International Papers

Why NATO, Why Now?

While the seven nations green-lighted for NATO membership at last week’s Prague summit popped champagne corks, papers in several longtime member states asked, “Why bother?” Three former Warsaw Pact countries, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia; three former Soviet republics, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; and Slovenia, formerly part of Yugoslavia, will become full members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in May 2004. As the Guardian observed, “The seven new members, raising the total to 26, put 44 million more people under Nato’s umbrella, but add little in terms of military clout.”

The day after Bulgaria got the keys to the NATO clubhouse, Sofia’s Standart News said, “World War II ended yesterday,” while the socialist daily Duma offered: “We are in. Now what?” Latvia’s Diena echoed Standart News’ analogy: “Yesterday … the end of World War II became tangible.” Lithuania’s Lietuvos Rytas crowed, “The clock of history in Lithuania has started showing real Western civilization time.” In Germany, Frankfurter Rundschau said NATO would be so transformed by the addition of seven Eastern nations that there should be national referendums on enlargement: “Political honesty would require a debate on how … we propose to face the new challenges … to be put to the people.” The editorial concluded that alliance members were avoiding taking expansion to the ballot box because they were afraid that some current members might leave as a result. “It is a bad sign that NATO is avoiding such a fundamental debate precisely for that reason.” (Translations in this paragraph courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

The Age of Melbourne looked back to the founding of the alliance, when the first secretary-general, Gen. Hastings Ismay, said NATO existed for three reasons: “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Nowadays, the biggest threat to world security comes from terrorism and rogue states: “If NATO is to avoid becoming an irrelevance, it must redefine its role.” Canada’s National Post summarized the dilemma: “If all of Europe is joining the NATO side, why bother? … NATO is a military club designed to defend those values, and the nations that uphold them, through military means. Thus, NATO must adapt to changed circumstances. In particular, it must address the greatest military threat to the West, which is no longer Russia or communism, but militant Islam.”

An op-ed in the Prague Post presented the worst-case scenario: The new members are merely “swapping subjection to Washington for subjection to Moscow.” The op-ed considered the rapid-reaction combat force approved at the summit and warned the newbies: “It’s not regional peacekeeping at all that they will be expected to sign up to. It’s pre-emptive strikes against countries whose natural resources American oil companies would like to have control of. This glorious new doctrine might well see Czech, Polish and Hungarian troops being sent into action in Iraq, where they can help murder some conscripts from inconvenient population groups in the name of truth, justice and the American way.”

French letters: French may have lost its status as the international diplomatic language, but a hasty abandonment of English helped Prague summiteers avoid an international incident. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who was discouraged from attending the meeting of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council held during the summit because of accusations that he sold anti-aircraft radars to Saddam, ignored warnings and gatecrashed anyway. According to Britain’s Independent, “Under Nato’s standard English-language seating plan, arranged in alphabetical order, Mr Kuchma would have been between the leaders of the United Kingdom and the United States—the two nations that have accused him of selling radar systems to Iraq.” Instead, the allies decided to be seated in French, which placed President Bush’s Etats-Unis bloc near Estonia, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the rest of the Royaume Uni delegation between Romania and Slovenia, and Kuchma next to the president of Turkey at the end of the table.