At the NATO Summit on Tuesday, Europe and the US will discuss the direction the alliance will take. Behind all the talk of harmony are some major differences on how much political power the organization should have.
NATO in Afghanistan: more say in where troops go
In the days after he made them, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's comments that NATO was no longer the "primary venue" for discussing global strategy offered a cue for every one to jump into an increasingly controversial debate.
US President George W. Bush saw in them a threat to sideline the security organization and told German television that he "looked forward to reminding Gerhard Schröder that NATO is an active institution."
NATO head Jan Hoop de Schaeffer, while rejecting Schröder's call to set up a panel of experts to look at rehauling the organization, said it reflected efforts he has made in recent years to make NATO more politically active.
Behind the semantics are very real questions about what shape the 26-nation institution will take as Europe grows closer to forging a security and defense policy that could supplement some of NATO's tasks. It is an issue on which parts of Europe and the United States are still divided. France, for example, favors making the European Union ever stronger in defense matters, part of a grander strategy of providing a counterweight to the United States in the world.
US: No NATO competition
The United States, encouraging but at the same time wary of the European Union's military ambitions, is on edge when talk of changing the alliance comes up. Thierry Balzacq at the Center for European Policy Studies said the paranoia stems from plans Belgium, France, Germany and Luxembourg drew up at a summit last year calling for a military planning council that Washington saw as competition to NATO.
NATO headquarters in Brussels
"Every time one of these countries says something, even if they're supporting NATO, the other side will always come and say 'oh, they are trying to undermine NATO's policy'," he said.
When he meets with President Bush in Mainz on Wednesday, Schröder will take care to distance himself from the French position without selling out completely on Europe, said Henning Riecke, a transatlantic security expert.
A certain ambiguity
"I think NATO is very important for the Germans, but they aren't able to issue this NATO first principle the Americans would like to hear," said Riecke, who works for the Berlin-based Council on Foreign Relations. "So there has to be a certain ambiguity."
Schröder himself left nothing to doubt when he defended his remarks two days after his defense minister read them out at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 14. He lobbied again for an expert panel to look for ways to expand the organization's involvement in policy discussions.
Schröder's comments on NATO prompted a curt reply from Bush
"I really believe that it contributes to a strengthening of NATO and transatlantic relations if we speak more openly on political issues than we have tended to in the past," he said.
Providing troops - and strategic direction?
At issue is whether NATO, an organization that provides the troops, weaponry and logistical support for peacekeeping missions from Afghanistan to Sarajevo, will have a greater say on how that weaponry and manpower gets used.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the organization has made great strides in increasing its military prowess, investing in technology and creating a rapid response force which is able to deploy anywhere in the world within a few days. But differences between some NATO allies -- like France and the US -- over the Iraq war, kept the alliance from discussing ways to increase NATO's say in strategic planning, said Riecke.
"What is lacking is a strategic understanding of what these troops should be used for," he said.
While NATO improved its capabilites, the EU for the first time got serious about developing a military wing. They pledged to develop a military response force simliar to NATO's and took over the organization's policing mission in Bosnia.
No clear resolution
Some in Washington worry that the steps taken both by NATO and the European Union are on a collision course. In the best of both worlds, the NATO would serve as the big stick to the European Union's well-intentioned diplomacy, say some observers. But NATO, and its biggest member, America, will not always have the same interests in a crisis region as the European Union.
The Europeans "might need (military) capabilities to keep the neighborhood in order, like in the Balkans," said Riecke.
The hand-over ceremony in Skopje, as EU soldiers take over responsibility for peacekeeping in the country from the NATO.
No one expects any clear position to emerge from the NATO discussions Tuesday. Most analysts agree that Bush's visit will be a charm offensive designed to show European allies that the United States still cares. But many don't expect a more substantive indication on how their differences on NATO will get resolved.
The visits by Condoleezza Rice and Bush are "clear signals that Europe is being taken seriously as a strong partner," said Reicke. We'll have to see what the wrangling on the working level will turn out to be, how this might poison the picture a bit."