Accessibility links

Breaking News

NATO: Summit To Focus On Expansion, Alliance's Changing Role

The Czech capital Prague this week plays host to its first-ever NATO summit, during which alliance leaders are expected to extend membership invitations to a second wave of applicant countries. Forty-five heads of state or senior officials, representing NATO's current 19 members and 26 of the 27 Partnership for Peace countries, are due to attend the two-day event. They will debate the future direction of an expanded alliance in the context of a post-11 September world.

Prague, 18 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Only three years after it joined the alliance, the Czech Republic this week becomes the first postcommunist country to host a NATO summit.

Prague is keen to demonstrate it is up to the logistical challenge, and local authorities are taking no chances: Some 12,000 Czech police and soldiers will be guarding the 2,000 delegates and 3,000 journalists attending the conference.

Downtown city streets will be closed to local residents and U.S. Air Force jets have been granted special permission to patrol skies overhead for the duration of the meeting.

Originally, the centerpiece of the Prague summit was intended to be NATO's further enlargement. The alliance's intention to invite seven new member states -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania, Slovenia, and Bulgaria -- appears a foregone conclusion.

But like NATO's previous summit in Washington three years ago, which took place during the Kosovo campaign, this week's meeting is also overshadowed by world events, making the enlargement issue only one of many topics to be discussed. Military expert Timothy Garden, the former head of Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs, explained: "It appears clear that the seven-nation enlargement is pretty much a done deal. And in a way, that relegates [the summit] to the much wider question of what is NATO for. How is it going to change, given that the American focus is on both counterterrorism -- the Al-Qaeda and 9/11 problem -- and, of course, Iraq, neither of which NATO really has a role in. So, I think the discussion is going to be much more about how should NATO restructure."

Of course, invitations to join NATO -- if issued as expected -- will remain the highlight of the summit for the countries concerned, representing the crowning achievement of their respective military and foreign policies. Diplomats in Brussels say the alliance is likely to retain a safety clause, delaying the actual induction of second-wave applicants into NATO until 2004 and making entry contingent on continuing reforms, a measure designed in part to ensure that states like Bulgaria, which have recently run into trouble over allegations of illegal arms sales, clean house.

But the nagging question of "whither NATO?" remains. Dan Plesch, a military-policy analyst at London's Royal United Services Institute, told RFE/RL: I think, principally, these countries have got a psychological sense of security and of belonging to the West, and I think that's very welcome. I think they're also increasingly getting that from the European Union. I think that particularly the political classes and the military have felt that in a sense they have 'come in from the cold.' But after that, the real material and military benefits are really pretty negligible for all concerned, not least because there are no conflicts, there is no threat. And in that sense, the NATO alliance is a bit irrelevant, unless, of course, you presume a revanchist Russia."

NATO was created in 1949 to contain Soviet expansion in Europe, and for four decades it performed its task admirably. In the decade following the end of communism in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the alliance searched for a unifying mission. The Kosovo operation, NATO's first "out-of-theater" offensive action, was a first indicator of the new direction the alliance could take.

In the wake of last year's attacks against New York and Washington, the United States has pushed for the alliance to make the fight against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction an important part of NATO's agenda. NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson last week confirmed that alliance members would devote a considerable part of the Prague summit to that issue. "At Prague, NATO will unveil a major package of measures to combat terrorism. The individual parts of this package, like the new military concept, of course, may not get the average pulse racing. But the strategic significance of this move can hardly be underestimated," Robertson said.

As Robertson has often repeated, the Prague summit will be about "capabilities, capabilities, capabilities." Each member and partnership country will be expected to make concrete pledges on what type of assistance it can bring to the war on terrorism and what kind of niche skills it can offer to defend alliance states against threats posed by weapons of mass destruction.

But for NATO to undergo a long-term strategic shift, alliance members will have to overhaul their militaries to a great degree, a task that will be costly and require many controversial decisions. As Garden pointed out, many pledges were made at the NATO summit in 1999, but few so far have been realized. "We got concrete pledges in 1999 but then there were some 58 of them. Now, I think they're going to look for a much smaller number, which will include the need for nuclear, biological, [and] chemical response forces, which would have applications for new threats that are emerging. Certainly, [they will be] trying to get the interoperability improved, the sustainability of forces when they're deployed far away. And this also includes the need now for NATO to be thinking at much greater distances than just in the immediate region of Europe, because the threats are coming from much further away," Garden said.

Summit participants are due to consider a proposal by the United States to create a rapid-response force of up to 20,000 troops, which could be maintained at a high level of combat readiness and deployed at seven days' notice anywhere around the world. Although this proposal differs from plans by NATO's European members to create a deployable force of 60,000 soldiers for regional peacekeeping operations -- the European Defense Initiative, which is also known as the Helsinki Headline Goal Force -- some see the two plans as clashing. "There is also this proposal on the table from the United States for the NATO Response Force, and that is causing a degree of difficulty with some European members, who see it as acting in ways that duplicate what Europe itself is proposing with its Helsinki Headline Goal Force, although they are different in nature," Garden said.

Plans aside, the fundamental issue is funding: how to pay for these new "capability initiatives," if they are to be realized. In Garden's view, Europeans are reluctant to devote extra money to upgrading NATO's capabilities, as they sense a reluctance by the United States to commit resources to the alliance. This reluctance was underscored by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's remark that the United States prefers to assemble what he called "coalitions of the willing" to deal with conflicts as they arise. "I think there is a feeling that the pressure that is being put by the U.S., through NATO, on the Europeans, is so that the Europeans get some capabilities, which then are used not within NATO but are used on bilateral arrangements with the United States to further the new military policies that the United States is carrying out. It's quite difficult to get European countries' governments to enthuse about investing in that way. So I think Lord Robertson's got a very difficult meeting at Prague ahead of him," Garden said.

Plesch, at the Royal United Services Institute, believes Europe does have the financial resources to restructure its forces to meet modern challenges. The question, he said, is whether it has the political will to reallocate money away from so-called "prestige projects." "I think there's an enormous amount of misunderstanding and complacency. The Europeans spend a large amount on duplicative military systems. They field vast numbers of submarines, which have no conceivable mission. The Europeans don't need to spend more, they just need to spend the money more sensibly. More, really, is not the answer," Plesch said.

Other issues face alliance leaders, such as managing ties with Ukraine, which have been damaged by allegations that Kyiv was involved in the sale of radar equipment to Iraq. Despite attempts by NATO to discourage him from attending the summit, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said through his foreign minister over the weekend that he intends to travel to Prague to attend a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission within the summit framework.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was refused an entry visa by the Czech Foreign Ministry on grounds that his authoritarian government violates the fundamental human rights and freedoms of Belarus's people. Minsk has announced a total boycott of the meeting in response, refusing to send any kind of delegation.

Another leader from a Partnership for Peace country who will not be attending the summit is Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin will send Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in his place. Despite warming ties between NATO and Russia, as Putin adviser Sergei Yastrzhembskii noted during a visit to Prague on 15 November, Moscow remains opposed to the alliance's expansion. And it has a new argument to back its case. "We consider the enlargement model to be based on inertia. It is an approach to ensuring security that is based on inertia since it is absolutely evident that after NATO's first wave of enlargement, neither the Czech Republic nor Poland nor Hungary, having become members of NATO, and with all due respect to these countries, has helped make NATO better operationally or more effective in counteracting international terrorism. NATO's antiterrorist fighting capabilities did not improve after the mechanical induction of these three countries," Yastrzhembskii said.

Commanders of the Czech antichemical-warfare unit currently stationed in Kuwait would beg to differ. But to a degree, Yastrzhembskii may have a point. Enlargement for its own sake, or as a reward for good behavior, will not enhance the alliance, which must define itself for the 21st century or face irrelevance.