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NATO: Chief Says Alliance Not Coming Apart

NATO alliance Secretary-General Lord George Robertson says he's confident that current tensions between the U.S. and its European alliance partners over defense issues will be worked out because alliance members have too much in common and too much at stake. Our correspondent K.P. Foley reports.

Washington, 8 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- NATO's top civilian executive, Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, says the United States and its European alliance partners have too much in common and too much at stake to be driven apart by current strains over defense issues.

At a Washington forum on alliance issues on 7 March, Robertson said he believes the dispute about U.S. plans to construct a national missile defense system and plans by some European members to establish a separate defense force will be worked out.

"I'm very confident that instead of seeing a major trans-Atlantic row over whether America should deploy a national missile defense system, we're actually going to see some very serious consultations on how a broader missile defense system and strategy will come into effect."

Some European leaders have expressed concerns that a missile defense shield for the U.S. territory that has been endorsed by President George W. Bush will sever the security ties between the continent and its biggest North American partner.

In the U.S., some members of Congress have raised questions about the European Security and Defense Identity (ESDI), a long-talked-about proposal that includes establishment of a 60,000-troop rapid response force.

Robertson said he wanted to ease those American concerns. He said, for example, that ESDI actually addresses a frequent U.S. complaint that European members are not doing enough for the common defense.

"Europe knows that it can and must do more to take on a greater share of the defense effort. It can never replace NATO and it doesn't want to do so."

Part of the reasoning behind ESDI, said Robertson, is that there is no institution in Europe capable of handling a crisis that does not require U.S. participation.

"We're currently in a trap and that trap I call 'NATO-or-nothing.' For any security challenge in Europe larger than a forest fire there are only two options: NATO or nothing."

Robertson said Europe has to fill this gap.

"We have to create a new option. Building European military capabilities has to be matched with building the institutional role distinct from but closely linked to NATO."

The secretary-general summed up his remarks by saying he is convinced that the trans-Atlantic relationship "will remain as strong and as vital as it is today."

On another issue, Robertson refused to predict whether the alliance will invite new members at the NATO summit in Prague in 2002. He said it is too soon to say what will be the agenda items for the summit of NATO's 19 members.

At least nine more European nations -- including the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- are actively seeking membership. Russia opposes Baltic membership in the alliance.

While Robertson would not comment on who might be invited or whether anyone would at all, he reaffirmed the alliance view that the decision to expand will be NATO's alone.

"There can be no veto on a sovereign NATO decision or indeed on a decision of individual countries to exercise their own right to their own security arrangements."

Robertson said that potential new members must prove that they can contribute to common security and not just consume it.