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NATO Faces a New Threat: President Bush

October 26, 2000|ROBERT E. HUNTER | Robert E. Hunter was the U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998

Foreign policy rarely figures in U.S. presidential elections--at least not to cause serious damage. But last week, Gov. George W. Bush's top foreign policy advisor, Condoleezza Rice, struck a blow at the solidarity of the NATO alliance--a blow, that is, if Bush is elected president. As a former U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, I have not been surprised by the shocked reaction in Europe.

In an interview with the New York Times, Rice amplified a remark made by Bush about the Balkans in the second televised debate with Vice President Al Gore. The time has come, she said, for a "new division of labor" with the European allies. With Bush as president, the United States would reserve its military forces for major conflicts in places like the Persian Gulf or the Taiwan Strait. The Europeans would be expected to take full responsibility for all further peacekeeping in Europe. The U.S. also would announce its intention to gradually pull its troops out of the two NATO-led peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Kosovo.

These goals, however, run smack into 50 years of allied principle and practice. NATO's big fault line always has been the fact that most allies are on one side of the Atlantic, while Canada and the United States--the latter as the strategic linchpin of the alliance--are on the other. Thus Europeans have always wondered whether, when the time comes, America would truly be "over here" in terms of accepting risks for Europe's security.

Even in the post-Cold War era, the principle of sharing risks is critical to holding the alliance together. It was over this precise issue that NATO faced its worst-ever internal crisis when, from 1993 to 1995, the U.S. sought allied agreement to use NATO air power in Bosnia. Nine of the allies had troops on the ground as part of the U.N. Protection Force, or UNPROFOR, while the United States patrolled the skies. Should NATO bombs fall, the allies reckoned, their soldiers could become either victims or hostages.

This was the dilemma I faced, as U.S. representative on the North Atlantic Council: how to convince the allies to take risks, even if that might stop a war, when we were unwilling to share the burden. But in early 1995, Washington finally authorized me to announce to the allies that, if UNPROFOR had to be withdrawn under hostile fire, U.S. troops would help get them out safely. Within minutes, allied psychology changed; suddenly, the U.S. seemed willing to share risks, even though they were only hypothetical. In the ensuing period, the European allies agreed to NATO's use of air power, the war ended, the Dayton Accords were concluded and the NATO-led Implementation Force, or IFOR, went to Bosnia--with 16 allies sharing the risks, as they also do now in Kosovo.

The upshot of Rice's proposal--formally supported by the Bush campaign--would clearly affect the prospects for stabilizing the Balkans, where all parties are watching intently to see what the U.S., more than any of the allies, will do. We are not expected to bear more than a small part of the burden--U.S. forces in Bosnia and Kosovo are only 15% of the total. It is the principle that is decisive.

The Europeans already are seeing this Bush position as a portent of diminished U.S. strategic engagement on the Continent, with wide-ranging implications. Thus Central European states that want to join NATO are beginning to worry whether there will be another round of enlargement at a projected 2002 alliance summit. Everyone understands that enlargement is founded on the U.S. strategic commitment to Europe; if that commitment is not viewed as rock-solid, the European allies will be most reluctant to take on any more charges.

As a European diplomat told me when I negotiated NATO's first round of enlargement in 1997: "We don't want you Americans leaving us stuck 'holding the baby.' " Even the first three new members, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, could wonder just how much value they can place on their new status as allies, which they see as about the United States first and NATO second. For its part, Moscow would see new opportunities for meddling in Central Europe.

It is a short step from allies' concerns about what a Bush presidency would mean for NATO to their recalling the U.S. Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and U.S. plans for a national missile defense, especially Bush's willingness, if need be, to abrogate the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. The upshot would inevitably be reduced U.S. influence on the Continent, including with the European Union, and the allies would become even more reluctant to consider joint military operations with the U.S. beyond the Continent. Thus not only would NATO solidarity suffer if the U.S. followed through with the Bush plan for ending our role in European peacekeeping, but the whole American position in Europe could be fractured.

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