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Letter From Bucharest

The NATO Summit was a gigantic flop.

Paul Hockenos

Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer gestures as he talks during a joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the second day of the NATO summit in Bucharest on April 3, 2008.

For better or for worse, Romania’s authorities were the only ones who appeared to know what they were doing at the NATO summit here last week. The daily Adevarul noted the occasion was the first time in the post-revolution years that the streets had been cleaned of garbage, Bucharest’s odious traffic stemmed, and the street corners cleared of pimps, drug dealers, and Mafioso types (as well as beggars and homeless). Yet it took every police officer in the greater Bucharest region and several thousand reinforcements from across the country to do so, effectively shutting down the city and making everyday life immensely frustrating for ordinary Romanians. 

In contrast, almost nothing went right for NATO’s big wheels in the cavernous rooms of the gargantuan palace built by Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the largest building (and eye-sore) in all of Europe. Usually harmonious, well-orchestrated events with pre-packaged successes – as were Ceausescu’s marathon congresses – this NATO summit was a spectacular flop that revealed a fragile alliance in acute crisis, uncertain of its post-Cold War incarnation and divided within its own ranks. While the Bush administration has warmed up to the necessity of transatlantic alliances in some form, the issues that distance Washington from the Europeans are considerable – and they won’t disappear under a Democratic administration.

Most urgently, Afghanistan was on the table, NATO’s first out-of-area” mission beyond Europe since it defined its post-Cold War role as a global intervention force. As much as NATO’s General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer tried to present the current situation in terms of a glass half full, there was no disguising that Afghanistan’s stabilization has proved elusive and that NATO’s closest allies are still very much divided over how best to go about righting it. There is no consensus on strategy. The American, Canadian, British, German and Dutch forces in Afghanistan pursue different courses in the field in dealing with the Taliban, eradicating poppy plantations, building police forces, and cooperating with local authorities. 

Indeed, NATO’s own generals contradicted de Hoop Scheffer’s optimistic gloss on Afghanistan. The Afghanistan Study Group, which included Marine Corps General James L. Jones (ret.), the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, concluded the security situation in the country had worsened dramatically and that a stable, self-sustainable country was not yet in sight. The answer for now: more troops. Although France will deploy an additional 700 troops (to non-combat regions) and the United States agreed to send another 3,200 soldiers, this was certainly less than Canada wanted, which had recently threatened to withdraw its forces should U.S. reinforcements not be forthcoming. 

As much discord as there is over Afghanistan, there is broad agreement that the mission is do-or-die for the alliance. If NATO fails at its very first effort at global enforcer, the strains within the alliance could cause it to buckle altogether, rendering it useless even as a deterrent force in Europe, its original raison d’etre. This is NATO’s dilemma: In reinventing itself without a clear idea of what it wants to be, it risks becoming an unwieldy conglomerate that can do no one thing properly. The more members it has (Croatia and Albania joined in Bucharest, making it 28, with Macedonia to follow once the ridiculous dispute over its name is cleared up with Greece) and the more functions it claims to fill, the more it becomes a de facto coalition of the willing under American leadership, one that can circumvent the United Nations and even major allies in NATO for undertakings that the United States alone chooses. This has already been the case in the Balkans (neither the 1999 air campaign against Yugoslavia or Kosovo’s independence had UN Security Council approval) and in Afghanistan. In today’s NATO, strategic solidarity” – the defining principle of the old NATO – is virtually meaningless.

Afghanistan was just about the only issue discussed in Bucharest that didn’t involve Russia, NATO’s chief concern during the Cold War in the form of the Soviet Union and at the top of the agenda again today. The crux of the Western alliance’s problem (and one shared by the European Union) is how to respond to the authoritarian and confrontational Russia that has emerged under the leadership of Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s clampdown on the democratic opposition, silencing of independent media, and the bullying its former Soviet-bloc charges is deeply disturbing to all NATO members and also destabilizing, for example, in the Balkans and the Caucasus. But options are limited. There are those, foremost the Germans and the French, who want to reach out to engage Russia in a process of dialogue and Europeanization. Others, led by the United States, opt to confront the New Russia more directly, for example, with the extension of the Atlantic Alliance to Russia’s border and the deployment of new weapons systems, like the anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Though unspoken at summits like this one, the United States and Russia are competing for influence in the geopolitically critical Black Sea region – an energy-rich, strategically crucial area connecting the Balkans with the Caucasus and East Central Europe with Turkey – which goes some way to explain the choice of Black Sea country Romania for the summit venue and the vehemence of the tangle over Georgia’s eventual membership in the alliance.

Not for the first time, Washington found ideological allies in the East and Central Europeans who – out of legitimate historical experience – have no grain of sympathy for Russia and understandably desire the protection of a collective defense pact. Why, ask aspirants like Ukraine and Georgia, should they be excluded from the only security alliance in the region, stranded as non-aligned states between East and West? Russia has already hiked natural gas prices to bully Ukraine and waged cyberwar against Estonia. Giving in to Russian pressure, they argue, would only strengthen Putin’s hand and that of his soon-to-be successor, Dmitri Medvedev. By crowning Putin’s anti-Western, neo-imperialist stances with success, it would entrench them in policy for years to come. These arguments should be taken seriously.

Tellingly, countries like Ukraine and Georgia admit that security is only one, and probably not even the most important reason they favor NATO. Off the record, their representatives acknowledge there is no certainty that the alliance would come running to their aid – and possibly provoke a war with nuclear-power Russia – should there be a border incursion or some other kind of aggression, such as a terrorist strike or a cyber attack, like the one on Estonia in May 2007, purportedly by Russia. (Estonia – and only Estonia – deemed the episode an Article 5 case, namely an attack by a foreign power that committed all NATO allies to come to its defense. But in fact, there is no agreement on exactly what constitutes the kind of attack that triggers an Article 5 response – or what that response should be.) 

Moreover, since Ukraine’s membership course would certainly antagonize Russia, it could well become the brunt of even rougher Russian treatment, maybe even of economic sanctions. NATO membership could also aggravate tensions in the country itself between the pro-European western and pro-Russia eastern populations. In the event of sanctions or civil conflict, NATO has nothing to offer Ukraine.

But in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, NATO membership is seen as a step toward the West, a sign that – in lieu of EU membership – Europe and the greater Atlantic community accept them as one of their own. Indeed, it would strengthen the hand of democratic, pro-Western forces in these countries, like the embattled Orange revolutionaries in Ukraine and Macedonia’s struggling multiethnic leadership. Although not nearly as important or lucrative as EU membership, NATO membership provides token recognition that their hard work in pushing through reform – against the likes of hardline nationalists and other undemocratic elements – is being rewarded by those they aspire to emulate. 

This is a moving case, but it begs the question why these countries are so desperate for symbolic Western recognition in the first place. Clearly, the West is not doing enough to support their transitions by other means, in particular by stepping up integration into the European Union. Moreover, if NATO is not first and foremost a European security alliance but rather a global coalition of democracies (an option under discussion that could include Australia, Israel, New Zealand, Brazil, and northern Africa states, among others), then it is no longer NATO but some kind of revamped Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) under U.S. leadership. In any case, the task of democracy promotion would be better undertaken by civil organizations trained to do so and not a military pact. The OSCE had once been the organization envisioned to fill this role – and perhaps that of pan-European security too. But unfortunately neglect has rendered it ineffective, today nothing more than an election-monitoring agency. And, furthermore, any democracy promotion agency would have to clarify its requirements: Georgia’s western-backed leadership has dealt heavy-handedly with its domestic opposition, using excessive force against a largely peaceful political demonstration in the capital Tbilisi last November. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, only a third of the population supports NATO membership. 

The impassioned pleas of the Eastern Europeans tug at the heart-strings of the Western Europeans. But the West’s opposition to a full-speed ahead eastward expansion (the bids of Ukraine and Georgia for pre-membership talks were put on hold) underscores a basic difference among the Atlantic allies – including within Europe – over the source of Russia’s authoritarian development and self-assertive foreign policy – and how to respond to it. 

In contrast to those who imply that Putin has simply used NATO expansion and other alleged affronts as a pretext for cracking down at home and flexing muscle abroad, Berlin and Paris believe that there is something about the West’s post-Cold War policies that have legitimately angered and humiliated Russia. They see Putin’s course, at least in part, as a response to NATO, the missile defense project, and being snubbed on Kosovo, among other issues. In the long term, Merkel and Sarkozy believe that some kind of accommodation has to be found with Russia, one that encourages its constructive participation in Europe. They don’t want Russia backed into a corner with the feeling that a western-only club is forming against it, one that will dictate the nature of collective security on the continent. This is Russia’s fear, which indeed Putin exploits for all its worth.

NATO’s continued existence in some form is ultimately much more important to the United States than to the Europeans. One day, the European Union’s security and defense structures will be able to provide credible security on the continent. But for the United States, NATO is indispensable: a loose club of democracies that it picks from on a mission to mission basis, according to American interests and behind the fig leaf of multilateralism. No wonder the United States is pushing the hardest for expansion, admitting Japan, Israel, Morocco, and Georgia. The bigger the better.

Everyone at the Bucharest summit was aware that NATO eventually has to formulate a new security concept to guide it. Is NATO a traditional military alliance, a global policeman, a peacekeeping force, a counterterrorism agency, or all of the above? Does it do energy security, cyber defense, counterterrorism, post-conflict reconstruction, crisis management, and WMD non-proliferation? Are the resources there for even a fraction of these mandates? 

This rethinking is all the more difficult because Europeans and Americans disagree fundamentally about the nature of the security threats that face them – obviously an enormous obstacle for a collective security organization. The danger of sitting down and conducting a strategic review is that it would bring these differences starkly to the fore, perhaps causing NATO’s 28 members to realize just how little they have in common. 

Paul Hockenos has written for In These Times from Eastern Europe since 1989. He is the author, most recently, of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany (Oxford University Press).
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