the new global danger: terrorism. "It will take on a new role [only] when the new threats are clearly perceived. NATO is not an alliance that can deal with terrorism. Terrorism is a different form of war. NATO was set up and has all its structures to deal with an open war from a clearly defined enemy. You can't use tanks against terrorists," Waltson said.

Under these circumstances, the likelihood that the United States will draw on the alliance as a pool of separate countries in order to accomplish short-term goals appears to be growing.