A version of this analysis was published in the Hebrew Print Edition of Haaretz on 2 April, 2008.
NATO summits are unique in that they occur at important junctures in the alliance's future. Indeed, the organization itself describes them as serving to “address issues of overarching political or strategic importance.” The Bucharest summit will do just that, with particular focus on further NATO expansion and the role its forces could play in missions, like Afghanistan and Kosovo. And even though it is not discussed openly, underlying this final summit for President George Bush, is the role his administration has played in furthering policies that many critics have described as ‘divisive’ for the alliance.
Arguably, no American president ever started his relationship with NATO with such promise only for it to culminate in divisions that have led some observers to openly question the alliance's future relevance. For the first time in its history, NATO invoked Article 5 of its charter in response to 9/11, mobilizing the alliance in the defense of a member state. But since the early days of the war on terror, consensus within the alliance frayed as the Bush administration became increasingly unilateralist in its approach. Not only did veteran NATO members grow critical of Bush's policies in Iraq, but most of those who did commit troops to missions, like Afghanistan, became reluctant to authorize the deployment of their forces in areas of heavy fighting. Most recently, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized allies like Germany, for what he described as their unwillingness to fight, which he said is creating a two-tier alliance.
If the unilateralism of the Bush administration ruffled the feathers of some of more established members, it did not deter the new members, countries of the former Warsaw Pact. For yet other countries, particularly from the Balkans, but also states like Ukraine and Georgia, contributing to the U.S.-led operations abroad came to be regarded as a ticket to future membership. Indeed, Bush is now pushing hard to include Ukraine and Georgia in NATO. Not only is Russia strongly opposed to any such possibility, which will bring the NATO alliance even closer to its territory, but France and Germany are also against the move, worried that it may threaten European-Russian relations and have immediate consequences on energy supplies.
But if there is something that encapsulates the Bush administration's willingness to approach European security issues unilaterally, as it takes advantage of its relative popularity among former Soviet satellites, it is the missile defense system Washington is negotiating with Poland and the Czech Republic. Russian reaction has been fierce, threatening to target capitals of the alliance with nuclear weapons. Not only in Paris and Berlin, but at NATO's Brussels headquarters too, the notion that the U.S. was independently negotiating the deployment of a missile defense system drew strong criticism. In any case, the issue is still pending, with Warsaw and Prague playing hard ball with Washington, hoping for a better package of benefits.
However, not all is bleak when looking at the Bush 'imprint' on the alliance. The new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose declared admiration for America had drawn criticism at home, has said that he would like to see France return to NATO's joint command structure, and promised French combat troops for Afghanistan. This summit will also usher in two new members – Albania and Croatia – and if the dispute over Macedonia's name is resolved, it too will join the alliance. These are countries eager to toe the American line in return for investment opportunities and help in upgrading their military capabilities.
It is important to remember that NATO, in spite its shortcomings, has succeeded as an alliance since 1949 because it is based on consensus. A great part of that consensus relies on the belief of all member states that it is better to be in the alliance than out of it – and for this they are willing to compromise. As such, even an administration as divisive and uncompromising as that of George Bush is not likely to leave an indelible mark on the alliance – which may mean that NATO will continue its slow evolution, from a Cold War alliance to a catalyst for peace.
1 April, 2008