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Is There a Second Act in NATO's Life? : Cold War alliance struggles to clarify its mission in new era

January 14, 1994

Testifying in 1949 before a skeptical Senate committee on the proposed NATO Treaty, Secretary of State Dean Acheson bluntly warned that "unity in Europe requires the continuing association and support of the United States. Without it free Europe would split apart." Remarkably, nearly half a century and hundreds of billions of dollars in defense outlays later, the political rationale underlying the American commitment to the 16-member organization continues to be based foremost on the perceived need to bolster Europe's cohesion and stability.

As a recent NATO statement put it, "the transatlantic partnership remains vital for European security and stability." Recast bluntly but not unfairly from diplomatese, what that suggests is that if NATO's chief "transatlantic" partner left the alliance, Europe might very quickly revert to its old habits of internecine conflict. It's because maintaining continental peace and stability is seen as directly affecting U.S. national security that President Clinton has promised to keep 100,000 American troops in Europe. The Europeans, needless to say, are delighted. But what neither they nor the Clinton Administration have yet provided is a coherent explanation of just what those troops are now supposed to do.

WOBBLY WAYS: Originally, of course, U.S. forces--and especially the nuclear umbrella they provided--had a mission that was clear and understandable to ally and foe alike: to defend Western Europe by deterring aggression from the Soviet Union. In that light the alliance succeeded. Aggression did not occur, the Soviet Union is no more, the Warsaw Pact has been dissolved, the threat of direct aggression from the East has all but disappeared. Mission accomplished. Now, having achieved its goal, NATO is casting about for a new role.

It took a stab at defining that role at its Rome summit meeting in 1991 when it identified instability in Eastern Europe as the major new challenge facing it. But given a chance to arrest instability in Bosnia--and halt unconscionable abuses of human rights at the same time--the alliance, to borrow a phrase from Margaret Thatcher, went wobbly. An organization that was ready to risk nuclear war in defense of its own principles and territory could not muster the political will to punish banditry in the Balkans. So much for boldly meeting new challenges.

NATO's credibility has not, of course, been wholly compromised. Witness the eagerness of four Eastern European states--Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia--to join the club and be sheltered under its protective military umbrella. Wisely, NATO has decided that expansion eastward, which would put NATO forces smack on the borders of the former Soviet Union, is inadvisable at this time. Instead NATO has approved a stopgap U.S. plan, "Partnership for Peace," that offers limited forms of military cooperation to the four states. They have accepted it, if not enthusiastically. But it's clear that some--Poland especially--still are pressing for full membership.

AN EASTERN CHILL: The main reason for doing so is understandable. The rebirth of militant nationalism in Russia has cast a chill of fear over all nearby countries. The trouble is that to bring the four nervous eastern states into NATO now would be to say in effect that an anti-Soviet alliance had evolved into an anti-Russian one. Such a needless misstep could only boost the fortunes of those reactionaries in Russia who despise and seek to reverse the political and economic changes under way there.

What, then, is NATO to be all about, and what should it be doing to promote European stability and security? In 1990 NATO reaffirmed that it would remain a "defensive alliance." But, all important, it has yet to say against whom the alliance is directed or what means it is prepared to use. Such vagueness is plainly not a mark of confidence and strength but of worrisome confusion.

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