Not since the tense days of its birth during the Berlin Blockade of 1949 has NATO confronted a moment so charged with both promise and peril as this one. The danger then was infinitely greater, yet somehow easier to understand. Even as Secretary of State Dean Acheson and other Western leaders signed the treaty, on April 4, 1949, creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Allied pilots were flying daily humanitarian missions to break the Soviet Union's stranglehold on encircled West Berlin. It was a moment rich in symbolism, a foretaste of the forces and stakes in the Cold War to come.
As NATO leaders gather in Washington today to celebrate the alliance's 50th anniversary, they are enmeshed in a war and accompanying humanitarian catastrophe in the splintering nations of the Balkans, and this moment too may prove to be a metaphor for the future. Alliance leaders have not forgotten that inaction in the face of a similar onslaught of "ethnic cleansing" by Serbian forces in Bosnia during 1992-95 nearly destroyed NATO's credibility. An alliance impotent to stop mass executions and campaigns of depopulation on its own doorstep seemed hardly worth supporting. A show now of uncertain resolve in the face of a new round of ethnic pillaging by the same old despot threatens to turn the coming-out party for a "new and expanded" NATO into a requiem for a lost opportunity.
"We know that our publics and parliaments will evaluate the Washington summit decisions about NATO's role in managing future crises on the basis of how well we handle this one," said Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, U.S. permanent representative to NATO, during a recent symposium at the European Institute in Washington. "We in the United States have to remind ourselves that security in Europe is linked directly to our own security. Not because a small place like Kosovo or Bosnia has a direct effect on the most vital U.S. interests, but because problems like these have an enormous effect on our strategic objective of building a Europe that is democratic, prosperous, secure, and a key partner of the United States."
Not Your Father's Alliance
While the ambitious agenda for the Washington summit has changed little in response to recent events in Kosovo, officials concede that the Balkans crisis will permeate both the substance and the tone of one of history's largest gatherings of world leaders. U.S. officials will work hard to persuade the European allies to embrace a new "strategic concept" for NATO to include such missions as quelling regional instability beyond NATO's borders and stemming the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; Clinton Administration officials consider nonproliferation as the centerpiece of the Washington summit. But U.S. efforts in this direction have already sparked unease among many Europeans about a "global NATO." A number of European allies had also been reluctant, despite U.S. insistence, to set a precedent by endorsing NATO's first-ever attack on a sovereign nation without having a specific mandate from the United Nations. Weeks of fighting and bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia may have lessened that reluctance among some nations, but strengthened it for others.
European leaders have tried to carve out a distinct security identity within NATO. Simmering tensions over these efforts are likely to come to the fore because of Kosovo, as will the underlying issue of trans-Atlantic burden sharing, in view of the United States' large contributions to the air-strike and humanitarian relief campaigns. The Washington summit was also intended to serve as a welcoming celebration for new members Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. But the crisis in Kosovo has highlighted the costs and risks of extending NATO's reach, and seems likely to amplify concerns over the enlargement of NATO further into Central and Eastern Europe.
Finally, the ghost at the banquet table most likely to turn the Washington summit from a celebration to an exercise in somber soul-searching is the absent Russia. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO leaders have pledged they would not make the same mistake with Russia that Western allies made after World War I when they ostracized a defeated Germany's Weimar Republic. That tragic short-sightedness contributed to the re-emergence of a belligerent Germany and led ultimately to the catastrophic destruction of the Second World War.
Although NATO has created a NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council at NATO headquarters in Brussels to help ease Russian objections to NATO expansion, there is no doubt that the Kosovo crisis has plunged relations between the West and Russia to their lowest ebb since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the heads of 42 nations gather in Washington to tout what is often called the most successful alliance in history, NATO leaders will carry fresh in their minds the worrisome knowledge that because of Kosovo, the Russian representative has withdrawn from the joint council, and NATO and Russian fleets are deployed in the Adriatic Sea on decidedly different sides of a bloody conflict.
"I'm afraid that now it is serious: We see some sort of consensus in Russian society, which we haven't seen since 1991," said Alexander Pikayev, a nonproliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Center in Moscow, quoted in The Washington Post. "Then, it was a strong anti-communist sentiment. Now, unfortunately, we face a strong anti-NATO consensus that could have a very dramatic impact on the overall U.S.-Russian relationship."
If the Kosovo crisis seems certain to dampen the celebration at the Washington summit, however, U.S. officials believe it could also steel the collective will of NATO for the challenges ahead, much as the Berlin Airlift strengthened the resolve of NATO's original founders.
"I'm not going to soft-pedal the seriousness of the current situation in Kosovo. This is an extremely important test for the alliance, and it has major implications for the Washington summit," Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said in a recent interview. "When world leaders gather in Washington at the end of April, I believe they'll be able to point to Kosovo as strong evidence of NATO's willingness to live up-with actions-to the words which will appear in the new strategic concept. The relatively simple point we want to make at the summit is that this is not your father's alliance: Along with new members, the alliance is taking on new missions and a new concept for its role in the world. And while we unquestionably have our work cut out for us, I'm confident that message will come across loud and clear at the summit."
In the view of those who support NATO's Operation Allied Force in Kosovo, it would have been far worse for the alliance to face Milosevic with inaction and hold a NATO summit of communal hand-wringing while Kosovo burned. "If NATO hadn't acted," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., a strong supporter of both NATO expansion and action in Kosovo, "and this trans-Atlantic security architecture that the United States has painstakingly built was unable to cope with an anti-democratic regime that was destabilizing Europe, then I think people would have rightly questioned NATO's viability. Kosovo is the first real test of NATO's solidarity in confronting this new type of threat," he added, "and while there are no guarantees how the crisis will turn out, I think NATO has passed that initial test. I think Kosovo could actually help the solidarity of the summit."
A New Strategy
Indeed, the crises in Kosovo and Bosnia have signaled a new willingness by NATO leaders to act militarily even when the threats to their interests lie beyond the borders of the member nations. Despite initial misgivings by Germany, Italy, and France, the air strikes against the former Yugoslavia firmly set the precedent that NATO will not subjugate its actions to approval by the United Nations Security Council. Because doing so would essentially give permanent Security Council members China and Russia a veto over NATO operations, the United States has strenuously resisted a policy of requiring a U.N. mandate for action. "This is the first time NATO has acted militarily without the U.N.'s blessing, and I think it is important that the Washington summit lock in that kind of flexibility," said Robert E. Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and presently a senior analyst at the RAND research group.
In talks leading up to the Washington summit, U.S. officials have pushed hard for a consensus to codify these new missions and prerogatives in a "vision statement" and new "strategic concept" for the alliance. Beyond using its power to quell regional instability in Europe, U.S. officials would like NATO to become more involved in countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, fighting terrorism, and protecting Western interests in the Persian Gulf.
"NATO is facing a paradigm shift that requires a whole new mind-set," said William J. Perry, Clinton's former Defense Secretary who was a crucial figure in pushing NATO expansion, "because its original mission is no longer relevant, its original geographic constraints are insufficient, and its military structure is no longer appropriate." Perry spoke at a recent NATO symposium hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Certainly, the way NATO related to the Soviet Union must also be entirely different than how it relates to Russia," Perry added. "NATO should reconceive itself around three main missions: preventing the re-emergence of the threat of global war; deterring regional aggressions whenever they threaten the security interests of NATO nations, in whatever geographical location they occur; and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction."
But not everyone in Europe, or in America, agrees with Perry's expansive view of the new NATO. In what amounts to a venerable NATO tradition, the new strategic vision to be unveiled at the Washington summit is likely to paper over differences within the alliance on the issue of expanded missions. The military and domestic strains created by the Kosovo crisis have clearly made a number of European allies nervous about accepting the mantle of a "global NATO."
"While Kosovo and Bosnia have proven that NATO's purpose has evolved dramatically," said Dana Allin, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, "I think you'll see the European allies successfully digging in their heels to resist any language in the new strategy which suggests going further afield in terms of missions."
Many U.S. foreign policy experts have also cautioned against overburdening the alliance with additional roles and missions. Because the United States and its European allies are likely to have fundamentally different perspectives on threats that exist far outside of NATO's traditional boundaries, some observers worry that efforts to forge a common view could prove unnecessarily divisive.
"I share the recognition that NATO needs to define a broader set of missions," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser and now a trustee at CSIS, "but I think we need to be extremely careful not to overload the alliance with excessive global ambitions. Enlarging NATO is already going to be an enormously complex process, in terms of the trans-Atlantic division of responsibilities; readjusting the balance of influence within the alliance; and determining the proper commitment of resources," he added. "So we have to avoid overloading the circuits, or plunging NATO into a divisive debate on issues the alliance may not be prepared to handle."
Trans-Atlantic "Burden Sharing"
Clinton administration officials have made the new vision statement the centerpiece of the Washington summit because they believe it will prove critical in cajoling European allies to reform and modernize their militaries. As the war in Kosovo has again made painfully evident, NATO's ability to project power beyond its borders is almost wholly dependent on U.S. weapons systems and capabilities, from spy satellites to advanced command-and-control systems and the airlift and other logistical support necessary to sustain far-flung military operations. Of NATO's total power-projection capability, 90 percent is held by the United States, and just 10 percent by the European members of NATO, according to the European Institute, a Washington group that monitors trans-Atlantic relations.
In fact, each year, all of the European allies collectively spend only 60 percent of what the United States alone spends on defense, according to the institute. Military experts worry that, unless there are increases in European defense budgets in the future, the gap between U.S. and European capabilities will grow dangerously wide.
"There's even a phrase for that gap in military capability: It's called 'divergence,' and it needs to be addressed," said Andrew F. Krepinevich, director of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "Divergence impedes the United States' ability to get our European allies to shoulder more of the burden in these operations, and it causes our allies to worry that in the future, they will ultimately be relegated to performing the military equivalent of janitorial duty."
A key U.S. goal at the NATO summit will thus be to win agreement not only on a new strategy, but also on a corresponding "Defense Capabilities Initiative," a program that would encourage the Europeans to both modernize their armed forces and make them more mobile and deployable for future "out of area" missions. Because European militaries and mind-sets are rooted in the idea of homeland defense rather than that of projecting power, U.S. officials concede that the new strategy will represent a sharp departure for many allies.
"We don't have any wild ambitions that NATO will be the future vehicle for dealing with crises on the Korean Peninsula or sub-Saharan Africa," said Vershbow. "But NATO shouldn't simply be defined out of the picture, just because a problem doesn't originate on the European continent. When we talk about threats such as weapons of mass destruction or ballistic missile proliferation, we in the United States sometimes wonder why many European allies resist them, in a knee-jerk fashion, not only as an inappropriate subject for NATO, but as an inappropriate subject, period. There's a certain head-in-the-sand quality to that attitude that we think needs to be overcome."
A European Identity
As a carrot to entice European allies to share more of the burden of NATO operations and expenditures, the United States has withdrawn its long-held reservations about European desires to establish a more distinct defense identity-known in NATO parlance as the "European Security and Defense Identity." Provided that independence is expressed within the overall framework of NATO, U.S. officials accept ESDI as a mechanism to encourage European allies to spend more on defense, and to reassure Europeans that they have the capability to conduct smaller-scale operations on their own when the United States decides to opt out.
The ESDI initiative was also viewed as critical in convincing France to work within the NATO fold rather than trying to create a military capability outside of NATO. Indeed, given that France long held NATO's military structure at arm's length, one of the most striking aspects of the crisis in Kosovo has been France's close cooperation and participation in the operation.
U.S. officials play down the potential problems that could arise with an increasingly independent European bloc within NATO. At the Washington summit, the alliance will therefore announce concrete plans and procedures to permit the Western European Union-the defense component of the European Union-to take the lead in some military operations by drawing on NATO assets and other support.
In truth, however, the emerging independence of the European allies is sure to cause trans-Atlantic tensions. The essential question is whether the relationship will ultimately be strengthened as a bond between equals, or be marred by a painful break.
"I think with Britain and France pushing the idea," said Allin of the IISS in London, "the concept of a distinct European security identity is being taken more seriously than ever before. While the Americans grudgingly endorse this as a way to produce more burden sharing, you do sense a lingering unease in America over what this will mean to its position within NATO." It's unclear, he said, "whether the United States can have it both ways: a stronger European identity and more burden sharing, but not a European bloc within NATO. At the same time, the Europeans strongly desire a distinct security identity, but the overriding concern remains [the threat of] American disengagement from Europe."
Already, U.S. officials have voiced concerns about proposals pushed by the United Kingdom and France for the European Union to take a broader role in security and defense, even to the point of subsuming the WEU. As U.S. officials have pointedly noted, the European Union does not include such key NATO allies as Turkey and the United States itself. "The chief U.S. concern," said Vershbow, "is to preserve NATO as the overarching framework and avoid the waste and political divisiveness that could come from efforts to establish separate European capabilities and structures."
Talk of an independent European defense identity has predictably angered some U.S. lawmakers worried about splintering the alliance. "We must be emphatic with our allies," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a senior member of the Armed Services Committee and a presidential candidate. "We encourage their efforts to assume more of the burden of their defense, but only within the institutions of NATO. Defense structures accountable to the WEU or any other organization other than [NATO] will ultimately kill the alliance."
McCain has also criticized NATO allies-with the notable exception of Britain-for their unwillingness to spend more on defense and more to fully support recent U.S. operations in the Persian Gulf. "I don't want to be alarmist," he said, "but I feel it necessary to observe, as we approach the 50th anniversary of NATO, that the Atlantic alliance is in pretty bad shape, despite the good news that Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary have joined our ranks."
Enlargement Amid Crisis
The welcoming celebration for NATO's three new members, complete with a fly-by of NATO jets, was to have provided the central spectacle of the Washington summit. With the fly-by likely to be canceled as inappropriate, given the gravity of the Kosovo crisis, new members will take their place at the alliance table in the midst of war, equally mindful of the implicit burdens of collective security as of its benefits.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials still see NATO expansion as central to their vision of a more peaceful and stable Europe. In this view, extending the alliance eastward fills a strategic vacuum and reinforces fledging democracies in Central Europe, cements the trans-Atlantic relationship, and guards against the possibility of a resurgent Russia.
By choosing Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic-three former members of the Warsaw Pact who chafed for decades under Soviet dominion, and who were instrumental in the eventual breakup of the USSR-NATO officials also feel they are righting a historical wrong dating back to the Yalta Conference of 1945.
"NATO will do for Europe's east what it has already helped do for Europe's west," Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said at the official accession ceremony, on March 12 at the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Mo. Albright was born in Prague and fled the city just before the Communist takeover in 1948. "Steadily and systematically," she told the new members, "we will continue erasing-without replacing-the line drawn in Europe by Stalin's bloody boot. Never again will your fate be tossed around like chits on a gambling table."
In an effort to sustain the momentum of NATO enlargement, U.S. officials plan to unveil at the Washington summit a "Membership Action Plan" that will commit the alliance to more actively helping aspiring members meet the criteria for membership. Those criteria include strengthening democratic institutions; embracing free-market economies; establishing civilian control of military forces; and working to make the armed forces compatible with NATO command-and-control systems.
While U.S. officials have resisted calls from prospective members for an exact timetable for the next wave of invitations, they have left no doubt about their preference that NATO enlarge again sooner rather than later. "By giving aspiring members more feedback and guidance on their defense reform and their modernization efforts," Vershbow said, "the Membership Action Plan will demonstrate that NATO fully expects to admit additional countries in the not-too-distant future."
Despite strains over the Kosovo crisis and despite Russia's decision to call back its representative to the Joint NATO-Russian Council in Brussels, Vershbow disagrees with critics who argue for a pause in NATO enlargement. "We can continue being sensitive to Russian concerns without allowing the Russians to have the kind of veto over the second round of enlargement that we denied them in the first," he said. "At the end of the day, I think to pull back from our commitment to NATO enlargement in the face of Russian threats would be to reward anti-democratic forces in Russia. That would confirm that bullying pays off and that Russia can lay claim to a zone of domination in Central Europe which a democratic Russia should not even seek."
But some critics say this open-door policy to new members is flawed because it lacks a logical end point. It will constantly raise the hopes of countries seeking to join, and then possibly dash them, in a way that could preoccupy NATO for years.
"The 'open-door' policy has not been well-thought-through," said Richard N. Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "It creates the perpetual problem that you either let more countries into NATO, and thus constantly dilute the cohesion of the alliance and make it more unwieldy-essentially turning it from a true military alliance into a sort of holding company for democratic countries-or you exacerbate the fears of those countries left outside the door. And to put it bluntly, admitting the likely next round of nations to NATO will be a diplomatic slap in the face to Russia."
This uncertainty about Russia's reaction is evident in Europe, too. "I detect no emerging consensus in Europe," said Hunter, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, "regarding how fast enlargement should proceed, who should be included and in what combination of nations. In fact, I believe many European nations would prefer an undeclared, extended pause in the enlargement process."
Indeed, Russia's visceral opposition to Operation Allied Force and to NATO enlargement continues to concern a number of experts. Russia responded to the first round of enlargement by making strategic overtures to China and Iran. The Russian parliament has also continually postponed ratification of the START II nuclear weapons reduction treaty-which addresses a nuclear stockpile that many experts see as the single greatest threat to U.S. security. An economic meltdown last year, and now the Kosovo crisis, have sharpened Russia's bitter suspicion of NATO.
"Right now Russia is going through a period of heightened nationalism," said Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser. "They feel humiliated. They feel we are shoving NATO under their nose because they are weak. Any country we add to NATO in the future will also be much closer to Russia's borders, and thus affect them even more deeply. So in all this euphoria and rush forward to expand NATO, sooner or later you run into one very big question: What is the role of Russia in this security architecture? Are they in or out? If out, where do you draw the new border between East and West? If in, you have totally transformed the NATO alliance. So if you don't have the answer to those questions, you better wait before moving any further, or you will be in danger of ostracizing Russia and making it a new enemy."
Throughout its 50-year history, NATO has faced other defining moments and crises, and its overseers have hung together and brought it through intact. As they gather in Washington to ponder the lessons of the past and chart the way ahead, Western leaders can draw strength from NATO's admirable track record in the second half of history's bloodiest century. Whether it was the Berlin Airlift, or the stationing of U.S. nuclear missiles on European soil, or the present war in Kosovo, the NATO alliance has often been at its best when times were at their worst.
"Winston Churchill, writing in his memoirs in 1948, argued that having barely escaped with their lives in two world wars, the Western democracies were already resuming the bad habits that had put them into danger: irresolution, illusion, and division," observed retired Gen. Alexander M. Haig, Jr., a former Secretary of State and NATO Supreme Allied Commander, in a speech last month. "And so it might have been," he went on, "had the West not acquired a new habit called NATO. Take it from this old general: A robust NATO is the finest legacy our tortured century can bequeath to the new millennium."