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NATO Relevance Questioned Ahead of New Strategic Concept

  • Gregory Feifer

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomes Russia's involvement in the upcoming summit in Lisbon.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomes Russia's involvement in the upcoming summit in Lisbon.

Poor NATO. Even as the alliance prepares to bring itself up to date by unveiling a new security concept for the 21st century at a summit in Lisbon this week, fresh doubts are being raised over its relevance for what some see as a fracturing Europe.

NATO's first new strategic concept in a decade will aim to strengthen the alliance by broadening its global outlook and making cyberdefense and a new missile defense shield among its top priorities.

But one of NATO's main problems remains unspoken: how to deal with Russia, which is leading the call for a new European security structure.

Ties have slowly improved since they imploded over Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008, and last month NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed Russian President Dmitry Medevdev's decision to attend the summit, calling it an important opportunity to broaden dialogue and cooperation. "I think the summit in Lisbon will be a fresh start of the relationship between Russia and NATO," he said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed Rasmussen's upbeat tone, when Medvedev announced his decision at a meeting with her and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the French resort of Deauville last month. "My opinion is, and Russia has repeatedly agreed," she said, "that big threats such as terrorism, the collapse of states, nuclear weapons, the big themes are a threat to all of us, and as far as it's possible, we need to deal with them together."

Russia and NATO would act as allies, but at the same time they would not necessarily convene something like an alliance relationship.
European Split

But some saw the Deauville meeting less as a promising sign for NATO's ability to deal with Russia than acknowledgment of the alliance's sinking relevance for the realities of a new Europe, whose various countries don't all share the same priorities.

New NATO members, such as the former Soviet republic of Estonia, warn Russia is trying to undermine Western unity by developing closer bilateral relations with countries such as France and Germany. They fear older NATO members are inclined to downplay democratic and other common European values in favor of improving important energy and other economic ties with Moscow.

Critics cite Russia's call for a new European security structure, which some believe is chiefly aimed at boosting Moscow's role in international affairs by undermining existing structures such as NATO.

Moscow's proposal names the United States, European Union, and Russia as the "three branches of European civilization" and calls for the United Nations Security Council to bear "primary responsibility" for maintaining international security.

Victor Kremenyuk of Moscow's Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies defends Medvedev's proposal, saying it's actually aimed at encouraging dialogue that would draw Russia closer to NATO. He says the surest way to improve relations is to increase the list of common tasks, including Afghanistan, Iran, and missile defense.

"And then maybe something else and something else," he says, "so that in reality Russia and NATO would act as allies, but at the same time they would not necessarily convene something like an alliance relationship."


But others believe the Kremlin proposal is unrealistic. Foreign-policy expert Andrei Piontkovsky calls it a "nonstarter," saying it's really meant to give Moscow control over what it sees as its own sphere of "special interests" in former Soviet territory. "It's the institutionalization of the Medvedev doctrine," he says, "which he put forward after the Georgian war."

But Piontkovsky says Russia isn't the only challenge for NATO unity. He says Washington urged other alliance members to invite Medvedev to Lisbon because President Barack Obama badly needs Russian support on Afghanistan, Iran, and other foreign-policy priorities. "As a reward for this cooperation," he says, "Obama and NATO are ready to continue this empty talk about [Moscow's] empty document called 'A New Architecture for European Security.'"

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. But, Piontkovsky says Washington's decision to ignore Russia's behavior toward Georgia in favor of cooperation with Moscow is helping undermine the military alliance's ability to act in the collective interests of its members.

"It's not for the first time in the history of Estonia and other Baltic states that they're being betrayed by their big brothers," he says. "NATO has fulfilled its mission, and if the coalition withdraws from Afghanistan next year, it will mean the ideological and metaphysical collapse of the alliance."

Security Trialogue

Among suggestions for a new European security, the European Council on Foreign Affairs recently proposed a new "security trialogue," an informal forum between the European Union, Russia, and Turkey that would boost the EU's foreign-policy role.

Council senior policy fellow Andrew Wilson, who contributed to the report, says the 1990s belief that the postcommunist world would unite around Western values has become "ragged around the edges."

"There's already a multiproject Europe," he says. "But in order to stop that from becoming a multipolar Europe with competition between those poles creating zones of influence within Europe, we thought the three or four projects had to be on the same table -- that the exact format doesn't matter, but a four-cornered talking shop with America as a fourth pillar would be a good place to start discussing it."

Kremenyuk dismisses the "security trialogue" proposal as "not relevant," saying it would "either increase Turkey's importance to the level of Russia or downgrade Russia."

Piontkovsky calls the suggestion "a clever way to reject the Russian proposal without doing it directly."

New Tendencies

As the debate over NATO's future continues, Wilson says he's optimistic next week's summit will mark an improvement of relations with Russia "because there's already stuff in the bank," including agreements for Russia to supply helicopters to Afghanistan and the fact that half of supplies to Afghanistan passes through Russia, something that would take "pretty stroppy behavior" from either side to undo.

But Piontkovsky already sees signs of movement inside Europe away from a reliance on NATO, citing a recent agreement between Britain and France to share some of their military assets. He says that's evidence of a new tendency that some countries are stepping up to unite their efforts in the face of Washington's waning interest in European security.

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