Signs of fatigue

Published : May 08, 2009 00:00 IST

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, NATO secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the summit in Strasbourg, France, on April 4.-MICHEL EULER/AP

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, NATO secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the summit in Strasbourg, France, on April 4.-MICHEL EULER/AP

THE North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a product of the 20th centurys Cold War, celebrated its 60th anniversary on April 4 in the French city of Strasbourg and the German town of Kehl, across the Rhine.

United States President Barack Obama, who along with leaders of other member-countries attended the function to mark the anniversary, said in his speech that the trans-Atlantic organisation was gearing to face the challenges of the new century. His address mainly focussed on NATOs crucial tasks in Afghanistan.

The 28-member NATO (Albania and Croatia joined the alliance on April 1, 2009) took command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in 2003. Most of the NATO forces deployed in Afghanistan are in those areas that have very little Taliban presence. The bulk of the fighting in that country is led by American forces, supported to some extent by British, Dutch and Canadian soldiers. The Germans and the French have shown a marked reluctance to engage the resurgent Taliban head on.

Obamas decision to escalate the war has not gone down well in many European capitals. Despite his persuasive skills, the President has not received any significant commitment from European NATO members either to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan or to undertake combat missions in Taliban-controlled areas with the troops they already have on the ground. In fact, the public mood in Europe is for ending the occupation of Afghanistan and for a speedy withdrawal of troops from there. The Obama administration has now come to the conclusion that the only thing that it can reasonably expect from the major European members is more financial backing for the war.

out of arQuestions are also being asked about NATO troops being deployed in Afghanistan, an Asian country, in the first place. Article 5 of the NATO Charter states: An armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America will be considered an attack against them all. The first serious NATO military action so far invoked under Article 5 has been in the out-of-area Afghanistan.

NATO was created to confront the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who played a key role in ending the Cold War by disbanding the Warsaw Pact (the military alliance formed by Communist countries to counter NATO) and allowing the Berlin Wall to be dismantled, was promised by Washington that NATO too would be disbanded as it had outlived the rationale for its creation. The threat from the Eastern Bloc, if there ever was one, has been non-existent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Yet NATO has been expanding even after the reason for its creation disappeared. During the Cold War, the alliance had 16 members. Today, it has 28 members, with more East and Central European countries eagerly waiting to sign up. France, which left NATOs military structure in 1966, has now rejoined. Many Left parties as well as influential sections of the media in France are questioning the timing of President Nicolas Sarkozys decision to make the country once again a full-fledged member of the military grouping. President Charles de Gaulle took France out of NATOs military command when the Cold War was at its height. Critics of Sarkozy (and their number is growing by the day) say that the decision marks the end of an independent foreign policy for France.

Successive U.S. administrations have reneged on the promises that were given to Moscow before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Instead, NATO has aggressively expanded right up to Russias doorstep by admitting former Warsaw Pact members into the Western military alliance. The U.S. has used the opportunity provided by the demise of the Warsaw Pact to wage wars of aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia and in the heart of Europe.

Yugoslavia, which had resisted absorption into NATO, paid the price by being first dismembered and then bombed into submission in 1999. Neither the war in Iraq nor the one in Kosovo had the sanction of the United Nations Security Council. NATOs role was pivotal in the creation of the mini-state of Kosovo. The U.S. now has one of its biggest bases there. Under U.S. supervision, NATO is slowly but surely moving the battleground to the South Caucasus and the Black Sea. Georgia has given U.S. and NATO forces full access to its Black Sea ports.

Important NATO members such as Germany and Italy, which are dependent on Russia for energy supplies, have aired their misgivings about the course NATO is taking. Meanwhile, new East European members, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, want NATO to focus more on consolidating its influence in Europe instead of focussing on far away Afghanistan and Pakistan. The conservative Polish and Czech governments are putting pressure on the U.S. to expand NATO further by expediting the admission of Ukraine and Georgia.

The Kremlin was incensed with the Bush administration for its plans to put up anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia is already ringed with NATO military bases on its European borders. The Obama administration, however, is having second thoughts about the proposal. Moscow had threatened to take strong counter-measures if Washington went ahead with its plans to build a missile shield adjacent to its borders or expand NATO into areas that it considers are within its traditional sphere of influence.

The military humiliation of Georgia by Russia late last year was a strong message sent to the U.S. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, speaking at the NATO summit last year, said that the emergence of the powerful military bloc at our borders will be seen as a direct threat to Russias security. The decision of the Kyrgyz government to eject the U.S. from its only military base in Central Asia is viewed as a retaliatory act on the part of Russia to counter NATO expansion. The Manas airbase was crucial to the U.S. air force in its war in Afghanistan.

Earlier in the year, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev envisaged the creation, along with six other former Soviet states, of a rapid reaction force that would be no weaker than similar forces of the North Atlantic Alliance. The force would operate under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a military alliance that Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan formed in response to the eastward spread of NATO.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many influential voices in Europe have called for an independent and greater military role for the continent. Lord Ismay, the first secretary-general of NATO, had said that the organisations main goal was to keep the Soviets out, the Americans in, and the Germans down. NATOs basis for existence was the fear of the Soviet Union the fear that superior conventional forces from the East would overrun Western Europe.

Turkey, which was the last stop in Obamas much ballyhooed tour of Europe in April, has been critical of American leadership of the trans-Atlantic alliance. Though situated far away from the Atlantic coast, Turkey joined NATO in 1952 to help the U.S. militarily in the Korean War.

The Turkish army is the second largest contingent in NATO after the U.S. army and has shed a lot of blood for causes dear to the U.S. The Turks had expected the rest of Europe to welcome them with open arms. But they find that the doors of the European Union have been shut for them. The entry of a big Muslim nation into a Christian club has been virtually vetoed by countries such as France and Germany.

Now, to add insult to injury, NATO has gone ahead and chosen Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as its next secretary-general. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan objected to Rasmussens appointment because of the way his government handled the controversy that erupted after scurrilous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad were published in a Danish newspaper in 2006. The cartoons had sparked off violence in many capitals around the world. Rasmussens right-wing coalition government, which won power on an anti-immigrant platform, was far from apologetic about the cartoons. Instead, it defended the newspaper and the cartoonists by invoking the right to freedom of expression of the media .

Professor Andrew Bacevic, an expert on international relations at the University of Boston, recently opined that the only way to save NATO was for the U.S. to quit it. The alliance has lost its sense of purpose. The way to get it back is for the U.S. to withdraw and for Europe to be responsible for its own defence, he wrote in Los Angeles Times.

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