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Britain Steps Forward in NATO

July 26, 1998

NATO is preparing to grow from 16 to 19 members, but as an institution it is still far from showing that it is ready to cope with the security challenges of the post-Cold War world. Among NATO's European members one exception stands out.

With its new strategic defense review, Britain has taken a major step toward what its defense minister, George Robertson, describes as a radical reorienting of its security planning. The United States has welcomed the initiative taken by Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor government, and Clinton administration officials are not hesitant in expressing their hopes that other allies will be energized by its lead.

The new plan de-emphasizes the role of Britain's nuclear deterrent forces while giving added importance to projecting conventional power to potential trouble spots outside continental Europe, especially the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. The Royal Navy will get two new full-size aircraft carriers, its first such acquisition in 30 years. Britain will also acquire a number of huge, U.S.-made C-17 military transports for rapid deployment of its ground forces to distant trouble spots.

Earlier this year Britain removed the last nuclear bombs from its air force and in coming months will launch its fourth and final Trident submarine. Each of these formidable missile platforms will carry 48 nuclear warheads, half the number previously assigned.

While Britain intends to remain a nuclear power, it has cut the number of its nuclear warheads by one-third and the potential explosive power of its deterrent by more than 70% since the end of the Cold War.

The aim of the shift in defense policy, as Robertson put it, is to have British forces "prepared to go to the crisis, rather than have the crisis come to us." This is being done in recognition of Britain's responsible international role. The approach is precisely the one that other members of NATO should be taking.

Neither now nor anytime soon is there a risk that Russian armored forces will dash westward across the plains of Central Europe. International security threats lie elsewhere, as the United States and Britain both recognize. The great need is to get the rest of NATO to adapt to the new world realities, to organize--again to quote Robertson--so as to be ready "for tomorrow's threats, not yesterday's enemies."

NATO is adding new members. Is it also ready to embrace new thinking?

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