NATO faces identity crisis

January 05, 1994|By Mark Matthews and Carl Cannon | Mark Matthews and Carl Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The United States' most important military alliance, a mighty machine that kept Europe peaceful for four decades, faces a post-Cold War identity crisis.

Three years after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrated the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the alliance is struggling over demands from Poland, Hungary and the other former Communist states for protection from a resurgent Russia.

The problem pits the West's relationship with Central Europe's young democracies against the need to support Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and his reform government, under fire from nationalists resentful over the loss of empire.

While refusing to make any outright promise of NATO membership and the security guarantees it would bring, the White House mounted a major damage control effort yesterday to counter criticism that the United States is giving Russia a veto over expanding the NATO alliance.

U.S. officials predicted a compromise plan for increased cooperation between these countries and NATO would be well-received.

President Clinton leaves Saturday for a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, followed by a meeting in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. While in Prague, he will be meeting with officials from Hungary and Poland.

All three countries have expressed an interest in joining NATO but have not been fully sold on the president's "Partnership for Peace Plan," which falls far short of the full NATO membership they seek.

After Prague, the president travels to Moscow for his summit with President Yeltsin. On his return, he will stop in Minsk, the Belarus capital, to reward the former Soviet ally for its efforts in getting rid of its nuclear weapons.

President Clinton told reporters yesterday he thought some East European nations were misunderstanding his position on NATO membership. "That's why I'm going to Prague to see them," he said.

"We think it will work if they give it a chance," he said of his plan.

Broader problem

Mr. Clinton is struggling with a broader problem: How to restore security to a continent no longer held in check by the superpowers' threat of mutual annihilation.

Four years ago, NATO watched in triumph as the Soviet empire fell apart and a reunified, democratic Germany came under the alliance's umbrella.

But that moment proved to be the start of a military and political decline for the smooth-running alliance.

In the Persian Gulf war, its 16 members found themselves unable join the fighting against Iraq in the name of the alliance.

In Europe, NATO failed to prevent a new war from tearing apart the former Yugoslavia. And it kept to the sidelines as the war's atrocities mounted to the point where NATO threats of air strikes became meaningless.

NATO force levels are steadily shrinking, the victim of U.S. military cutbacks and a European recession.

The alliance has been reduced to half its the peak Cold War strength of 1.5 million personnel.

Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the NATO summit "perhaps more important than any other one since 1949, when we launched the alliance."

'Lingering questions'

General Shalikashvili noted that "there are lingering questions about the continued relevance of the alliance, the alliance's ability to deal with those nagging security issues that plague Europe."

Despite U.S. and European desire for NATO to be preserved, even some of its strongest U.S. backers raise doubts about its future.

"I have a real worry that if NATO checks out on the next big security issue, it's going to find itself marginalized," says Robert Zoellick, a top State Department official in the Bush administration.

The summit follows a particularly bad year in U.S.-European relations that included disagreements over military action in the Balkans and acrimonious trade disputes prior to December's world trade agreement.

No fix on Clinton

"Many [Europeans] have great difficulty getting a fix on Clinton. They don't know what to make of him and his administration," says Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a Brookings Institution scholar who served in the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford adminis

trations.

The hottest debate in Europe and within the Clinton administration has been over how to respond to former Warsaw Pact countries' demand for protection to counter a potential threat from Russia. The U.S. solution is widely perceived, despite administration denials, to have given Russia a veto over an alliance decision.

Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are pushing to join the alliance. Poland wants admission in a few months, while Hungary is willing to wait until the end of the century.

The new members presumably would be guaranteed NATO and U.S. protection against any Russian move to regain its lost empire of captive states.

These would-be members is compounded by the rise of ultra-nationalists in Russia's parliamentary elections who campaigned on restoring the empire.

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