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Crisis in Yugoslavia | NEWS ANALYSIS

A Shaken Alliance Reassesses Some of Its Key Objectives

Policy: NATO limits its reach, accepts the U.N.'s role and acknowledges that Russia is important after all.

April 25, 1999|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The last time NATO set forth its objectives, the year was 1991. The Cold War was just over, the enemy was vanquished, and the alliance was fighting for relevance.

Eight years later, as America's most durable military alliance produced a new set of objectives for the next century, it was fighting for something else: its life.

Like nothing else possibly could, the sobering impact of NATO's first war in its 50-year history has brought its visionaries face to face with the cold light of reality. However the campaign in Yugoslavia ends, the first weeks alone have clearly reshaped the alliance's view of its future in three crucial ways:

* The objectives outlined in the alliance's new mission statement, completed and released Saturday, specifically limit NATO's future operations to an area defined as "throughout the Euro-Atlantic region."

Gone is the idea pushed by those who saw NATO's horizons as virtually limitless. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has consistently rebutted suggestions that she viewed NATO as some kind of global junkyard dog, but it was clear that the United States would have preferred no geographical restrictions in the new concept.

The issue separated the U.S. from several of its European allies, including France and Germany, who worried privately about being dragged unwillingly by the United States into far-off disputes.

A U.S.-backed initiative to refit alliance armies to move faster and farther in order to counter remote brush-fire conflicts also makes no mention of preparing for missions outside the borders of the alliance's 19 member states.

Analysts are convinced they know one reason for the restrictive language: The Kosovo conflict has driven home the reality that NATO can all too easily have its hands full dealing with problems in Europe alone.

* The belief, especially cherished in Washington, that NATO works best on its own, free of constraints imposed by other, slower-moving international bodies such as the United Nations, has been altered by events in Kosovo. A clear reaffirmation of the alliance's commitment to the U.N. Charter in Saturday's communique appears to have ended any movement toward a go-it-alone doctrine.

"The United Nations Security Council has the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security," declares the mission statement, which in NATO-speak is called "The Alliance's Strategic Concept." French President Jacques Chirac told reporters that the passage "clearly affirmed" the United Nations' role as the primary guarantor of global security.

It was six months ago that U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke skirted the U.N. in using the threat of NATO airstrikes to win a fleeting agreement from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to halt his "ethnic cleansing" of the separatist province. That deal was touted as a model for swift, unencumbered crisis management by the alliance.

"Much of the American version of a new NATO strategy has crashed on launch in Kosovo," said Dan Plesch, director of the British American Security Information Council, an independent think tank.

* The estimation of Russia has been radically overhauled. Those within the alliance--including some within the Clinton administration--who argued that Russia was a spent, irrelevant force have found themselves suddenly looking to Moscow as the key to the diplomatic solution needed to extract NATO from its mess in the Balkans.

As an indicator of Russia's newly discovered diplomatic clout, two NATO foreign ministers--Canada's Lloyd Axworthy and Greece's George Papandreou--are due in Moscow this week, while a third, Germany's Joschka Fischer, is busy trying to act on a Russian request for a working-level meeting of the Group of Eight industrial nations this week in Germany to deal with Kosovo.

For NATO's member states, Russian cooperation is vital in one of two ways: by using its strong historical and religious ties with the Serbs either to persuade Milosevic to accept the alliance's conditions for peace, or to agree on a joint NATO-Russian way forward on Kosovo. That development would open the door for U.N. Security Council action.

"We want to see if this can work . . . but it's unsure if there's sufficient progress to go ahead," Fischer said. "Milosevic is not ready to accept an international military force."

While the war in Kosovo has had a jarring impact on the Washington summit, it has produced its bright spots too at this 50th anniversary meeting. The members of the alliance have shown that they can haggle on details of important documents, just as they have so often in the past, but that in the heat of war, they continue to stick together in a manner that astounds even themselves.

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