London, 8 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- What is the purpose of NATO after the end of the Soviet threat? Ten years after the Cold War, has it outlived its usefulness?
NATO officials have an emphatic answer to questions like this: No. They say NATO may have shifted away from its role of defense and deterrence against a specific threat, but it still has a vital role as an instrument for shaping the Euro-Atlantic security environment.
They also say -- in an uncertain world facing many potential risks -- that it makes sense to preserve a tried-and-trusted military structure with a multinational approach to dealing with security threats.
The NATO officials spoke to East, Central European and Russian journalists who recently visited NATO headquarters in Brussels, as well as Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium, the European base for troops from NATO's member nations.
The officials acknowledged that the end of the Cold War, of the division of Europe, of a bipolar world, brought expectations that the 16-nation western alliance would soon be disbanded. After all, theory says that alliances dissolve once their common enemy has disappeared. Moreover, many Western politicians were counting on a "peace dividend" in the form of slimmed-down defense budgets.
In fact, western defense spending has been reduced somewhat, and only 95,000 U.S. troops remain in Europe, compared with some 350,000 in the Cold War-era. But a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO is busier than ever before -- particularly in Bosnia, where more than 30,000 troops from many countries, including Russia, are active.
Moreover, far from being on the brink of dissolution, NATO is about to enlarge itself to the East. On March 12, the alliance will admit three new members: Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.
The NATO decision to expand eastward has prompted sustained criticism from Moscow, particularly from military analysts who have portrayed it as threatening from both a political and strategic point of view. Russian political leaders say the process is aimed against Russia and that Russia's national interests require it to be resisted. NATO leaders deny the charges, saying the alliance threatens no nation.
In May 1997, Russian President Boris Yeltsin said that NATO enlargement was the cause of the biggest dispute with the U.S. since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. His comment came the same month that a NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed.
Since then, Russian officials have continued to condemn NATO expansion and have stressed particular opposition to membership for any former Soviet republics. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are all actively seeking inclusion in the alliance.
Fourteen former Soviet republics -- including Russia and Ukraine -- have joined NATO's Partnership for Peace Program (PfP), aimed at developing a new security relationship between the alliance and partner countries. (Besides Russia and Ukraine, they are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.)
NATO officials deny that the PfP program represents a "waiting room" for full membership. But Russian military analysts have expressed misgivings about the strategic implications of the PFP program, particularly for Russia's western and southern flanks
Aside from enlargement, NATO is about to issue a "mission statement" setting out its goals for the 21st century. This statement -- which will also outline a new command structure -- will be issued at NATO's 50th anniversary summit of heads of state and government in Washington on April 23, 24 and 25. NATO spokesman Jamie Shea says the present strategic concept needs to be updated:
"NATO has to bring its strategic concept -- the current one dates back to 1991 -- in line with the new developments in Europe. So much has happened since 1991 that some of the strategic concept is out of date. We want to point towards the future, particularly in defining NATO's future in peacekeeping and peace support operations."
The mission statement will reaffirm NATO's core function of collective defense. Article Five of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty states that signatories agree that an armed attack against one or more of them will be considered an attack against them all.
But the statement will also lay down new guidelines to help the alliance cope with future threats. According to Shea, these include the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological and chemical weapons; the emergence of "rogue states"; and the access of terrorist organizations to "designer weapons."
The statement will also set out NATO's future force-planning needs -- what kind of military forces it will require-- in order to deal with a wider range of tasks with a more flexible command structure.
In the Cold War era, NATO prepared itself for a Soviet tank attack across the inner-German border; today, the emphasis is less on territorial defense and more on out-of-area force projection to help NATO undertake peacekeeping operations in peripheral regions.
The NATO mission statement is also expected to address itself to the controversial issue of the further enlargement of NATO. But NATO sources said: "No imminent enlargement decisions are expected."
Since the July 1997 NATO summit in Madrid, western officials have been engaged in a dialogue with nine CEE countries seeking full membership: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Albania.
Shea says the NATO discussion of further enlargement is still going on and he cannot predict what the result will be.
But, whatever happens, the aspirant members will be offered an "accelerated program of preparation" to allow them to be ready for membership when, and if, this is offered. This program will help the candidate countries with defense planning and restructuring.
"It will bring them closer to NATO, give them more practical assistance so that they can quickly get themselves up to the standards required for NATO membership. So the open door in Washington will not be static, it will be opened further, and we will actively prepare for future enlargement."
NATO officials stress that enlargement needs to be managed in a way that does not threaten Russian interests but is focused on shaping a more benign strategic environment in Europe.
Michael Ruehle -- an aide to NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana -- has said Europe's divisions can only be overcome for good if the new democracies in the East are "also able to exercise their right to determine their foreign policy and security orientation." But he also said that NATO cooperation with Russia is crucial to strengthening the new security architecture in Europe.
Still, other analysts fear that any further enlargement risks touching off retaliatory measures by Russia at a time when it is worried about the "shrinkage of its geopolitical space."
Meanwhile, NATO officers at SHAPE headquarters worry that NATO will diminish its effectiveness if it enlarges too rapidly. They say it could take 10 to 15 years to fully integrate the Poles, Czechs and Hungarians, so it would impose a "huge burden" to take on additional members soon. "We need to strike a balance," said one.