The NATO Summit at Prague in three short weeks promises to be a watershed turning point for the alliance, or a welter of inharmonious views. If members adopt the American idea that NATO should configure itself to join the US in out of area interventions, Washington will consider that it is relevant to its needs. If major European members oppose the idea, NATO, in Washington’s eyes will only serve as a political umbrella for new members from Central and Eastern Europe to shelter under while they are integrated into the European Union. It will cease to be a military alliance as such.
The last NATO Summit in 1999 was held as Washington and London pressed it into mounting an air war against Yugoslavia to force the latter out of Kosovo. It proved to be essentially an US air offensive, although an effort was made to fold other members into the decision making process. The US said afterwards that it would never fight such a war again. Some Europeans, the UK excepted said they wouldn’t welcome a repeat either, even as they took on the main burden of peacekeeping in Kosovo. The war gave the idea of a European rapid reaction force a boost. Since then, many have debated as to the relevance of NATO in a post-communist era where Russia is weak and no longer a threat. The Prague Summit may well decide the issue.
Although some members think that British NATO Secretary General George Robertson has been much too eager to promote the American idea — which was voiced recently by US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld — the EU’s own rapid reaction force has been slow to take shape because of budget constraints and the admitted need for the EU to use NATO heavy lift transport aircraft and other facilities during a time of crisis. A force of some 20,000 Europeans to operate alongside of American troops represents a compromise of sorts, or an exchange of capabilities, which will allow the European force to go forward, while not rupturing NATO’s ties with Washington.
In fact the question of out of area operations has been debated in NATO for the past 10 years. If members were unhappy with their experience in Yugoslavia, the attack by al Qaeda on September 11 has effectively cinched the argument that terrorism and weapons of mass destruction are the main threats today. Critics of Washington’s new approach argue that it will detract from the formation of a European army and drag Europe into problems far away from its concerns. Some would welcome a reduced US voice on the continent. However, it appears that sufficient support for a “new NATO” has been generated since last spring, and that, so as to avoid an open break, a consensus statement will emerge from Prague. It’s very unlikely that NATO will endorse a resolution supporting a US attack on Iraq while the issue is before the United Nations. However, what is likely to come out of Prague is that NATO members both large and small will be expected to contribute manpower for specialised tasks mutually agreed upon in the future.
While European NATO members may well become the Pentagon’s tool box, an emerging EU rapid reaction force will be all too happy to utilise NATO transports, spy in the sky satellites, surveillance aircraft and NATO’s base facilities in times of need.