Leading Article: A world role for Nato

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DOUGLAS HURD, the Foreign Secretary, this week brought a breath of realism to the debate about the role of international organisations in the aftermath of the Cold War. The once-fashionable talk of a new world order was, he told the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Utopian folly. 'The phrase promised more than we shall ever be able to perform.'

Few would disagree with this, or the further assertion that a major effort would be required merely to avert 'the continuing slide into disorder'. The questions that arise are whether the will to intervene exists and, if so, what instruments are at hand to enforce that international will. It is relatively easy for a powerful nation to commit troops when its national interest is obviously involved. But, as the Foreign Secretary pointed out, it is more difficult when tragedies 'do not directly affect these islands', but do 'contain the danger of wider conflict'. The crises in Europe are of just this nature.

At one stage it was assumed that a form of subsidiarity could be employed by the United Nations to deal with the growing number of regional crises. But it was nonsensical to imagine, for example, that the Organisation of African Unity could possibly assume the burdens that would be entailed in intervening to deal with famines, civil wars, or the ravages wrought by corrupt and inefficient one-party regimes. Similarly, it is unlikely that the nations of the Far East would welcome regional policing in which China and Japan - in the unlikely event that they could be persuaded to act in concert - would necessarily have to play leading roles.

Even the European Community and the Western European Union have proved weak when confronted by the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The growing interest of the United States in the Balkan crisis is a reflection of Europe's inability to cope alone when faced with military aggression and human suffering on a scale not known in Europe since the Second World War. America has become markedly more reluctant to assume sole responsibility for the world's problems. For the foreseeable future the most likely outcome is a patchy, spasmodic - sometimes unwilling - Pax Americana, supported in different ways by America's various allies, with the UN providing legal authorisation.

How best can allied support for the United States be organised? The answer lies in an updated Nato, an organisation which has for more than 40 years linked the US and Europe. Ultimately, if 'the continuing slide' is to be arrested, there must be a willingness to punish aggressors severely, so rendering the risk/reward ratio less attractive for them. The only standing body able to chastise adequately on behalf of the international community is Nato.

Although the stated purpose of Nato is to defend the North Atlantic region, this has always been an elastic concept. Nato has already undergone considerable reorganisation since the end of the Cold War and its member states have agreed that, under certain circumstances, it could act on behalf of the UN or the Conference on Security and Co-peration in Europe. It should now become the body through which Western military interventions in unstable or warring areas outside the Nato area are handled. Uniquely, it has the experience and command structures, and has substantial forces dedicated to it.

A change of this magnitude would put an end to fantasies that Europe is capable of acting alone. For its part, America would have to recognise that its hopes of Europe emerging as a formidable strategic partner were, at best, premature. The peace dividend upon which President Clinton places such hopes may prove illusory for the simple reason that there is no peace. As far as Britain is concerned, there must be an understanding that the power of influence comes with the hefty price tag of larger and better-equipped military forces than are envisaged in Options for Change. For France and Germany, the problems of adjustment may be even more acute. The French must come to terms with their historic distaste for an American role in Europe and find practical methods of co-operating with the US militarily, as happened during the Gulf war. For Germany, the challenge is to create a political consensus that will permit its armed forces to be used by Nato in ways and situations which have hardly yet been envisaged.

Nato was formed to stop the military advance of Communism. For all the formidable problems involved, it is logical that the organisation should now evolve to deal with the security issues resulting from its collapse.