Accessibility links

NATO Looks To Evolve Without Shedding DNA

  • Ahto Lobjakas

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaks at a press conference during the informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Tallinn on April 22.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaks at a press conference during the informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Tallinn on April 22.

TALLINN -- NATO foreign ministers meeting in the Estonian capital for a second day are grappling with differences over efforts in Afghanistan in talks conducted together with non-NATO states contributing forces to the alliance's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

The ministers were also expected to discuss relations with Russia -- albeit with no Russian officials in attendance.

On the first day, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen often resorted to sweeping generalizations in discussing the tasks and the future facing the military alliance. That has partly to do with the broad agenda of the Tallinn meeting, which covers most of the challenges currently facing NATO -- from the future of nuclear weapons and missile defense to the operation in Afghanistan and relations with Russia.

Much of the debate was expected to feed into NATO's new strategic concept, its blueprint for action over the next decade and beyond. The document is expected to be adopted at a summit in Lisbon in November.

NATO remains "indispensable during a time of uncertainty," and "strong solidarity among nations with shared values is still the right answer," Rasmussen said to sum up debate at the close of the first day.

A task force led by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is currently drawing up a first draft of the concept.

Rasmussen outlined a number of its basic premises. Most importantly, he said, NATO's goals and purpose must be shaped in a fashion that strengthens the bond between the United States and its European allies.

"First, it must reaffirm NATO's essential and enduring foundations, the political bond between Europe and North America, and the commitment to defend each other against an attack," Rasmussen said. "So you might say that NATO's DNA won't change."

Rasmussen also underscored that NATO's "theory must be brought into line with its practice" -- meaning the strategic concept must provide guidance on modern challenges such as international terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, cyberthreats, and energy security.

Devil In The Details

On most issues, there exists considerable variance in the views of the 28 NATO allies, and finding common ground is proving a struggle.

The most headway arguably was made on the issue of the future of nuclear deterrence, seen as a touchstone of the U.S. commitment to the future of Europe. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled to her colleagues that Washington has no plans to remove its nuclear arsenal from Europe.

During a joint press conference with Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, Clinton also said that commitment to Eastern European allies is a "bedrock principle of the United States."

But the United States is expecting a greater European contribution to challenges which it considers preeminent -- above all Afghanistan and the fight against international terrorism. Last year, non-U.S. allies met President Barack Obama's surge of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan with a joint contribution of fewer than 10,000. Not all from those were provided by NATO members.

Washington is currently pressuring other allies to provide up to 450 trainers for the Afghan National Army and police. Afghanistan's own security forces are expected to start taking over the responsibility for parts of the country next year, and training is considered essential.

It is also becoming clear that European allies must also ensure their own security against missile attacks from countries like Iran that are considered potentially "irrational enough" -- in Rasmussen's words -- not to be deterred by nuclear weapons. The United States currently remains the only ally with a functioning missile shield.

NATO's Cold War-era command structure, heavily Europe-centered, will also have to undergo radical changes. In a thinly veiled reference to Afghanistan, Rasmussen described it as unaffordable and ill-fitted for today's NATO operations.

Differences With Moscow

Russia remains perhaps the most divisive issue. Estonian Foreign Minister Paet said on April 22 that Estonia and other Eastern European allies are keen for NATO to take a more "realistic" stance on Russia that reflects Moscow's own aggressive posture. Most Western European countries, on the other hand, believe Russia must be engaged as a partner. The United States has so far steered a middle course, trying to patch up relations with Moscow while reassuring Eastern Europeans.

In one sign of latent tensions, officials say Moscow declined a NATO invitation to hold a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) in Tallinn. Estonia is a former Soviet republic whose relations with Russia are less than cordial. Rasmussen said the decision not to hold a NRC meeting was "nothing dramatic."

He also sought to play down differences when challenged to explain NATO's position on this week's agreement between Russia and Ukraine to extend by another 25 years the lease of Russia's naval base in Crimea. "It's a bilateral agreement and it will not have an impact on our relationship, neither with Russia nor with Ukraine," he said.

Rasmussen also said NATO's position on the membership bids of Ukraine and Georgia had not changed. The alliance chief said both can join when they are ready -- presumably, among other things, when a consensus exists within NATO to accept them. That is something that is unlikely to happen as long as Moscow's opposition to their membership remains firm.

Bosnian MAP

The ministers also provided Bosnia-Herzegovina with a Membership Action Plan (MAP).

Before the decision, officials said some allies remained concerned about the apparent inability of Bosnian federal authorities to exercise control over the country's defense sector.

Bosnia's MAP bid was turned down in December over its failure to carry out needed reforms.

But since then, a NATO spokesman said on April 22, Bosnia has made "significant" progress, including its decision to destroy surplus ammunition and arms and to contribute troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan.