Why Nato must embrace the East: European peace is at risk unless we learn from Bosnia, warns Jonathan Eyal

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The Independent Online
THE AGENDA of Nato ministers gathering in Athens today is dominated by the Yugoslav crisis. The Balkans debacle should serve as the best indication that European collective security can no longer be divided between East and West. If Nato is to survive into the next century, the alliance will have to undergo much deeper changes than currently contemplated.

The European Community, Nato, Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Western European Union: all tried to deal with Yugoslavia by excluding each other, and all failed. Instead of creating 'interlocking institutions', as Europeans were promised with the end of Communism, the continent is now plagued by a vicious circle of inter-blocking institutions, which must be broken.

The leaders' meeting in Athens today should therefore start by accepting that no substantial military task can be performed in Europe today without Nato's integrated command, shared intelligence capabilities and vast logistical infrastructure provided by decades of pooled resources and a substantial American commitment.

By creating highly mobile rapid reaction forces, Nato is able to act anywhere in continental Europe. Yet as long as politicians do not discard the mind-set of the Cold War which assumed that Europe would remain divided, the alliance will be unable to tackle future Yugoslavias.

When US Secretary of State Warren Christopher embarked on his farcical attempt to sell President Clinton's military options in Bosnia, he claimed to be just in 'listening mode'. Nato now needs politicians in 'leadership mode', people ready to plan for the full integration of Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians and Bulgarians into current alliance structures.

Nato was quick to claim credit for the collapse of Communism, despite the fact that the East Europeans liberated themselves. Nevertheless, it not only refused to assume any new security responsibilities, but initially tried to persuade the region's states that the maintenance of the Warsaw Pact was to their advantage. The East Europeans ignored this argument, because they knew that the pact was a Soviet-imposed structure which had the dubious distinction of going into action twice in its history, on both occasions against its own member states.

After dithering for a long time, Nato did establish the North Atlantic Cooperation Council. The council, defined at the time by the US ambassador as a 'temporary measure for dealing with former adversaries' remains a talking shop with no permanent staff or advisers.

With great fanfare, Nato also launched co-operation programmes with Eastern states. Yet these programmes are often administered by people who do not even know the language of the country concerned. More importantly, the East Europeans no longer need consultation and advice delivered in a decaffeinated bureaucratic brew. They need real co-operation.

This must start with the premise that Russia and most of the former Soviet republics simply cannot be incorporated into existing European structures. For the East Europeans, membership of continent-wide bodies offers more advantages than risks. The same is true for the West and, ultimately, for Moscow. Those Western politicians opposing Nato's enlargement in Eastern Europe usually claim that it is impossible to discriminate against some states by accepting others. And they add ominously that Nato's eastward expansion would be fiercely resisted by Russian hard-liners. In fact, most Moscow politicians share this suspicion of Nato. Precisely because of this, it should be refuted.

The claim that Nato could be a threat to Russian territory is ridiculous. Apart from a tiny border strip on the Baltic Sea, Russia does not actually have a border with any central European country. Accommodating Moscow's demand that Nato's membership remain unchanged therefore amounts to a double appeasement: an acceptance that Russia should have a crucial say in former Soviet republics and a paramount interest in central Europe as well. If Boris Yeltsin, the West's current Russian darling, is opposed to Nato's eastward expansion, what future Russian leader is likely to accept this with equanimity? Disabusing the Kremlin of imperial dreams is in Russia's long-term interest. Nato's enlargement does not have to come at the expense of security co-operation with Russia, Ukraine and other ex-Soviet republics.

The second argument usually advanced by those who oppose Nato's enlargement is that Western governments lack both the resources to extend security guarantees to Eastern Europe and the motivation of dealing with a host of ethnic, territorial and historic problems.

Although Eastern Europe's problems are evident, they can be tackled more efficiently within, rather than outside the alliance. Nato could impose several conditions before admitting the East Europeans, including respect for human rights and ethnic minorities, as well as the democratisation of armed forces and internal security services. East Europeans who met these conditions would be accepted; those who did not would at least know what was expected of them.

Once the promise of Nato membership is given, co-operation between East European countries would be tightened, and a cohesive central European pillar could actually contribute to Europe's stability.

And finally, outright membership, with all the automatic defence provisions contained in Article 5 of Nato's 1949 Washington Treaty, is not necessary today. A special 'associate status' connected to Article 4 of the treaty, which obliges member states to 'consult' in times of military threats, would be sufficient to reassure the East Europeans that they would not be ignored.

True, incorporating the East Europeans would cost more money, and necessitate changes in Nato's decision-making processes. But all such obstacles could be overcome if Western governments just thought of the alternatives. The thaw in the Cold War is now melting down all European institutions. If Nato continues to maintain huge arsenals against an enemy which supposedly no longer exists, but proves unable to deal with the continent's real wars, it will lose whatever credibility it still enjoys. Furthermore, the Western tip of Europe cannot continue to enjoy stability while it is surrounded by warfare, famine and ethnic reservations of the kind proposed for Bosnia.

All the historical experience this century indicates that if Eastern Europe is allowed to become a buffer zone between a chaotic Russia and a relatively stable West, the entire continent ultimately descends into warfare. Without collective security, the region can never achieve stability, any more than Western Europe could in 1945. Nato's benefits should therefore be extended further east. As the EC has realised, enlargement and deepening of co-operation must and can be pursued at the same time. The task is enormous, but a start should be made.

If the ministers in Athens look upon the Yugoslav disaster as a warning for the future, the carnage in the Balkans will not have been in vain. But if they continue pretending that the entire East can remain in suspended animation, they should not be surprised if borders and people start shifting soon.

The author is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

(Photograph omitted)