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NATO: London Conference Looks At The Past And Into The Future

By Jeremy Bransten and Ben Partridge

London, 9 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Senior European and NATO officials opened a three-day conference in London yesterday, to look back at the alliance's 50-year history and look forward to the future as it prepares to accept new members at the end of this week.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, who had been originally billed as keynote speakers, failed to attend. Nevertheless, the conference's first day saw speeches by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, NATO's top military officer, Klaus Naumann, German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping, and the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Shelton.

Blair and Naumann struck a common theme, saying that up to now, Washington's contribution to the alliance has been essential and irreplaceable. Both said this should continue, but they urged NATO's European members to start spending more on defense so that, in Blair's words, Europe can have the capacity to project force when needed, to complement America's efforts. Blair said that at present, Europe's military capabilities are too modest to make talk of a "European pillar" within the alliance a true reality.

Naumann, for his part, said that NATO's European members could not expect the United States to always shoulder the main burden of alliance operations. As an illustration, Naumann said Washington spends $36 billion a year in defense research alone, compared to the European NATO states' $10 billion. And he added that much of Europe's research falls within narrow programs designed to support national defense industries. When it comes to political decisions, Naumann chided Europe for too often offering what he said was a "kaleidoscope of opinions" instead of a decisive face.

Despite the criticism, all speakers at today's meetings praised the singularly successful history of NATO and said that there was no longer any question as to whether the alliance should exist into the 21st century. The question, all noted, was how best to refine the alliance's mission.

Naumann cited the on-going instability in Russia, Bosnia and Kosovo, as well as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and cross-border organized crime as the most serious new challenges facing the alliance as it looks to the future. He said NATO, which was first founded as a self-defense force, will maintain this mission at its core into the 21st century. But Naumann noted that self-defense today has a broader meaning, now that Communism has collapsed.

He was echoed by General Henry Shelton, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said that as NATO celebrates its 50th anniversary, it must not rest on its laurels.

Shelton said that there is no place for complacency, as today's potential threats to NATO are no less serious than the dangers once posed by the Soviet Union. Shelton added that in many ways, today's problems, such as regional nationalist conflicts or the possible spread of weapons of mass destruction are more difficult to anticipate and counter than the previous Soviet threat.

Looking forward to next month's NATO Washington summit, Shelton reiterated the U.S. position that it is time to revise the alliance's Strategic Concept to take these new dangers into account. He said work has already begun on this and major decisions are expected to be taken in Washington on just how this new concept should look.

Prospects for NATO's further eastward enlargement will figure prominently among topics to be discussed tomorrow and the next day at the conference, when the Polish and Hungarian defense ministers and the Ukrainian, Romanian and Slovak foreign ministers speak. Three Central European countries which were formerly in the Warsaw Pact, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are to be formally admitted into the Alliance on Friday, in a ceremony in the US city of Independence, Missouri.