Russia continues to view NATO as a hostile alliance, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
That's the conclusion of Madeleine Albright, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of state under former President Bill Clinton. She shared her thoughts in testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The primary question before the committee was whether NATO is remains relevant. Albright said emphatically that it does. She noted that the alliance was created only 10 years after the start of World War II, which was caused by the economic and political differences within Europe.
"NATO was created in response to the Soviet threat, but not only in response to that threat," Albright said. "It was also designed to rein in the many national rivalries that had ripped Europe apart. And this purpose of creating a Europe whole and free did not disappear with the Soviet Union and has not grown obsolete over time."
Old 'Spheres Of Influence'
But in the minds of most Russians, Moscow remains NATO's chief perceived threat. Albright said that even after the Cold War ended, Russians with whom she met couldn't shake their negative view of NATO.
That attitude has been evident in world headlines, including Russia's distaste for a missile-defense program based in Central Europe, its opposition to former communist states joining NATO, and its insistence that former Soviet republics remain within Moscow's sphere of influence.
"To [Russians], NATO's very existence served as an unwelcome reminder of the Cold War," Albright said. "From what I've been able to observe in the past decade, this mindset has not changed. And this makes dialogue more difficult, but it does not make cooperation impossible. Russia and NATO have important interests in common, and these include support for stability in Central Asia, countering terrorism and piracy, and curbing the spread of weapons of mass destruction."
Another witness before the committee, Kurt Volker, a former permanent representative to NATO who is now a senior fellow and managing director of the Center on Transatlantic Relations at the Washington campus of Johns Hopkins University, said that continuing to reach out to Moscow would be good but that members of the alliance should be mindful that Russia is not a democratic country and wants to maintain the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Therefore, Volker said, NATO should keep trying to engage Russia, but understand that it looks at the world differently than the West does.
"I would say that -- as many have -- we need to be inclusive of Russia in our thinking. We need to think of Russia as a European country; we need to want Russia to be part of a Euro-Atlantic community," Volker said. "But simultaneous with that, Russia therefore would take on obligations like the rest of us to adhere to democratic values and good-neighborly relations. And we need to hold those standards very high. And, as an alliance, we need to be prudent about the way we deal with a country that doesn't share those values today."
The committee also heard testimony about Afghanistan, where NATO forces are fighting a resurgent Taliban in a war that can't have been imagined when the Atlantic alliance was created in 1949. In fact, the fighting there is what led to the questions about NATO's continuing relevance -- or possibly the lack of it.
Besides providing security in Afghanistan, NATO is involved in what many call "nation building," helping the fledgling government in Kabul establish democratic institutions and foster economic well-being in a country that's been a battlefield since the Soviet invasion of 1979.
In a way, Albright sidestepped that question of whether the North Atlantic alliance be involved in nation building in a landlocked Muslim country far from Europe, saying the term "nation building" recently has become something of an epithet.
Rather, she said, the military forces in Afghanistan are merely trying to coordinate with the country's civil authorities, and help them whenever possible.
"We're not trying to create a perfect country over there, or one that has all kinds of aspects of it. It is a society that was able to govern itself for some time," Albright said. "What we have to do is try to figure out a way that the political powers over there are not corrupt, that the people are not terrified, and that there's some kind of governance procedures. So 'nation building,' to me, has all of a sudden acquired -- you know, people just hate the term. But I do think that there has to be some way that the military and the civilian aspect of this go together."
The chairman of the committee, Senator John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts), expressed concern that some NATO allies with forces in Afghanistan aren't letting their troops contribute much to the fight against the Taliban, focusing instead on training police and similar duties.
In Kerry's view, that creates entirely the wrong impression of why NATO is in Afghanistan.
"The default position seems to be to allow the U.S. military to run the entire show, which winds up, in my judgment, not only sending the wrong message to Afghans about our motives," Kerry said, "but actually undermines the very core of the mission itself."
There are some who believe that mission is doomed to failure and wonder if its failure would mean the end of NATO. But based on the October 22 testimony, it's clear that Albright isn't among them.
"Clearly [Afghanistan] is the prime NATO mission at this time," Albright said. "And people are saying that the success of NATO is dependent on the success in Afghanistan. I think it will play a very important role, but it isn't the only thing that NATO has to look at."
She added, "I don't think that the whole future of NATO should be judged on the basis of what happens in Afghanistan, but I do think NATO has to perform well in Afghanistan."