NATO marches on — to the beat of the US drum
By John Simpson
George W. Bush is not what you might call a natural orator. He knows how to please an American crowd, certainly, but Europeans often regard him as unreflective and semi-articulate: the voice of American triumphalism.
Not, however, the crowd in the main square of the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius: 50,000 people yelled their pleasure at the praise he showered on them, and at his offer to the Baltic states (together with Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Slovenia) of NATO membership. It was the largest crowd he has ever addressed in person, and the response must have made him very happy.
It isn’t just that a million voters at home are of Lithuanian origin; Washington always treated the Baltic states as separate nations even when, after 1945, the old Soviet Union tried to wipe out their national consciousness and submerge them in Russianness. This created a special relationship between the Baltic states and America; hence the atmosphere in the square.
And so, as a result of the Prague summit last week, NATO is even more an alliance built according to an American blueprint. A pleasant but perfunctory stop-off in St Petersburg was scheduled after the summit, to allow Mr Bush to say a friendly word or two to President Putin and keep Russia quiescent while NATO gobbled up the last provinces of its former empire.
Mr Putin is obliged to be realistic about the process, yet he has shown a good deal of dignity as NATO has expanded. He didn’t attend the Prague summit himself - that would have been too much - but he did send his foreign minister to show that, even if Russia didn’t approve of what was happening, it wasn’t going to make a fuss about it.
NATO is now entirely dominant. It includes virtually all the most powerful and prosperous countries on earth. Unlike the United Nations, it can be relied on - no matter how unenthusiastically at times - to do what Washington wants.
Sure, it can hobble American policy; the Greeks, the French and the Italians made it much more difficult for the Pentagon to attack Serbia as hard as it wanted in 1999, and some NATO officers were feeding secret information (such as the daily list of targets) to Belgrade.
Overall, though, if the Americans want NATO to do something, NATO does it. Much less pressure is required than persuading the UN Security Council to accept American leadership, for instance.
The new candidates, coming as they do from the old Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact, and the Yugoslav Federation, all understand that they owe their membership to the Americans. Most Western European countries would have preferred to assuage the hurt feelings of Russia by offering something less than full membership to countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic, and they would have preferred to leave out places such as Romania and the Baltic states altogether.
The Poles, the Czechs, the Romanians, the Balts and the rest know this. Their loyalty will be to Washington, not to Paris, London or Berlin. At the same time, a vast alliance like NATO has become harks back to the past rather than addressing the future.
Yet the real problem facing what Americans always called “the free world” is no longer the danger of invasion from an alternative super-power. We don’t so much require formal treaties to defend each other in case of attack from outside, as to cope with problems from within.
NATO’s potential enemy isn’t Russia. In some cases it is the instinctive hostility to American policies from small groups of individuals inside and outside Western countries; in others it is crime and drugs.
Alliances can’t do much about these things, other than to pool military resources and act in a concerted way when necessary - for instance, with a streamlined, quick-response force of about 20,000.
And frankly only a handful of European countries - essentially Britain, France and Germany, and to a much lesser extent the Netherlands, Italy and Spain - possess the military capability to provide the Americans with much help in that direction. All the remaining members of NATO, new and old, can do is provide a limited degree of specialisation.
But there is one other important function that NATO can perform: it can act as a chorus, singing the music Washington wants to hear. When the UN is reluctant to help, NATO will now be an even larger, more impressive policy tool for the US. Welcome to the club! – Sunday Telegraph
John Simpson is the BBC World Affairs Editor