The Guardian - Nato under threat

Conflicts which put the alliance at risk

Wednesday November 24, 1999

The Guardian

The unity of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the foundation of British and western defence which has linked the US and Europe for the past 50 years, is under increasing and potentially destructive strain. The threats come not from without but from within. The Russian federation has long since abandoned the Soviet cold war ambition of splitting the alliance politically and of matching it militarily. The Warsaw Pact, Nato's old enemy, is no more. Three of its former members - the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary - have joined Nato's ranks, and others are queuing to join. Earlier this year, Nato fought its first war, against Serbia. That conflict was portrayed by US President Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as a triumph which demonstrated transatlantic solidarity and Nato's ability to adapt to the new challenges of humanitarian intervention, peacemaking, and peacekeeping. Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nato's supremacy in the western hemisphere appears both complete and unchallengeable. So what is the problem?

On the American side, Mr Clinton's premature lame-duck status, partly the result of his personal problems, has coincided with an introspective and rather smug national mood. Ever-present isolationist tendencies within the Republican-controlled congress and beyond have developed unchecked. The senate's refusal to ratify the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty was one recent manifestation. But more damaging, from Nato's point of view, has been the unprecedentedly harsh American criticism of its European allies over their contribution to the Serbian war. Pentagon chiefs have joined coming politicians like George W Bush in attacking the inadequacies of Europe's air power and its military forces in general, European political meddling over the direction of the war (the French in particular are singled out), and low European defence budgets. This is an old American refrain, but a potent one at this juncture. Europe is being told forcefully to do more to defend itself. Speaking last week, Mr Bush rejected isolationism but demanded that Europe "invest more in defence capabilities".

If this post-Kosovo American disenchantment with Europe poses a threat to Nato's cohesion, then so, equally, does a US proposal to build a national missile defence system, dubbed "son of Star Wars". To deploy such weapons, the US must first renegotiate or scrap its 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty with Russia, which many analysts view as the essential cornerstone of east-west military stability. Russia has furiously rejected this proposal and has threatened further to delay the Start II offensive arms reduction accord. China has also warned of dangerous consequences should the US deploy missiles either in its own defence, or in the "theatre" defence of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan (as it proposes). But more to the point, the US plan, heartily endorsed by Mr Bush, has also seriously alarmed the European Nato allies. France and Germany see it as a step towards an American unilateralism which could fatally undermine Nato's founding concept of common defence. Britain, trying as always to act as what Mr Blair calls a "bridge" between Europe and the US, has been less strident but is privately equally worried.

On the European side, the pressures that may one day fracture Nato loyalties are also building. They emanate principally from the growing momentum behind the EU's latest grand design - in the jargon, a European security and defence identity (ESDI), or in plain man's terms, a Euro-army. Under proposals trailblazed by Britain and France, Europe would create its own multinational rapid-reaction force which could, if required, draw on Nato assets but act autonomously and independently of the US and the rest of Nato. Although not a standing army, the Euro-force could number 40,000 and would be administered by a new European defence council fronted by Javier Solana, the EU's foreign and security policy tsar. To this blueprint, Germany has added its own ideas about standardised weapons development and other projects like a joint military air transport command. Enthusiasts point to the economies of scale that could result, suggesting also that mergers like that of the German defence contractor, Dasa, with France's Aerospatiale Matra, show that a common European defence, like the common market and the common currency, is a logical inevitability. The ESDI will be on the agenda when French President Jacques Chirac visits Downing Street tomorrow. The plan is expected to be agreed, with an implementation target set for 2003, at next month's EU summit in Helsinki.

To put it mildly, this scheme is driving the Americans nuts. Although Europe can say that it is simply doing more to defend itself, as asked, the US is deeply suspicious about where it all may lead. It is dismayed, despite British assurances, by Mr Blair's ever closer collaboration with Mr Chirac. Many in Washington agree with Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative shadow defence secretary, who warned a house of representatives committee recently that "European nations have embarked on a course which we consider will damage critically and potentially destroy Nato". And others are concerned too - particularly non-EU Nato members like Norway, Turkey and Canada. These strains are certain to intensify rather than diminish in the months ahead. All of which perhaps explains why Nato's future is not nearly as secure as it seems. It would be an historical irony of considerable magnitude if Lord George Robertson, the first Labour politician to become Nato's secretary-general, were also to be its last.

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