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Starting the Debate
NATO Ministers prepare for Strasbourg-Kehl

NATO Defence and Foreign Ministers met during February and March to prepare for the Alliance's sixtieth anniversary Strasbourg-Kehl summit to be held on 3 - 4 April. But with the Obama administration yet to complete key political appointments, many key decisions - such as possible revision of the Alliance's Strategic Concept - may be left to a future summit in 2010/11. The summit takes place against a background of ongoing disagreements over the missile defence deals struck with Eastern European allies in the dying days of the Bush administration.

Previewing Summit decision-making

NATO's Heads of State and Government meeting in Strasbourg-Kehl are expected to adopt a Declaration on Atlantic Security, which will form the basis for a revision of the Strategic Concept likely be negotiated between Strasbourg and the next Summit to be held in late 2010 or early 2011. Other matters to be discussed will also include the appointment of a new Secretary General; relations with Russia; the future of the NATO Response Force; and the reentry of France into NATO military structures. Major decisions will need to be made on the future of Alliance operations in Afghanistan.

Following the Ministerial meetings, President Sarkozy has announced that he would like France to rejoin NATO's integrated military command, from which General de Gaulle withdrew France in 1966. The French National Assembly will vote on this on 17 March, and despite opposition from left and right, the President is expected to prevail. France will be rewarded with a couple of major NATO commands for its generals. Other practical effects will be limited, since France has participated fully in Alliance missions since the 1990s, but the decision will give France a greater say in the rewriting of the Strategic Concept over the next two years.

A new US administration

The Obama administration has significantly changed the tone of US dealings with its European allies, softening the stance on a number of controversial issues, and taking a considerably more upbeat approach to the trans-Atlantic partnership than the Bush administration. The theme is that 'Allies matter'. This is not least the case with Afghanistan, where the administration has consistently stated that the US will do more, but will expect more from its allies. President Obama has moved to reduce, and by 2011 eliminate, the US military presence in Iraq. Having moved to end an unpopular war, he has at the same time stated his intention to win the 'good' war in Afghanistan. He is pinning his national security credentials on this task, and is willing to gamble the future credibility of the Alliance on the success of the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

The US is devising a new regional strategy, in which it wishes to secure Russian support for its supply routes (which it hopes would be safer than using Pakistan); involve Pakistan in ending the current safe havens for the Taliban in Pakistan and the Afghan border areas; engage Iran in discussions about security along its borders; and increase troop levels and change operations to bring security to as much of the country as possible. It wishes to have as much support from NATO as possible. This is already proving difficult, as countries such as Germany are reluctant to commit extra troops or to relax the 'caveats' that restrict the uses to which many countries forces can be put inside Afghanistan. This will be the principle business of the Summit, and it is still too early to say exactly how it will go.

For the Obama administration achieving full NATO support is critical, given the political capital the President is investing in success in Afghanistan. It is also of considerable importance for NATO. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has long talked of the Alliance as becoming a 'global security provider', allowing the Alliance to operate under a UN or regional mandate as a peace enforcer or peace keeper across the globe. This would be done in cooperation with partners like Australia or Japan. Countries like the UK, Germany and others support this vision, as does the US. But success in Afghanistan is a pre-requisite for going down this route and NATO leaders are likely to spend most time in Strasbourg on the Afghan mission.

The Obama administration moved quickly to install Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, and to keep Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense. Beyond that, it has not yet filled key roles relating to NATO, including its new Ambassador. This has impeded the administration's ability to conduct its ongoing review of NATO policy, meaning that decisions on issues relating to the Alliance itself will be made closer to the Summit.

Relations with Russia are also critical. Hillary Clinton has already moved quickly to try to press the 'reset button' on the US-Russian relationship. This has had an immediate impact on NATO, which in the long term will undoubtedly be positive. In the short term, however, it has left some NATO members in Eastern Europe concerned about what NATO is for and whether the US is ready to stand by them in the way they want.

The US needs Russia to encourage central Asian states to support the Alliance's military presence in Afghanistan; just as it needs Russia to allow resupply. The US also wishes negotiate a follow-on to the START I treaty provisions for verification, which expire at the end of 2009. The administration also wants to negotiate an extension to the Moscow treaty, and to formalize it better, probably at much lower warhead levels. None of this will be possible if NATO and Russia aren't talking, and if the US is working with NATO partners to deploy missile defences to Eastern Europe.

Missile Defence Divisions

The deals by the Czech Republic and Poland with the Bush administration to agree to allow a radar and missile interceptors respectively to be deployed on their soil are now under review. Both the administration and Congress have said that they will only move forward if the project can be proven to work, and to provide value for money. Neither is the case. The project also is vehemently opposed by Russia, which has in the past suggested that if the interceptors are deployed in Poland then it will deploy short range nuclear missiles to Kaliningrad to target the new facilities. The new US administration has no interest in a stand-off like this. The Czech and Polish governments, together with the Baltic States, see NATO's key role as being to defend them from Russia. This not how the US and western Europeans see the future of NATO. So the US is not willing to hold hostage its wider relations with Russia to this deployment.

Further, to the consternation of some Eastern European officials, the US does not seem to be willing to push the Russians on Georgia at the cost of further discussions. The US has forced its allies to accept the restarting of the NATO-Russia Council (over a threatened veto by Lithuania), and is moving forward on all fronts to improve relations with Moscow. Polish and Czech officials suggest that they are left wondering if they can trust the US to defend them, if they pull out of the BMD deals. However, other voices accuse the two governments of being na´ve in their dealings with Bush, since they clearly failed to factor in a change of administration in their negotiations with the old administration.

One element of the Defence Ministers discussions centred on a British proposal intended to calm Eastern European fears. Britain has proposed a NATO Response Force for territorial defence, which could be rapidly deployed at need in Eastern Europe or elsewhere inside NATO territory. This is supposed to convey the message to Eastern European allies that the Alliance Article V mutual defence guarantee is solid, whatever other missions the Alliance takes on. The newer members of the Alliance still view this as NATO's main task - in contrast with almost twenty years of internal NATO debate (of which they were not part), from the 'out of area or out of business' discussion in the 1990s that saw NATO going into the former Yugoslavia; and has continued with NATO operating in Afghanistan, off Somalia and in Darfur, and building towards a new global role.

All of this will impact on the negotiation of the Declaration on Atlantic Security. Ministers had input on a text prepared for the Secretary General, and Ambassadors are now doing the detailed negotiating. The aim is for the document to be a kind of public terms of reference for the future Strategic Concept debate, and to lay out the principle values and tasks that the Alliance supports.

All of this suggests that the Strasbourg-Kehl summit will celebrate past achievements, and deal with current problems, but the major conceptual issues about the future of NATO - from the Strategic Concept, to the NATO-Russia relationship - will once again be kicked down the road.

Martin Butcher

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