Alliance in search of a future: Nato needs a reforming leader if Europe's common security system is to survive, says Jonathan Eyal

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THE DEATH in office of Manfred Worner, Nato's secretary general, should have been a cause for reflection, not only on the personal contribution of an outstanding international civil servant, but also on the need for urgent reform of what is still the world's mightiest military alliance.

The signs are, though, that member governments are ducking these questions and that Worner's successor will be a good bureaucrat, not an original thinker.

Despite everything that was said and written officially, the alliance's task was never to liberate Eastern Europe from totalitarianism; it was to ensure that Western Europe did not fall under the same Soviet rule. The people of the East tore down the Communist edifice with their own hands yet, when the Iron Curtain finally fell, it was Nato that rushed to claim the credit.

In an attempt to ensure its own survival, Nato argued that the end of the Cold War should not entail the dissolution of the alliance. But when the East Europeans themselves sought membership, they were politely rebuffed. Seldom has an international organisation been so damaged by its own rhetoric.

The East Europeans quickly realised that no amount of official bonhomie could disguise the fact that they were left in suspended animation, between a morose Russia and a complacent West. But the more they pressed for closer ties with Nato, the more they were offered irrelevant institutions which allowed the alliance to appear to be doing something while actually doing nothing at all.

The North Atlantic Co-operation Council was set up to draw the East Europeans closer to Nato. In fact, though, the council spent most of its sessions in theological debates about peace-keeping operations that nobody was prepared to mount. When the East Europeans tired of this charade and intensified their demands for full membership, Nato devised a new scheme, the Partnership for Peace.

On paper, this was a sensible idea. The East Europeans were technically not ready to join the alliance immediately; a period of apprenticeship, was needed during which they could co-ordinate training procedures, democratise their military structures and make their equipment compatible. But in practice Partnership for Peace may turn out to be just as hollow as Nato's previous schemes.

Everything on offer under Partnership for Peace could have been effected equally well in the framework of the North Atlantic Co-operation Council. Little was done, however, not because Nato lacked the necessary structures, but because it did not have the will to achieve anything.

Even if the alliance is now serious about incorporating the East Europeans, their path to integration still entails grievous difficulties. If they are to make the necessary military changes, they will need to spend more on defence at a time when they can least afford it. They will also need to buy Western equipment - but most Nato governments maintain an unofficial embargo on such sales.

So, while in theory nothing stands in the way of Nato's eastward expansion, in practice most of the old obstacles are still in place. To paraphrase an East European proverb, Nato has pushed the security bowl closer to the mouths of the former Communist countries, but it has also given them a shorter spoon.

The alliance's officials, from the much- mourned secretary-general down, have always resented such criticism. They point out that an association of 16 states can only move at the speed of its slowest member: as long as there is no consensus on Europe's security structures, Nato itself can do little. Furthermore, enlarging a military alliance is not like admitting new members to a knitting club: existing Nato states need to be convinced that any candidates for membership are not only willing to share the burden, but also able to do so. At the same time, candidates must be worth defending.

The still greater problem is that, five years after the end of the Cold War, everyone is still only pretending to get to grips with the issue. The Hungarians were eagerly awaiting the arrival of a British contingent to take part in their military exercises next month. They have just found out that the British contribution, labelled by the Ministry of Defence in London as 'historic', will consist of one company from the Coldstream Guards, currently assigned to ceremonial duties in London. Photo opportunities yet again.

The most serious error is to assume that Nato will be able to dictate when it should expand. The timing may well be determined for it - by developments in Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union. Incorporating the East Europeans might then become an urgent necessity, not an act of charity.

Still more serious is the fact that the pretence extends not just to the eastward expansion of Nato but equally to Nato's internal problems. Despite all claims that Europe 'should stand tall', the fact is that the Europeans are unable to mount any serious operation without American support. Nobody will admit this, however.

For the past five years, the Continent has been paralysed by rivalry between Nato and the Western European Union (the budding military arm of the European Union) about who should provide the future security structure. The most ridiculous effect of this dispute was, of course, in Yugoslavia: both Nato and the WEU rushed to send naval patrols to the Adriatic, not for any specific purpose, but to uphold their claim to primacy in military affairs.

Since its summit in January this year, Nato has gone some way towards defining new tasks. It has resolved to act outside its own area in peace-keeping operations authorised by the UN. More important, it has created a system that will allow the Europeans alone to use Nato military assets in operations on their continent. The scheme, entitled Combined Joint Task Forces (CJTF), could enable the Europeans to use America's huge military arsenal on the continent to tackle their own problems. If the whole structure becomes more flexible, the rivalry between Nato and the WEU should be avoided. That, at least, is the theory.

In practice, however, progress on implementing CJTF has been disappointing. Nato's bureaucracy has completed all its plans on time but has failed to remove any of the political stumbling blocks. Britain, for instance, is being careful to maintain a link between the WEU and Nato to avoid the creation of separate institutions.

France, however, which suspects that the scheme is merely an American ruse to prolong Washington's influence on European structures, is not saying what it wants. Nobody quite knows what the command structure will look like, and nobody is prepared to forecast how America will react if its military assets are deployed in an operation over which Washington has no control. If the Yugoslav experience is anything to go by, the US will not take part in an operation on European soil, but will always be on hand to offer unsolicited advice.

The end of the Cold War is melting down European institutions, east and west. Quite apart from preventing a Soviet onslaught, Nato's main asset has always been that its very existence prevents the re-nationalisation of defence policies and renders military thinking along purely national lines irrelevant. This benefit should be extended farther east.

The West Europeans must also realise that, unless they increase their defence budgets (which not one is prepared to countenance), they will still rely on a US presence on the Continent. Accommodating a reduced American contribution while keeping the US anchored in Europe is an urgent task. An energetic secretary-general may make a difference to this debate. But nothing can be achieved as long as member governments believe that the alliance's transformation is simply a bureaucratic process involving communiques and grandiose summits. Far from it: what is at stake is nothing less than the survival of Europe's common security structures.

The writer is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Andrew Marr is on holiday.

(Photograph omitted)