Prague, 20 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Several Western media outlets today are dominated by a discussion of NATO, as delegates convene in Prague for the alliance's first-ever summit behind the former Iron Curtain. Up to seven former communist nations -- Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Baltic states Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia -- are expected to be formally invited to join the alliance. Debate over NATO's relevance with respect to new and changing security threats dominates the commentary, with some observers suggesting the alliance has devolved into a political, rather than military, organization.
Writing in Britain's "Financial Times," Judy Dempsey says the overall purpose of the NATO alliance remains a subject of lively debate in Washington. Some U.S. officials believe the alliance to be "politically weak-willed and militarily ineffectual." The war on terror, they suggest, "confirms NATO's unsuitability for the modern task of ensuring security."
Thus, the U.S. administration has proposed a vision for revamping the alliance -- the creation of a NATO rapid-response force, or NRF. "This proposal marks a radical departure from the time-honored ban on military operations 'out of area' -- that is, far beyond Europe and the North Atlantic. The security threat, Washington argues, now comes from further afield." But Europe's reaction to this suggestion "is mixed," Dempsey says. "Some fear that the NRF would relegate NATO to being a 'tool box' [for] U.S.-initiated ventures in parts of the world that pose little immediate threat. Others see it as the alliance's best hope of maintaining the U.S.'s interest."
Many in Europe "believe terrorism is best contained by the civilian, judicial, police, and intelligence agencies working much more closely together, rather than by a military alliance." But Dempsey says "the more optimistic of NATO's supporters welcome the NRF proposal as a bulwark against U.S. unilateralism, a sign that Washington does not want to downgrade NATO to a mere political club that threatens eventually to alienate its European allies."
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
"The New York Times" correspondent Patrick Tyler writes from Prague ahead of the NATO summit scheduled to convene tomorrow in the Czech capital. He says, "After a year of American-led combat operations in Afghanistan, where NATO countries played a marginal role, and now with the prospect of war in Iraq, the grand alliance has never seemed more on the sidelines." At the Prague summit, seven new nations are expected to be asked to join the alliance. Yet Tyler says "the most urgent task facing the assembly will be to rescue the alliance from obscurity."
The effort to reinvigorate the trans-Atlantic centers "on creating a NATO rapid-response force that could move swiftly with light, technologically advanced weapons around the world to strike at new threats from terrorists or rogue nations with weapons of mass destruction." In this "new NATO," members would no longer have to "contribute proportionately to the common defense. Instead, contributions could be based on areas of specialization."
Tyler says the Prague summit "is very much about military strength. If NATO does not get new abilities to move forces rapidly and connect them electronically, it could devolve into a political club in which members with modern military forces would act outside the alliance, together or separately, depending on calculations of national interest."
Martin Winter in the "Frankfurter Rundschau" describes yesterday's agreement by European Union nations -- with the exception of Portugal -- to impose a travel ban on Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and seven government ministers as "a thorough defeat" for EU foreign policy. Winter says it seems the EU's more reasonable threats -- to use sanctions to punish this "brutal despot" for his poor human rights record -- were empty.
He says similarly, the Czech authorities' decision to bar Lukashenka from attending the NATO summit by denying him an entry visa now "look stupid."
All this is due to Portugal expressing disapproval of some of the proposed EU sanctions, Winter says. He adds, "Lisbon has chosen the wrong opportunity to press for an EU compromise." He says the sanctions are an appropriate response, but adds that it has once again become clear that a common EU foreign policy is lacking. This, he says, indicates a further step toward a "re-nationalization" of the EU.
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:
Some observers hail the anticipated expansion of NATO, coupled with the recent creation of a joint NATO-Russia Council, as marking the creation of a new security organization linking the United States and most of Europe and Eurasia. But in a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," former U.S. Ambassador Robert Barry says such an organization already exists.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, is rarely mentioned in either North American or European media, he says. Yet over the last decade, the OSCE "helped to end civil war in Tajikistan, has constrained conflict in Macedonia, Moldova, and Georgia, and has played a major role in building civil society in postconflict Bosnia and Kosovo."
Moreover, it is the only European security alliance "that includes the United States, Canada, and the Russian Federation as full members." The OSCE uses what Barry calls "a comprehensive approach to security that emphasizes human rights and economic development as well as military security issues." It is "agile and far less expensive than comparable international organizations," as well as "highly operational."
Barry says whichever way NATO evolves, "it is in no position to undertake the kind of conflict prevention or post-conflict peace-building such as the OSCE has been involved in." He says the OSCE "should be the instrument of choice in multilateral efforts to prevent the spread of terror by promoting civil society, especially in the volatile former Soviet republics of Central Asia bordering Afghanistan."
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger casts doubt on NATO's future as a trans-Atlantic defense organization, since the fall of communism destroyed its ideological raison d'etre and its military capabilities have hence become unnecessary.
Not even 11 September or the threat of Islamic militancy have managed to help NATO overcome its identity crisis. Nor will the Prague summit, with its enlargement agenda expanding the Atlantic security zone to the north and southeast, provide a solution to the alliance's predicament. Essentially, says Frankenberger, U.S. military capabilities have set a pace that the European partners cannot meet. Europe feels offended as the rift between America and Europe grows wider. Yet the only solution for Europe is to spend more and make a larger contribution to ensuring common security.
On the other hand, he says, America will have a continued interest in NATO as a means of keeping an eye on European interests and maintaining bonds with its trans-Atlantic allies. But "as a military-politically security organization incapable of flexibility or defense against danger, the alliance [will] waste away."
THE WASHINGTON TIMES:
In "The Washington Times," Helle Dale of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation says tomorrow's NATO meeting in Prague "will be an existential moment of extraordinary importance for the alliance -- [and] for the troubled trans-Atlantic relationship."
Dale says NATO, now confronted with global terrorism, "desperately needs new ways to remain relevant, indeed viable. The terrorist attacks against the United States on 11 September -- and their aftermath -- were a shrill but much-needed wake-up call for NATO planners."
She says U.S. President George W. Bush arrives in Prague with three main items on his agenda. First, there is the enlargement itself. "Secondly and crucially," she says, "there's the job of transforming NATO into the kind of alliance that can strike against the enemy of the future, very possibly far from its own borders." We no longer face what she calls "the Cold War model of military conflict in Europe." Finally, Dale says the Bush administration "will seek to build on its budding relationship with Russia."
Dale says after the attacks of 11 September, "many were ready to write NATO's death certificate as an alliance that had outlived its usefulness. The Prague summit will indicate whether NATO will have a new lease on life."
Daniel Broessler in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" focuses on the significance of the Baltics' prospective membership in NATO. He says expansion to this region is important because the alliance, for the first time, is moving into territory that was once an integral part of the Soviet Union. Moreover, he says, the enlargement coincides with the alliance's new orientation on global terrorism.
What began in 1991 is culminating in Prague, he says. Then-Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel declared the "self-abolition of the Warsaw Treaty" in the capital that year. Now Havel, who is due to end his term as the president of the Czech Republic at the beginning of next year, is hosting a summit that will merge countries with the West that spent many years involuntarily shackled by the Soviet Union. Broessler says the admittance process should be complete by 2004, "when the peoples of Bucharest and Budapest, Vilnius and Warsaw will, for the first time since World War II, voluntarily belong to the same pact."
JANE'S FOREIGN REPORT:
An article in "Jane's Foreign Report" asks, "Why is Croatia not in the first wave of countries due to enter the European Union in 2004?" According to most economic indicators, the article says Croatia "is actually ahead of several of the current candidates for EU accession in 2004." Several EU officials in Brussels "would rather have Croatia in the union than, for example, the ever-problematic Romania." So, the article asks, "What is the problem?"
"The answer is simple," it says: "EU politicking. In the 1990s, while other Central European countries were beginning to gear up for their North Atlantic Treaty Organization and EU membership, Croatia was otherwise engaged. There was the unfinished business of the war, which only ended in 1995. In addition, Croatia's unpopular authoritarian ruler throughout the 1990s, Franjo Tudjman, worried the international community with his expansionist designs on Bosnia.
After Tudjman's death in 1999, Croatia began "making up for lost time" under the leadership of Ivica Racan. "It is now in the World Trade Organization and in NATO's Partnership for Peace Program.... [Since] 2000, Croatia has also been cooperating, much better than previously under Tudjman, with the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague."
The article predicts that Racan's coalition will be victorious in general elections next year. And this "should speed up Croatia's return to favor as Southeastern Europe's top hopeful, on course for EU entry."
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)