Nato agonises over how to win the peace: The end of the Cold War has raised a host of issues that will dominate the summit starting today

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NATO embarks today on its most difficult meeting since the Cold War ended, with Eastern Europe, Atlantic unity and new tasks on the agenda for alliance leaders in Brussels. The emphasis, as in all meetings of the often fractious alliance, will be on unity. The states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the collective security organisation that links the US and Canada to the defence of Western Europe, managed to survive numerous alarums and excursions to remain together through 40 years of the division of the continent.

But what happens now? The self- congratulatory phase of Nato's emergence from the Cold War, celebrated in the London summit of 1990, has passed. There are three issues that have to be addressed in the next two days, all of which go to the heart of Nato's future.

The first is how far the transatlantic link can be sustained now the US is reducing its military presence in Europe and the threat from the east has been reduced. Bill Clinton will give an endorsement of Nato and seek to emphasise how far it is already in the process of changing. The idea of a European Security and Defence Identity - creating a more cohesive European military structure using the Western European Union - will be welcomed.

The second is how Nato can deal with its former enemies, the states of the Warsaw Pact. Many are knocking on the door to request entry. Partnership for Peace, the US initiative to create political-military pacts with Eastern Europe, will be the centrepiece of the meeting. There will be a declaration that the alliance is open to new members, though it is still unclear when, how, or to whom.

The third issue is what the alliance is now for, rather than against. It is shifting its activities towards action outside the Nato area, in support of peace-keeping or crisis management. A new form of military organisation, Combined Joint Task Forces, will make its debut. This is to facilitate the use of alliance infrastructure - communications, aircraft or pipelines, for instance - in new ways, sometimes under the command of other organisations like the WEU. Nato will also begin planning for a new role in countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Behind the official agenda, though, private worries exist about the alliance's future.

These are hardly new: Nato has suffered from frequent disputes over the years on strategy and tactics. But the pressure for unity, during 40 years, came from external threat, and that is waning.

Bosnia is certain to feature on the agenda, with pressure building in Europe for the US to underline its commitment to policing a peace deal. There may also be more threats of air strikes. This divisive issue has been a continual bone of transatlantic contention and there will be efforts to prevent it overshadowing the summit.

Manfred Worner, Nato's Secretary-General, is likely to warn about dangers of premature disarmament. There is concern in Nato headquarters about, in particular, the run-down of conventional forces devoted to the defence of Europe. The alliance has devoted a lot of effort to shaping public opinion in Europe and North America about its continuing usefulness.

There is an irony in the fact that the states of the West clearly put a lower priority on the primary purpose of the alliance, its guarantee of their security. Yet the states of the East with their noses pressed to the windowpane, which border fragmenting Yugoslavia or Russia, prize this guarantee. Some are stopping their disarmament to invest in new weapons. In these countries too there is a new effort to shape public opinion about the alliance.

Containment was the dominant ideology in Nato for the post-war years. Now the US has shifted the emphasis to enlargement, bringing states in from the cold to the family of liberal capitalist nations. But enlargement is a topic which, as the last few weeks have demonstrated, creates just as many fissures in the alliance as containment did.

Debates over how to handle Russia still haunt Nato. Officials are mistrustful of the approach favoured by Strobe Talbott, number two in the US State Department and a proponent of support for Boris Yeltsin and the reformists. They emphasise that the West must not give a blank cheque to Russia.

There seems to be general agreement that this is not the time to antagonise Russia, and Partnership for Peace is, as many alliance sources admit, a way of buying time. But the speeches by alliance leaders may well focus on the dangers of Russian recidivism, warning against backsliding. A hint of Cold War language may return.

Leading article, page 13

Friend or foe? page 15