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Joining NATO - A Moving Target

By Malgorzata Alterman

Brussels, June 10 (RFE/RL) -- For the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, trying to join NATO at the moment is like trying to hit a moving target. The alliance is changing.

But through the barrage of words at the meeting of alliance foreign ministers in Berlin last week, it was possible to catch a glimpse of what the new NATO is going to look like. The 16 ministers succeeded, after months of heated discussions, in agreeing the outlines of reforms to the alliance's command structures.

These reforms are designed to transform NATO into a "more flexible and mobile" defense system, not directed against particular threat. They should also help to address Russian concerns about NATO enlargement.

Some claimed to have seen the first sign from Moscow of a change of tone, if not yet a change of substance, in the comments to the meeting by Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. He was reported to have reaffirmed a distinction between the political and military consequences of enlargement, with only the latter posing problems.

But as NATO's military structure evolves, those problems may ease. The new alliance is designed to fulfill new missions such as the peace implementation in Bosnia, with a strong European component able to act without U.S. participation if necessary.

Herve de Charette, the foreign minister of France which promoted the changes, pointed out that only reformed NATO would be strong enough to accommodate new members from Eastern Europe. "I do not see how enlargement could progress on the basis of a rejection of France's proposals," de Charette is reported to have said.

But there is still a long way to go. "In Berlin, the ministers built a skeleton of the new NATO. Now the NATO planners and military experts must put the flesh on it," explained one alliance diplomat.

How to do that will be the main problem for discussion during this week's meeting of NATO defense ministers.

The tension between France and the United States over the principles of the reforms already agreed points to more difficulties ahead. France insists that the main elements of a new command structure should be agreed upon by December. The U. S. is more wary about this process and prefers to 'go slow'.

France would like to appoint a European, probably French, deputy to the US general who commands NATO forces in Europe. This general would automatically command the new and mobile forces within NATO known as combined joint task forces (CJTF) to be used for missions in which the US does not want to participate directly, even though it will lend equipment and logistical support and retain a degree of political oversight.

Those missions could be conducted under the auspices of the Western European Union, which itself is now drawing closer to the European Union and thus meeting the aspirations of some Europeans for a more significant common foreign and security policy.

Other changes are dictated by economics. Financial considerations are forcing NATO to reorganize its bases and military commands as governments seek to cash in on the "peace dividend".

Once such a new structure is in place, it is assumed by some that Russia could be reassured that it was no longer encircled by NATO bases. And Central and Eastern European countries could still feel confident that they would be defended in case of need.

Some critics worry that NATO would be transforming itself from a hard defense organization into more of a security system, losing some of its teeth in the process. They also fear that any squabble between the U.S. and France over the new structures could delay enlargement.

But as one analyst put it: "NATO is still the best insurance company and, for as long as the security guarantees remain the same, I do not mind if it has a face lift."