Nato strives for role after cold war

The allies are split over plans for a European army

Ewen MacAskill

Tuesday March 14, 2000

Victory over the Serbs a year ago appeared to be Nato's finest hour. Today it is struggling to find a new role in the post-cold war, post-Kosovo world. Added to this sense of uncertainty, a rift is developing between European members and the US over the European Union's plans to have its own force.

In an interview, the Nato secretary general, Lord Robertson, dismissed such a pessimistic assessment. He saw a new role for Nato in protecting Europe against a vast array of security threats that had not been imagined by the organisation's founders.

He cited as a reason for optimism the suggestion from the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, last month that Moscow might apply for membership one day, a proposal once unthinkable. "A year ago this would have been regarded as stark, raving bonkers. Eighteen months ago it would have been seen as heretical," Lord Robertson said. He admitted that the suggestion "was way down the line", but that it was feasible.

Although engaged in a humanitarian mission to prevent ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, doubts were expressed at the time. There are even more now, with little prospect of withdrawal from Kosovo for years and an increasing danger of a re-run of Northern Ireland, where soldiers initially welcomed as protectors quickly turned into targets.

Lord Robertson said that the Bosnian crisis, and the inability of United Nations forces to cope, had provided a "wake-up call" for the west: "Nato was all there was," he said. It had demonstrated that again last year in Kosovo, which he portrayed as the Bosnian conflict on a bigger scale.

Nato would have plenty of work ahead in the coming years, but a different kind of work. "Most of the security issues that we will face in the next 20 years are ethnic warfare, collapse of states, [nuclear] proliferation, the whole discussion of arms control, international crime, migration rendering borders meaningless," he said. "These are serious challenges. They threaten the future of generations in the Euro-Atlantic area."

That was why, he argued, Mr Putin's suggestion that Russia might apply for membership was not as ridiculous as it might first appear, because these problems would also be faced by Moscow.

Relations between Nato and Russia were strained by the Kosovan conflict, with Russia instinctively siding with its fellow Serbs in Belgrade. Moscow remains concerned that Nato acted without securing the approval of the United Nations.

Mr Robertson saw Mr Putin in Moscow last month and began the healing process, securing a promise from Mr Putin of the re-establishment of a joint Nato-Russia body to discuss defence issues.

Relations between Russia and the US will come under renewed pressure if President Bill Clinton approves an anti-ballistic missile system that would protect the US, allegedly from "rogue" states such as North Korea or Iraq. The Russians would view it as an a sign of aggression, a re-engagement of the arms race.

The biggest threat to Nato at present though comes not from Russia but from the EU, which last December agreed to create a 65,000-strong European defence force by 2003. The US, though for years urging Europe to take more responsibility for its own defence, has reacted badly, seeing this as an embryonic European army that might one day make US involvement in Europe unnecessary.

There are many in Europe who resent their lack of muscle in talks with Washington, arguing that a separate European force could act as a useful counter to the US should it want to act unilaterally.

Original article