Kosovo chills NATO summit

Alliance's first war dampens celebration of 50th anniversary

Capital festivities curtailed

War In Yugoslavia

April 19, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- This was supposed to be a celebration.

The leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- an alliance that never fired a shot in anger in 40 years of facing down the mighty Soviet Union -- were to meet here this week to welcome new members and others who want to join, and to plan for the future.

But the present has overwhelmed the future. The NATO alliance is raining bombs on a backward Balkan state that won't cry uncle. Dreams of a new world order are mired in the bog of old world animosities.

There's not much to celebrate in the three-day summit that begins Friday.

When NATO's 19 heads of state and government gather with leaders of more than 20 countries that want to join or work with the alliance, the atmosphere will be one of high-stakes tension -- a far cry from the original plan of a 50th birthday party and welcoming celebration for NATO's new members: Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

A festive flyover was deemed inappropriate while NATO pilots are risking anti-aircraft fire in Yugoslavia. And with Kosovars homeless, cold and hungry, the summit's black-tie events have been canceled.

"It's a working event," says a senior administration official. "A very important problem needs to be worked."

Officially, Kosovo is only supposed to dominate one event Friday morning, followed by an alliance statement on the conflict.

But the war is bound to suffuse the whole summit -- the far-reaching talks on NATO's future role and the nuts-and-bolts discussions on forces and equipment. The summit will bring here leaders from the so-called front-line states -- including Albania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Romania and Macedonia, the lands that most fear being destabilizedby the crisis.

And it is bound to show strains between NATO and some of the nations of the former Soviet empire -- including Ukraine, which has tried to mediate the conflict, and Belarus, which has openly sided with Yugoslavia. Officials of those countries are expected to attend.

The NATO leaders are expected to debate ways to end the conflict and bring long-term stability to the Balkans. International financial institutions will be enlisted to provide economic aid.

But achieving a diplomatic solution to the conflict depends heavily on cooperation with Russia, which hasn't decided whether it will send anyone important to the summit, let alone anyone at all.

Without such a deal, the airstrikes will likely continue, with NATO's credibility hinging on their success, accompanied by the prospect of inserting ground troops into Kosovo.

Viewed as crucial test

"I could imagine NATO surviving if this whole thing turns out to be a mess or a disaster in Kosovo," says David Acheson, whose father, Dean Acheson, played an important role in NATO's creation. "But I can't imagine it surviving with a serious mission for peace enforcement."

In time, "You'll see a number of parliaments reluctant to provide money, infrastructure support and troops."

The alliance won't be able to claim victory simply by fulfilling its military goals of degrading Slobodan Milosevic's war machine, says Michael O'Hanlan, a military expert at the Brookings Institution: Success now requires getting most of the refugees back.

Founded a half-century ago to protect Europe against the Soviet Union, NATO is now fighting the kind of ethnic butchery that was all too familiar on the continent earlier in the century.

The ideological enemy it now confronts isn't Communism but Serbian nationalism, bent not on global domination but "cleansing" a single country of its ethnic minority.

"As we speak, NATO is responding to a real post-Cold War threat to its interests and values," Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said in a recent speech.

More than cruise missiles, stealth fighter-bombers and Apache helicopters, its most decisive weapons may be unity and determination.

With the war raging, some of the topics the leaders were supposed to take up at the summit have become academic. Others may be put off.

NATO's four-year involvement in the Balkans has settled the once-burning issue of whether the alliance could act outside the borders of its membership.

But the alliance is still debating just how far to project its power, and the question is unlikely to be decided this week.

"I reject the idea that NATO partners should be obliged to undertake missions outside of Europe," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden of Delaware, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reflecting a widespread view in Europe and the United States.

Even though many NATO members depend heavily on Persian Gulf oil, the alliance has been unable to agree on whether to reach that far, leaving the United States and Britain in charge of containing Iraq.

The principal summit document, called the "Strategic Concept," will begin to address this problem, saying how the end of the Cold War has changed NATO's purposes.

But it won't be specific, leaving NATO members to debate whether future crises fit into the framework requiring military action.

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