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NATO: Alliance Finds Itself Pondering Questions Of Currency

Nine nations are hoping for invitations to join NATO at the alliance's summit in Prague later this year. But with U.S. talk of "flexible alliances" and European accusations of American unilateralism, does NATO still matter?

Prague, 12 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- On 12 September, the day after terrorists killed more than 3,000 people in attacks on New York and Washington, NATO -- for the first time in its history -- invoked Article 5, the mutual defense clause of its founding charter.

The clause stipulates that an attack on one alliance member is considered an attack on all. America's European allies rallied around to pledge their support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

But in the months that followed, NATO seemed relegated to a back-seat role. The U.S. dealt bilaterally with states whose help it wanted in the Afghan campaign -- notably such non-NATO states as Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

In December, in an effort to stem this growing impression of irrelevancy, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said that NATO still mattered, and "now more than ever."

In recent weeks, however, several developments have highlighted key differences between the U.S. and its allies.

Take the huge increase in defense spending proposed for next year by U.S. President George W. Bush. At $48 billion, the increase alone amounts to more than the defense budgets of any of its NATO allies. The Afghan campaign also underlined the growing technology gap between the U.S. and Europe. NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson put it bluntly when he said that Europe, compared with the U.S., is "a military pygmy."

Then there was Bush's "axis of evil" remark about Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, which did not go down well in Europe. It only added to European concern that the U.S. will extend its war on terrorism to include Iraq, whether its allies support such a move or not. Today, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said the U.S. is treating its allies as followers. "Alliance partners," he said, "are not satellites."

In all, the impression is that the U.S. is acting on its own and doesn't need its technologically backward European allies. So does the idea of a collective security alliance like NATO matter anymore? And isn't it odd that applicant countries are still eager to join the alliance at a time when its continuing military relevance is in question?

RFE/RL put these questions to NATO expert Jeffrey Gedmin. Gedmin heads Berlin's Aspen Institute and until recently was the director of the New Atlantic Initiative at the American Enterprise Institute.

Gedmin says that, yes, NATO still matters. It remains the primary institution linking the U.S. with Europe. But he adds that the world is now seeing what he calls a "very unfortunate coincidence" involving three factors.

The first is further NATO enlargement, which will arguably make decision making more cumbersome.

"The second part of this unfortunate coincidence is the fact that the gap is growing between the United States and its European partners in terms of capabilities, particularly in the high-tech end of war fighting. And then third -- 11 September. We didn't reach for NATO because it was not the most suitable body for a war that far from Europe in the terrain and conditions of Afghanistan. But it will pose in people's minds the question, 'If NATO is not going global, what local conflicts and challenges will it face in the coming years?'"

Gedmin says NATO's capabilities, command structure, and habits are, at the moment, irreplaceable and should ensure the alliance -- for the foreseeable future -- remains the institution of choice to defuse regional crises.

Guillaume Parmentier heads the French Center on the United States and served on NATO's staff in the early 1990s. He says the U.S. was slightly contemptuous in the way it sidelined its NATO allies following 11 September. He says this was damaging to NATO, since it called into question the very core of its system -- the Article 5 mutual defense clause. Parmentier says NATO is now at a crossroads and faces two main choices.

"There's one easy possibility, which is to make NATO into a more political organization, which would be a sort of forum where security issues pertaining to Europe are discussed with the Americans, a sort of OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] plus, if you see what I mean. That is the easy road. It is also the least promising in terms of serious future for the organization. There is another road, however, which is to make NATO into a reservoir of capabilities for its allies in different formations. The U.S. might choose to use it less, but it still provides unique international multilateral capabilities."

Alvydas Mesalinskas says NATO's members are wise enough not to transform the organization into an OSCE-like body, as in Parmentier's first scenario. Mesalinskas is deputy chairman of the European Affairs Committee in NATO-applicant Lithuania's parliament.

Mesalinskas dismisses the idea that Lithuania is lobbying to join NATO just as the alliance's importance seems to be dwindling.

"First of all, I wouldn't agree that the military importance of NATO is in question or that NATO importance is decreasing in European politics. NATO is still very important, of course. It's quite possible that NATO could be transformed in some way, especially having in mind this close relation with Russia. But I hope that the core activities of NATO will still prevail and after the NATO enlargement, we will become part of this organization."

Dominique Moisi is deputy director of the French Institute of International Relations. He calls NATO a kind of "ultimate life insurance." He says it's up to the Europeans to make the U.S. take NATO more seriously. But how could they do this?

"Boost their defense spending, stop considering themselves as purely civilian powers and go beyond sheer criticism of U.S. diplomacy, which can be very legitimate but too simplistic also. The more Europeans will do for themselves, the more they will be respected by the Americans."

Moisi says NATO is still relevant. There is no political alternative and -- as he puts it -- "great institutions like that don't die."