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From Checkpoint Charlie to Tora Bora

11.12.2002 | POLITICS

May Day, 1955. The world is watching Warsaw, where Representatives from the Soviet Union and the People's Republics of Eastern Europe have gathered to draft a treaty of "friendship, co-operation and mutual assistance."

The alliance it cements is immediately dubbed The Warsaw Pact. It is a new and improved Russian war machine, an expanded, nuclear-armed version of the one that pummeled the Wermacht back into German territory in 1945.

One year later, The Hungarian People's Republic wants to cancel its membership, and Moscow sends Pact forces to reign in the Magyar member state.

In 1968, Pact tanks rumble into another rebellious signatory nation: the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. When the bloody squelching causes the little People's Republic of Albania to leave the Pact in protest, Moscow just chuckles and turns its attention back to the plains of a divided Germany. It is here that the armored divisions of two superpower alliances watch each other through binoculars and await orders to fight World War Three.

The orders never come, and 23 years later the Warsaw Pact makes another high-profile visit to Prague. Not in tanks, but in suits; not to crush a single revolt, but to concede to a regional revolution. On July 1st1991, in the high, chandeliered halls of Cernicky Palace, the 34 year-old alliance of socialist states dissolves itself in a flurry of signatures.

Like a dramatic b-movie escape, The Warsaw Pact disappears in a puff of its own smoke. It is the suicide that ends the Cold War.

But while a relieved world rejoices, NATO finds itself monitoring enemy territory suddenly empty of enemy troops. As apparatchiks in the GDR worry about what will become of their state jobs, so do employees of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels wonder if world historical events have just made them redundant. NATO was created to protect Western Europe, but Western Europe doesn't need protecting anymore. Its mission accomplished, is it pink slip time for NATO bureaucrats?

It's 1991, and this is a serious question, asked seriously by serious people. Nobody knows the answer.

The brief post-Cold War debate over the existence of NATO was a re-run. Forty-five years earlier, at the close of the Second World War, it was equally unclear what international organization would protect the new and uncertain peace in Europe. In the immediate post-war years, the debate focused on two possibilities: the newly minted United Nations, based on the fuzzy concept of universal collective security, or a military alliance of reconstructed (capitalist) states, led by the U.S. and based on a harder combination of exclusive collective security and collective defense.

This second option would ostensibly be founded on UN principles, but would operate outside the UN framework. It triumphed.

NATO was created in 1949 with the signing of its founding document, the Washington Treaty. But debate about NATO's primacy continued into the early 1950s. It was only with the Korean War and the deepening freeze of U.S.-Soviet relations that a consensus hardened in the West about the need for a strong and militarized NATO to counter the Soviet threat. Among those who argued against the creation and dominance of NATO was a wide array of prominent post-war figures, including Albert Einstein, UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie and influential U.S. Senator and Republican presidential candidate Robert A. Taft. They thought that NATO merely set the stage for another war by dividing Europe into armed camps. A lot of other people thought so, too--including the Russians.

One of the first dilemmas faced by a young NATO was what to do with Germany. The thought of remilitarizing West Germany so soon after the fall of the Third Reich disgusted most of the world, but that's what a U.S.-led NATO did. Allied "denazification" programs were halted as the Cold War set it, and many former Reich officials and supporters were allowed to maintain their elite positions in politics, industry, and the military. The decision was justified as necessary to rebuild the country and hold the line against the Red Army, which maintained overwhelming military superiority in Central Europe at the close of the second world war.

The Russians, who'd been invaded by Germany twice in the last 25 years, weren't too happy about this. Russia lost ten million people defeating the German army, while Eisenhower and his Allied troops famously watched and waited until June 1944 to open up a second front in Europe. Thus Russia thought she deserved to either control or disarm post-Nazi Germany. To stop the militarization of Germany and possibly ease Cold War tensions, Stalin offered in 1952 to withdraw from East Germany and allow the state to unify under the condition that it remain neutral and demilitarized. The U.S. called it a ruse and rejected the offer. The Federal Republic of Germany was then re-armed with NATO support and a divided Berlin remained the central Cold War flashpoint for almost 40 years. The only time U.S. and Russian tanks ever faced off during the Cold War was across the infamous Checkpoint Charlie in downtown Berlin.

For the next four decades, NATO and the Warsaw Pact protected their halves of Europe. The war in Europe was never fought, and was never really meant to be fought. As both developed bigger and bigger thermonuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, the massive conventional forces of the two alliances became all but meaningless. The early arms race was driven by the U.S., who pursued nuclear superiority to counter the conventional superiority of Pact forces in Europe. It was understood that Warsaw Pact forces could have stream-rolled across Europe had they chosen to, but the temptations offered by conventional advantage were considerably dampened by the prospect of occupying a Western Europe reduced to a charred and radioactive wasteland of rats and corpses.

And so the peace was kept.

The most dramatic event s in NATO and Warsaw Pact history occurred not on the battlefield, but in their own member states. Warsaw Pact forces intimidated socialist bloc countries as much as they balanced NATO forces. And NATO was meant to institutionalize nascent (West) European integration as much as to hold the line against the Red Army.

Unlike the Warsaw Pact, NATO has never invaded its member states. (Although the U.S., under the flag of the "Truman Doctrine," did engage in the fighting that brought Greece and Italy into the NATO orbit, one year before its founding.) Aside from the Jupiter missiles in Turkey that contributed to the Cuban missile crisis, there weren't many dramatic moments in NATO's history. Instead, the headline making events were political and intra-NATO. In 1967, Charles de Gaulle pulled out of NATO's unified command structure to pursue an independent nuclear deterrent (la force de frappe), thus forcing NATO to relocate from Paris to Brussels. Over the years, new members also joined, such as Denmark, Iceland, Spain and Norway. Then there were the dramatic anti-nuclear protests of the early 1980s, when Washington placed medium-range Pershing missiles in Western Europe. These protests were just loud, public manifestations of high-level debates over NATO's nuclear posture that have dogged the Alliance for decades.

But compared to World War Three, these squabbles were nothing. Even the distasteful Pact operations in Budapest and Prague were relative picnics compared to global thermonuclear war . Although NATO declared victory when the Berlin Wall fell, the fact is that the peace was kept by the two alliances and their clear ability to destroy each other. In this sense, they were both successful.

During the Cold War, the old saw went that NATO "kept the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down." Despite half a century of peaceful development in Europe and the disappearance of the Soviet threat, in 1989 Europe was still keen on keeping the Germans down and the Americans in, so serious debate about the existence of NATO was short-lived. Thoughts about replacing NATO with the UN or some new pan-European tool for collective security such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were further marginalized by the viciousness of the fighting in the Balkans and the total failure of the UN to do anything about it.

What's more, former Warsaw Pact nations were soon clamoring to join NATO.

After being locked into--and, in some cases, invaded by--the Warsaw Pact, the countries of Eastern Europe craved NATO membership both for the security guarantee and the seal of western approval it seemed to bring with it. The leading NATO nations each had their own reasons for pushing or opposing the inclusion of former Pact members--the Germans wanted a NATO buffer to the east, the French didn't want to piss off the Russians, etc--but in the end they reached a common position of cautiously supporting expansion.

It was the U.S. who pushed hardest for enlarging the alliance. As the expansion debate heated up during the second Clinton Administration, the Czech-born Secretary of State Madeleine Albright led the charge in talking up the "moral obligation" of accepting new states. And no doubt there was an ethical component in Clinton's hard charge for pushing NATO east. But two other factors can't be ignored: the arms industry and the American Polish lobby.

Salivating over the prospects of new contracts, major defense contractors lobbied hard for NATO expansion. Lockheed Martin even produced a slick and scare-mongering promotional video that it distributed to the ex-Pact foreign ministries: against ominous music, it warned against the possibility of a resurgent Russia. Well organized and influential Polish-American groups, for their part, exerted hard pressure on Clinton.

Whatever the forces behind it, expansion happened, and sooner than most expected. Although Russia protested to the last, warning of another re-division of Europe, the Madrid summit of 1997 saw the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary invited to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. They did so two years later in Washington.

Three weeks after the official ceremony welcoming the three new members, NATO went to war for the first time in its history. Like the Soviet Union NATO was designed to fight, the Serbian enemy used the Cyrillic alphabet. Unlike the Soviet Union, Serbia also had McDonald's and lacked a nuclear deterrent.

It wasn't the first time NATO had used force since the end of the Cold War. In Bosnia, NATO worked through the UN and bombed the warring parties to a table in Dayton, Ohio. But Kosovo was different. NATO had no UN mandate, and its claims to legitimacy were undermined by public admissions that the last-ditch Rambouillet peace talks were in fact a trap set by the Americans, in which the bar was deliberately "set high." Milosevic's initial offer of an international force under the joint auspices of both the OSCE and NATO was ultimately accepted--after NATO spent 11 weeks bombing military and civilian targets around Kosovo and downtown Belgrade.

Russian fears of an expanded NATO were not assuaged by the Kosovo campaign, and NATO-Russian relations hit an all-time low when the bombing started as Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was en route to Washington for talks. (In a throwback to the Cold War, Primakov turned his plane around over the Atlantic Ocean.) Although Russia ultimately swallowed the attack on its fellow Slavs, its return to hostile rhetoric was enough to convince U.S. policy heavyweights such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Samuel Huntington that further NATO encroachment east was a bad idea. George Kennan, the elderly dean of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, went so far as to call expansion "the single greatest blunder of the post-Cold War period."

Back in Brussels, NATO's first "out of area" mission was deemed a success and further expansion was openly considered. NATO settled into a satisfied, low-profile discussion about what the second-round of enlargement should look like and accepted a long-term peacekeeping role in the Balkans, where today NATO still stations over 50,000 troops. It was agreed that the first-round of expansion did not weaken Alliance ability to act, as some had feared. Meanwhile, Alliance relations with Russia slowly recovered from the Kosovo freeze.

Several second-round applicant states already had official relationships with NATO through participation in the Partnership for Peace program (PfP), which the Alliance initiated in 1994. This program was touted partly as an effort to keep Russia involved in the Alliance--"a voice, not a veto" went the slogan--but some saw it as a risky back-door entrance through which the U.S. could establish a presence in the political hornet's nests of oil rich Central Asia. The Partnership for Peace program currently includes 22 nations from across the former Soviet space, and acts as a sort of waiting room for Alliance membership.

In Prague this week, between five and seven of these countries will be offered membership. That much is certain. Less certain is the nature of the Alliance they'll be joining.

It is often said that "everything changed" on September 11th, 2001. Many things did change quite a bit, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is one of them.

One of the well-known ramifications of the terrorist attacks was the almost immediate realignment of Russia towards the West. The idea of establishing U.S. military bases in the Stans and Caucases of Central Asia for the campaign in Afghanistan was unthinkable before the attacks on New York and Washington, and Russian willingness to see NATO as a stabilizing force can be attributed to both the importance of economic matters in Putin's Kremlin as well as the common sense realization that Russia has more to fear from China and militant Islam than it does NATO. This new understanding was codified last May in the form of the new NATO--Russia Council (NRC). After threatening not to attend the Prague meeting of the NRC, Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov will be in town this week, despite lingering official opposition to NATO's expansion beyond the "red line" of former Soviet territory.

Another change brought by September 11th was a shift in the admission criteria for applicant countries. It is unlikely that most of the seven countries who may be offered membership this week could have met the same criteria as the Czech Rep, Poland and Hungary did in 1999. The new group--consisting of the three Baltic States, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria--is heterogeneous and backwards compared to the first round group of relatively developed Central European countries. Romania and Bulgaria especially were at least a decade or more away from membership before the attacks.

Not only has the threshold been lowered, but its been moved. As the U.S. leads NATO into a post 9/11 world, it cares less about traditional NATO criteria--force structure, resource management, English-language skills, etc.--than it does about political support for its policies and specialized niche capabilities useful in various fronts in the "war on terror."

During "Operation Enduring Freedom," Bulgaria provided a base for U.S. planes and sent a nuclear, biological and chemical decontamination unit to Afghanistan. Romania tried to prove its loyalty and merit by sending a military police squad and a 400 person infantry platoon. Estonia, for its tiny part, is touting its world famous explosive-detection dog teams. Although some NATO officials are grumbling about it, this seems to be enough to get into NATO in 2002.

Crucially, September 11th also caused a redirection in NATO's very mission, as well as the tools needed to accomplish them. At NATO's last major summit in Washington in 1999, members agreed to a common Defense Capability Initiative (DCI). This required allied states to boost spending on precision-guided weaponry, air defenses, aircraft and the like. All together, the DCI called upon the Allies to improve in 58 areas to increase interoperability and battlefield effectiveness.

September 11th made many of these priorities look anachronistic, and in Prague the DCI will be shaved down and refocused. Of increased importance are anti-terror measures and civil defense, including the production and storage of vaccines in case of biological or chemical attack. At NATO's ministerial level meeting last month in Warsaw, a "Prague Initiative" was proposed to establish a rapid reaction force to deal with an attack involving weapons of mass destruction. However else NATO develops, the Alliance is preparing for the day when allies will have to help a member-state deal with the consequences of a nuclear, chemical or biological attack.

This new and logical emphasis on dealing with the threat of weapons of mass destruction is the policy enshrinement of threats acknowledged at the beginning of NATO's post-Cold War soul searching. As early as 1991, the Alliance's Strategic Concept warned that "Alliance security must also take account of the global context" and that "Alliance security interests can be affected by...[the] proliferation of weapons of mass destruction...and actions of terrorism and sabotage."

This point was given yet more emphasis in the 1999 Strategic Concept, which moved "acts of terrorism" far up the list of "other risks." In Prague, the subject will share the spotlight with expansion.

How drastically this refocusing should effect the more traditional elements of collective defense and NATO's "out of area" (global) role will continue to be a subject of debate. Prague will thus be a historic summit for two reasons: the Alliance will expand from "the Baltic to the Black Sea," and it will redefine the debate concerning what it should be doing and how it should be doing it.

America and its European allies share a long relationship and common threats, but they don't share a brain. Since the election of George W. Bush, most NATO members have found themselves in increasingly heated disagreement with U.S. policy on everything from the environment to arms control.

These differences, together with strong unilateralist urges in Washington, have led some neoconservative ideologues close to power in the U.S. to dismiss the relevance of NATO altogether. "NATO is dead," says Charles Krauthammer of The Washington Post. "The old alliance holds little promise," says Jeffrey Gedmin of the Aspen Institute. And Robert Kagan, editor at The Weekly Standard and one of the most influential figures in American right-wing foreign policy debates, urges that people "stop pretending that Europeans and Americans [hold] a common view of the world" and suggests that the U.S. can get along fine without NATO.

While these extreme views don't exactly fit the views of the Bush administration, tensions between U.S. and Europe are historically high thanks to Bush policies and rhetoric. Observers eager to maintain and strengthen transatlantic unity worry that these tensions could, if allowed to worsen, fatally threaten NATO as it struggles to make itself relevant in the 21st century. Among the sources of friction, war with Iraq ranks high.

The Bush Administration's insistence that it reserves the right to pre-emptively attack any nation it chooses doesn't sit with NATO allies. Already snubbed and sidelined during the early stages and planning of the Afghanistan campaign, some warn that ignoring allied concerns over an Iraq campaign could widen a rift irrevocably. Writing in Foreign Affairs, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott says that if "the [U.S.] administration is similarly dismissive of NATO when push comes to shove in Iraq, the alliance might never recover, since NATO must be taken seriously by its strongest member if it is to be taken seriously by anyone."

In this environment of intra-Alliance tension over Iraq, Talbott continues, acid remarks from the neocon right are especially dangerous. "Lump[ing] the UN and NATO together as 'talk shops' that are all but worthless," the Bush Administration risks a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy. Despite its confidence that the world will follow its strong lead, Bush can't expect NATO Allies to support U.S. unilateralism just because the U.S. President says it's necessary. "America's allies are justified in expecting the United States to assemble a coalition of the willing, not just a coalition of the obedient," continues Talbott, who urges that the U.S. work with NATO to find a solution to the Iraq question that takes into account the concerns of allies.

Far from hamstringing Washington, NATO often functions as an adjunct of and aid to U.S. foreign policy--and it always has. Most serious observers acknowledge this. Turkey currently leads the peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, and one of the reasons the U.S. could turn its full attention to Central Asia in the first place it was because the Europeans and Canadians increased their presence in the Balkans. It would thus be against U.S. as well as Europe's interests to let NATO fall apart, for both military and political reasons: NATO acts as both a "military tool box" for member states, as well as a facilitator for the socialization and integration of eastern Europe into the west.

Philip Gordon, writing in the U.S. quarterly The National Interest, articulates the mainstream view currently found in the U.S. and Europe:

NATO is not dead, nor is it doomed. But it needs to adjust to new realities if it is to serve useful purposes on both sides of the Atlantic. Disagreements among allies are natural; in the case of NATO, certainly, they are nothing new. The challenge of adjusting the Alliance after the Cold War was already considerable before September 11th; since then it has become both more complex and more urgent. The Prague summit is an opportunity for the Alliance to make that adjustment.

It is with that spirit that delegates from 46 states will pack into the Congress Center to figure out what the world's most powerful alliance should look like. It is a vast, ambitious and uncertain project moving into a brave new century. It is also appropriate that the spires of Prague should serve as backdrop.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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