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NATO's Existential Riddle

June 03, 2002

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has a fine history: It deterred a Soviet attack on Western Europe for half a century. It has separated warring armies and maintained the peace. More lately, one war fought, one war won. Now, NATO is changing so fast that the question is not what it will do but what it is.

At its inception, NATO had 12 members. Last week there were 19, plus a new junior partner, Russia.

Though planned for years, the partnership with Russia still turns NATO upside down. NATO's reason for being was collective security, and that meant readiness to confront one enemy, the Soviet Union, using nuclear weapons if necessary.

Now NATO has accepted former communist states such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic and is about to admit up to seven more countries, including former Soviet republics such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. That expansion raises the likelihood of the alliance becoming more political than military. That could leave Washington without a partner to rely on in the event of threats to transatlantic security.

NATO operates by consensus, and the difficulties of getting 19 nations to agree on targets and tactics were apparent during the organization's only war, in Kosovo in 1999. Getting consensus from more than two dozen eventual members will be even more difficult.

NATO was quick to respond after Sept. 11, for the first time invoking Article 5 of its charter, declaring that an attack on one member is an attack on all. It offered assistance to Washington, but the Pentagon largely conducted the war in Afghanistan on its own in the early days. Eventually more than a dozen NATO nations provided forces.

The early go-it-alone ethic bothered some alliance members. But it did lead many of them to conclude that if they had spent more on defense and coordinated more closely with the militaries of other allied forces, Washington might have looked to them for help more quickly.

En route to the summit where Russia's partnership with NATO was formalized, President Bush told the German Bundestag that the creation of the NATO-Russia Council provided an opportunity to build "common security against common threats." These days that means terrorism. In that fight, using more NATO forces earlier in Afghanistan would have done a better job of disrupting the flight of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters into Pakistan.

NATO also can play a major role in the world peacekeeping business--if that is clarified as its job. Bush, in Germany, stated that NATO's core mission was unchanged. Unfortunately, that core role has not been satisfactorily redefined for a new membership since the days when NATO tanks stood guard at West Germany's Fulda Gap, waiting for Soviet troops to mass for an attack.

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