[Overseas View]NATO’s identity crisisLeaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization held negotiations on peacekeeping in Afghanistan earlier this month in Bucharest, Romania. It came on the heels of a French offer of more troops, but public disagreement over the alliance’s enlargement has remained.
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush must be feeling quite pleased that such a meeting has been held in the capital of a former Warsaw Pact state. However, that was as far as Washington’s joy had likely gone, because discussions turned irksome for U.S. interests when they touched upon substantial issues.
If NATO is involved in any cooperation at present, Afghanistan is the only place that comes to mind. A number of countries’ armed forces are involved in the “counter-terrorist” mission, as part of the United Nations multinational alliance. Many of them are NATO members.
Following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the international community believed the attacks were planned and originated in Afghanistan. It was this belief that led NATO member states to recognize relevant UN resolutions on terrorism, and accept as their responsibility and obligation to act according to the principle of collective self-defense.
Thus NATO members such as Britain, France and Germany sent troops to Afghanistan to assist U.S. forces in military campaigns against al Qaeda and the Taliban. The anti-terrorist drive in Afghanistan, however, has run into problems. Not only has it failed to root out al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, but the remnants of the Taliban have shown signs of a return.
Some NATO member countries have lent the United States a hand in Afghanistan mainly because the military campaign was approved by the UN, but the number of troops they have committed varies greatly. For the United States, if it was impossible to count on everyone to make substantial contributions to the cause, at least it would look better to have as many allies as possible by its side. But right now only France seems willing to send an additional 1,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, while a few others appear ready to pull out. This problem was addressed at the NATO summit for the sake of unity.
What bothers Washington more is that it is not Afghanistan that is giving it the most worry, but Iraq. There, U.S. troops, about four times more than in Afghanistan, are struggling. On average three U.S. soldiers are killed everyday. It is in Iraq that the U.S. needs more support from its allies and the international community at-large, something that has proved beyond Washington’s reach so far. As for the few NATO members that do have troops in Iraq, they are there not on NATO’s behalf and without the UN’s blessing.
Washington sees the military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq as identical. They are both part and parcel of its “war on terror” — a legitimate response by the United States as the victim of terrorist attacks — and reason enough for the Americans to expect more support from their NATO allies without having to ask. Unfortunately, few, if any, NATO members are on the same wavelength as the U.S. on this issue.
Many of them do not believe Iraq intended to attack the United States and have not condoned Washington’s pre-emptive strike on Saddam Hussein’s government. They therefore see no factual basis for invoking NATO’s collective self-defense pledge. This difference in understanding has seriously affected U.S.-France relations, which only recently began to mend, five years after the war in Iraq broke out.
With all this in mind, it is difficult for those at the NATO summit to bridge the gap between the U.S. and its allies in their thinking on the “war on terror.” This is a major damage to NATO unity inflicted by the U.S. under Bush’s watch and the main reason why NATO has lost a lot of its cohesiveness and the U.S. its ability to lead.
These have not been the only troubles NATO has encountered in its post-Cold War transformation. The U.S. desire to expand NATO eastward and deploy its missile defense system in some of the former Warsaw Pact member states has alarmed Russia, the legitimate successor to the former Soviet Union and leader of the Warsaw Pact. It has also added stress to U.S.-Russia ties and the latter’s relations with former Eastern Bloc countries.
Another problem has been the glaring differences among NATO members over whether the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia should immediately be accepted into their fold.
In fact, the debate over the continued existence of NATO after the Cold War has been on-going to this day. What is the point of keeping NATO when its Cold War-era enemy is long gone? If NATO is positioned as a stabilizing force in the region, its military capabilities have to be preserved. That means a trans-Atlantic security cooperation aimed at military integration; this will surely keep Russia on its toes.
The U.S. is deploying military actions in the name of counter-terrorism anywhere it sees fit, which makes it increasingly difficult for NATO to rally around a common cause while trying to identify its new mission. The more the U.S. uses NATO for its own benefit, the less prestige the alliance has.
*The writer is a professor of international relations and deputy director, Center for American Studies, Fudan University in Shanghai.
by Shen Dingli