tour of U.S. troops on far-flung deployments to Europe last year revealed a North Atlantic Treaty Organization stretched to the point where it no longer resembles the defensive alliance that won the Cold War a decade ago. In Lithuania, near the Russian border, U.S. forces gathered with 5,000 other NATO troops for the largest multinational military exercise ever conducted in the Baltics. Struggling to overcome incompatible communications equipment and a persistent language barrier, elite U.S. paratroopers conducted air drops alongside Lithuanian troops who still rely on biplanes for air assaults. A year ago, the Clinton administration formally signaled its support for eventual NATO membership for the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, though the timetable was left vague.
To the south in Bosnia, U.S. troops worked and ate alongside their Russian, Polish, Czech and Hungarian counterparts as part of a NATO-led multinational peacekeeping force that has successfully halted bloodshed in that war-torn country. A proposal in February to send a similar NATO force to stop the killing in nearby Kosovo lent credence to predictions that these "out-of-area" missions are likely to become a NATO staple. Meanwhile, the recent decision to invite Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join NATO has raised tensions between the alliance and Russia.
Further south, at the headquarters for NATO's Allied Forces South (AFSOUTH) in Naples, Italy, the U.S. commander has dispatched ships from the U.S. Sixth Fleet in Italy to foreign ports-of-call ranging from war-torn Algeria to the volatile Black Sea region. These voyages and similar military-to-military engagements are a key element of NATO's strategy for keeping tensions in the southern region from boiling over. They are also largely to blame for an increased pace of operations that is eroding the readiness of U.S. military forces.
When NATO leaders gather in Washington on April 24 to celebrate the alliance's 50th anniversary, U.S. officials hope to reconcile those unconventional challenges and NATO's new missions with a trans-Atlantic structure that in many ways remains rooted in the Cold War. NATO will use the occasion to officially welcome Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as its first new members since the end of the Cold War-indeed, the first offered NATO membership since Spain in 1982. Administration officials are pushing for a strong declaration that the alliance's door will remain open to new candidates in the near future.
U.S. officials are also advocating a new vision statement and strategic blueprint for NATO that encompasses new missions such as out-of-area peacekeeping and efforts to counter the global spread of weapons of mass destruction. For their part, European leaders want to see a stronger endorsement of a distinct European defense identity within NATO that will allow them to conduct operations without major U.S. involvement.
"In considering NATO, I think it's helpful to ask Voltaire's question: If NATO
didn't exist, would you create it? The answer is yes, but in a slightly different mold," said Marc Grossman, assistant Secretary of State for European affairs, at a recent NATO symposium hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Affairs in Washington. "A new NATO would have new members and missions, a strong European identity, and a new strategy. So at the NATO summit we will not be looking to break radically with the recent past, but rather to continue to take evolutionary steps and set a new strategic direction for the trans- Atlantic partnership in the 21st century."
Signs of Dissent
Following long-standing tradition, alliance officials will work hard to minimize public disagreements at the Washington summit. In truth, however, virtually every aspect of the ambitious agenda outlined for the meeting-from having an "open door" policy on expanding NATO membership in the years to come to developing an ability to project NATO power outside the sovereign territory of its membership-remains highly controversial.
"The open door policy has not been well thought through," says Richard Haas, 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 nations like the Baltics to NATO would be a diplomatic slap in the face to Russia."
In a strongly worded letter to President Clinton, a bipartisan group of Senators also warned earlier this year of a widening divide between the United States and Europe over the willingness and military wherewithal to project NATO's power beyond its immediate borders. "Unfortunately, it is clear to us that the United States and our European allies face a growing gap in both capabilities and the political will to respond to [outside] threats. . . . Our European allies are by themselves either unwilling or, even worse, incapable, of deploying troops in response to circumstances that threaten European security and stability," wrote the group, which included Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, R-N.C., Foreign Relations ranking minority member Joe Biden, D-Del., and Armed Services Committee ranking minority member Carl Levin, D-Mich. "If the Europeans are allowed to shift the full burden of extra-European security to the United States, public support in the United States for NATO will wither."
The centerpiece of the April summit will be the official entry into the alliance of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. By adding three former members of the Warsaw Pact who chafed under Soviet dominion for decades-and were instrumental in the eventual breakup of the USSR-many NATO officials feel they are righting a historical wrong dating back to the Potsdam Conference of 1945, which divided Europe into western and eastern spheres of influence. U.S. officials signed the 1998 Baltic Charter-which promoted eventual NATO membership for the Baltic countries-largely to thwart Russian desires to maintain influence over its immediate neighbors.
Enlargement also is seen by proponents as a bold move on the order of the Marshall Plan, this time solidifying the gains of victory in the Cold War. In this view, extending the alliance eastward fills a strategic vacuum and reinforces fledgling democracies in Central Europe, cements the trans-Atlantic relationship between the United States and an enlarging democratic Europe, and guards against the possibility of a resurgent Russia.
All three of the new members had to meet stringent criteria laid out by NATO, including strengthening democratic institutions, embracing free-market economies, establishing civilian control of their militaries, and working to make their armed forces compatible with NATO command-and-control systems.
"Beginning in 1989, Poland worked hard to take advantage of every opportunity to get closer to NATO, and to prepare for our eventual membership," said Przemyslaw Grudzinski, Poland's deputy foreign minister, at the CSIS symposium. "That gave us a chance to convince NATO members that Poland would be a provider, and not just a consumer, of security."
Once under NATO's protective umbrella, he says, the three new members are likely to become very strong proponents of further expanding NATO. "For Poland, advocating the further enlargement of NATO will not only be an obligation, but a labor of love," said Grudzinski. "We believe that NATO was serious when it said the door to the alliance would remain open, and we would very much like to see a clear policy emerge from the Washington summit that will translate the open door into a credible set of initiatives for entry."
Such a clear road map for further expansion, say proponents, would include a list of the next likely round of candidates and a timetable leading to invitations for qualified contenders in no more than a year or two. "Secretary [of State Madeleine] Albright has said getting a 'robust and credible' open door package is one of the key challenges we face at the Washington summit, and I believe such a package must include a credible road map and timetable," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser and a strong proponent of NATO enlargement. "The alternative is continuing this vagueness about the open door that I think will be tantamount to a pause in new memberships, which will have demoralizing consequences and increase the fear that some parts of Europe will remain outside the Euro-Atlantic security zone."
Critics of the open door policy say it is fundamentally flawed because it lacks a logical end point. In their view, throwing the door open and encouraging countries to line up will constantly raise hopes and dash them in a way that could preoccupy NATO for years.
While insisting that the door remains open, for example, the Clinton administration caused considerable consternation at the Madrid Summit of 1997-where invitations were first offered to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic-by limiting that first round to three nations. A number of European countries had fought hard to admit five new members. In what was widely interpreted as a nod to proponents of more rapid expansion, the Madrid Declaration singled out Romania, Slovenia and the three Baltic nations for their progress in achieving democratic reforms and stability, making them prime candidates for the next expansion round.
Dangling the carrot of NATO membership and withdrawing it, however, has consequences. "Did anyone really believe that the Madrid decision would not have any negative consequences for the countries not given invitations? In Romania, it had a negative impact on both our economic growth and in terms of political turmoil," says Zoe Petre, an adviser to Romania's president. "And if there are no new invitations issued at the Washington summit, we at least hope that those nations singled out at Madrid will keep their place in line, and that we will be given clearly defined steps for accession into NATO."
A Growing Divide
Any discussion of new candidates, however, is likely to reveal another trans-Atlantic divide. The United States has gone on record as supporting membership for the Baltics, for instance, largely to impress upon Russia that it will not repeat the tragedy of Potsdam by agreeing to spheres of influence. Southern European allies, on the other hand, have aggressively championed the candidacy of southern nations such as Romania, Slovenia and Bulgaria in hopes of stabilizing what has proven NATO's most unstable flank.
"I detect no emerging consensus in Europe regarding how fast enlargement should proceed, who should be included and in what combination of nations," says Robert Hunter, until recently the U.S. ambassador to NATO. "In fact, I believe many European nations would prefer an undeclared, extended pause in the enlargement process. Many European nations are also reluctant to put any added stress on the relationship with Russia, given its internal problems."
Indeed, Russia's visceral opposition to NATO enlargement continues to concern a number of experts. Despite the creation of a permanent joint Russian-NATO council at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Russia has responded to the first round of enlargement by making strategic overtures to China and Iran. The Russian parliament has also 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-partly out of its pique over NATO enlargement. An economic meltdown last year has only heightened Russia's sense of bitterness.
"Right now Russia is going through a period of heightened nationalism," says Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to President Bush. "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."
If NATO ever does face a resurgent and hostile Russia, some experts also worry that it will find its new territory difficult to defend. The underlying premise of NATO, they note, was never about rewarding the worthy, but rather about taking a solemn pledge that an attack on any member will be considered an attack on all of them.
Certainly from a military standpoint, the Baltics are generally acknowledged to be tactically indefensible if Russia goes on the attack. For centuries, the Baltics' flat plains, carved by Ice Age glaciers, have been a favored route for invading armies. Should deterrence fail at some time in the future, the fear is that NATO could honor its solemn pledge to defend the Baltic nations only by resorting to nuclear weapons.
"This is not a complex issue. The Baltics are indefensible," says Edward Luttwak, a senior analyst with CSIS. The message behind the Baltic Charter promoting eventual NATO membership, he said, thus means one of two things. "Either the Baltics are so vital to U.S. interests that we are willing to defend them with strategic nuclear weapons-but in that case I missed the national debate where Americans said they were willing to fry for the Baltics. The other possibility is that the commitment is not really there, in which case if the Baltics are allowed to join, then NATO ceases to be an alliance that can provide security to its members. In that case the irony will be that by insisting on joining NATO, the Baltics will have destroyed it."
The determination of U.S. officials to articulate a new vision and strategy for NATO at the Washington summit has also led to significant strains. Privately, many U.S. officials believe the period between 1993 and 1995-when the Europeans failed to mount a collective response to Bosnia, and NATO was seen to dither while Sarajevo and much of the rest of the country burned-nearly destroyed the alliance. Increasingly, observers in the press and elsewhere wondered aloud about the purpose of having a NATO if it could not stop a bloody war in Europe's backyard. Only after the United States took the lead with the Dayton Accords-and the alliance collectively undertook the first out-of-area peacekeeping mission in its history-was the crisis contained.
The lesson of Bosnia and more recently Kosovo, U.S. officials believe, is that NATO must be willing to act even when the threats to its interests lie beyond the borders of its member nations. Such a new strategy and vision represents a sharp departure for those European allies whose militaries are rooted in homeland defense rather than projecting military power.
"NATO is facing a paradigm shift that requires a whole new mind-set, because its original mission is no longer relevant, its original geographic constraints are insufficient and its military structure is no longer appropriate. Certainly the way NATO related to the Soviet Union must also be entirely different than how it relates to Russia," says William Perry, former secretary of Defense. "So 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."
European uneasiness with such an ambitious agenda was revealed earlier this year, when a number of allies argued that NATO needed the approval of the United Nations Security Council before it could undertake military action in Kosovo. The United States successfully argued that establishing such a precedent would in effect grant Russia and China, as permanent security council members, veto power over future NATO actions. The debate revealed serious cracks, however, in NATO's facade of consensus on the issue of out-of-area operations. Meanwhile, trans-Atlantic tensions have already grown in recent years over steep cuts in European defense budgets that would seem to preclude development of a significant power projection capability.
"I share the recognition that NATO needs to define a broader set of missions, but I think we need to be extremely careful not to overload the alliance with excessive global ambitions," says Brzezinski, who notes that NATO already has much on its plate with enlargement. Nor will all members likely agree on the level of threat posed by events far outside NATO's traditional boundaries, making consensus-building in such instances difficult. "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. 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."
Throughout its 50-year history, NATO has faced other defining moments and contentious debates-most recently a stationing of U.S. intermediate nuclear missiles on European soil in the early 1980s that caused widespread riots-and has come through intact. For all the back-room bickering, the Washington summit is likely to achieve adequate consensus to move forward incrementally. Confronted with 50 years of successful deterrence and the end of the bloodiest century in history, leaders tend to fall back on Voltaire's adage: If NATO didn't exist, we really would have to create it anew.
James Kitfield is a staff correspondent at National Journal.