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In Tallinn, NATO Ministers Search For Solidarity

  • Ahto Lobjakas

A general view of the informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Tallinn on April 22

A general view of the informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Tallinn on April 22

A two-day informal NATO foreign ministers' meeting that just kicked off in Tallinn, Estonia, will broadly focus on generating unity on some of the thornier issues facing the alliance.

Chief among these are burden sharing between the United States and the rest of the allies, the alliance's future goals and focus, and threat perception.

Within this context, nuclear deterrence, missile defense, Russia, and the operation in Afghanistan feature prominently on the meeting's agenda.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen identified maintaining and advancing solidarity as the main challenge before the alliance.

Speaking in Tallinn ahead of an alliance foreign ministers' meeting, Rasmussen indicated NATO's struggle for a mission and a role in the post-Cold War era has yet to be resolved.

"More than six decades after NATO's creation, solidarity remains the alliance's most precious asset," Rasmussen said. "But like all precious assets, it cannot be taken for granted."

Talking Shop

Rasmussen's words are code for debates behind the scenes where most European allies seek a greater commitment to NATO's future from the United States; and the United States, in turn, demands a greater contribution from other allies to missions -- above all in Afghanistan -- it considers primary.

At stake is NATO's future nuclear posture, with a number of European allies arguing privately for the removal of nuclear weapons from the continent.

Rasmussen today said that NATO must in future continue to have a credible nuclear deterrent in Europe.

He linked the issue to missile defense, which he said must extend to all allies in Europe to protect them from threats emanating from rogue states, particularly Iran. Only the United States currently has an operational missile shield.

But not all European allies share the same threat perceptions. Estonia, the host of the NATO meeting, is a former Soviet republic and is quietly lobbying NATO to recognize in its new strategic concept that Russia remains a threat. Germany and France, which see Russia above all as a partner who must be engaged, disagree.

The meeting marks the first time a NATO ministerial is being held on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Officials say it is no coincidence that Russia called off the NATO-Russia Council meeting that customarily takes place in the margins of such gatherings.

Seeking to downplay the tensions, Rasmussen did not specifically mention Russia in his conference speech. But he did underscore NATO's continued commitment to territorial defense remains "unflinching."

Rasmussen's Estonian hosts obliged by skirting controversy. But Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo dropped a heavy hint effectively suggesting that NATO could do more to protect its allies.

"We are more secure than ever before in our history," Aaviksoo said, "but nevertheless, looking into the future, not safe enough."

Afghanistan On Agenda

A long-running problem in U.S. relations with other NATO allies has been Afghanistan -- also on the agenda of the meeting in Tallinn.

Washington is pressuring European allies in particular to "step up to the plate," as Rasmussen put it today, and provide the more than 450 army and police trainers still lacking. The NATO-led ISAF training mission is crucial if the Afghan army and police are to be in a position to start taking over responsibility for security in the country from next year onward -- a key policy goal of U.S. President Barack Obama.

Rasmussen today offered general support to efforts by the Afghan government to seek a peaceful accommodation with some Taliban insurgents. But, Rasmussen said, any reconciliation must be Afghan-led -- meaning the government in Kabul takes full responsibility for them -- and respect the provisions of the Afghan Constitution.

Provided those conditions are met, "we should give it a try," Rasmussen said.

He also reiterated his frequent assurance that NATO will stay in Afghanistan for "as long as it takes."

The NATO chief also said there is "no contradiction" between negotiations with the insurgents and intensified NATO operations against them in areas like Marjah, Helmand.

Rasmussen suggested only force can bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

"The enemy will not be encouraged to engage in a reconciliation process until the very moment that they realize they have no chance whatsoever to win militarily," he said.

The NATO secretary-general today highlighted common financing of the alliance's joint operations as an avenue for achieving greater future solidarity. He noted that at present, "costs lie where they fall" -- a situation where the smaller allies in particular find it prohibitively expensive to contribute troops or materiel to NATO operations.

Rasmussen also said he wants to encourage NATO to turn itself into a "forum of consultation" where allies can raise potential problems before they escalate. Traditionally, Rasmussen said, NATO only steps in once it is faced with a full-blown crisis.