The NATO military alliance needs to adapt to the world of the 21st Century through eastward expansion and other strategy shifts. But Washington's hard-line against Iraq could still hijack the reform agenda.
Security has been tight before the opening of the summit
NATO leaders meet in Prague on Thursday for a summit which should bring a green light for radical changes in the alliance. They’ll be joined by leaders from another group of countries -- Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Slovenia -- who are due to be adopted as members during the meeting.
United States President George W. Bush, the first of the NATO leaders to arrive in the Czech capital, said the new members would invigorate the alliance and offer greater military security to a world in turmoil. Many defense experts, however, point to the problems resulting from the first round of NATO enlargement in 1999, which saw Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary taken into the fold.
Political expediency over military necessity
Andreas Heinemann-Crüder, a specialist in Eastern European military affairs at the Bonn International Center for Conversion, says, "It was a purely political decision, not a military one." He believes the need to promote regional stability meant that candidate states were not properly vetted and found themselves unable to live up to their obligations as members of the alliance.
So far, Heinemann-Crüder thinks only Slovenia fulfills NATO membership criteria. He believes that the admission of all seven is another political decision being driven by Washington.
"I think the United States is mainly interested in the capacity of these countries to accommodate air-mobile forces, in the state of readiness of their airports, so NATO can land its aircraft, and in the condition of its radar systems," he says. "Basically, the U.S. only needs them as a sort of aircraft carrier."
The admission of the new members, however, reflects the organisation's awareness that, 53 years after its foundation, it now has to respond to political and operational conditions vastly different from those of the Cold War.
U.S. President George W. Bush, left, embraces his Czech counterpart Vaclav Havel after a joint press conference following their meeting at Prague Castle, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2002. The two presidents met one day before opening of the NATO summit in Prague.
Before leaving for the Czech Republic, Bush said: "There needs to be a specialization as we develop the military capacity to deal with the true threats. Russia is not a threat, and therefore the military strategies of NATO need to be changed to recognize that new reality."
Expanding operational parameters
The main props of what has become known as the "Prague Capabilities Commitment" is an overhaul of NATO's cumbersome military command structure and a critical review of chemical, biological and nuclear defenses. The summit will also see the creation of a NATO Response Force capable of mounting rapid and independent operations far beyond the borders of the alliance.
Despite the summit’s proclaimed aim of pushing through a fundamental reform of the alliance, the Iraq issue is already threatening to overshadow it. Speaking at a joint news conference with Czech President Vaclav Havel on Wednesday, Bush said he would if necessary call on his NATO allies to help him disarm the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein should he refuse to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspection teams.
“If the decision is made to use military force,” he told reporters, “we will consult with our friends and we hope that our friends will join us." But, with Britain solidly behind any U.S. military action, Germany steadfastly opposed to it, and the other NATO members swinging between those two poles, the issue of a war with Iraq could open a split in the alliance at a time when it’s trying to regenerate itself.
The mission determines the coalition
But, as the leaders gather, the threat of terrorist action cannot be far from their thoughts. U.S. intelligence analysts have now said they believe last week’s audio tape purporting to be from al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was genuine. Broadcast by the Qatar-based television station al-Jazeera last week, it threatened reprisals against those countries that support Washington’s policies. NATO could yet find its future overtaken by events.