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Surprising Summit

April 4, 2008

NATO leaders openly discussed their differences at the Bucharest summit. While they failed to find a compromise, unscripted debates were already quite a novel thing, says DW's Bernd Riegert.

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The big enlargement summit that NATO's leading power and many new eastern European members had wished for has fallen through. Germany and France thwarted US plans and candidates Ukraine and Georgia were sent back to the waiting room.

The conflict between the US and western European countries was openly talked about at the summit. That's a new thing for NATO, since usually decisions are already made beforehand and everything happens according to plan.

Bernd Riegert

This time, however, the outgoing American president was stymied in his almost missionary expansion zeal. Another unusual aspect of the meeting in Bucharest was the fact that 25 NATO countries were unable to get Greece and Macedonia to agree on a compromise in the bizarre twist over Macedonia's name. That's why only Croatia and Albania were invited to become members. George W. Bush, the lame duck, didn't manage to have his way against Greece, either.

The Macedonian name controversy should be seen as an operational accident. Nothing has changed as far as NATO's fundamental readiness to welcome all Balkan countries into the stabilizing community is concerned and that's a good thing. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia were all given a clear perspective -- what's still unclear is how long it will take for all of them to sit at the table.

The summit's surprise was German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy's newly revived close cooperation. They obviously want to shift NATO's focus towards Europe. France's return to NATO's military command structures in the coming year fits into that strategy. It now depends on who will win the race to the White House and what level of importance the new administration will place on the alliance.

An overly confident Russian President Vladimir Putin has gained astonishing influence over NATO during his last years of neo-nationalistic foreign policy. The expansion to include Ukraine and Georgia was mainly delayed out of consideration for Russian objections -- something the denials by Germany's chancellor cannot cover up.

A framework agreement with the US also secured the Kremlin a right to have a say in the matter of strategic missile defense, which naturally doesn't present a threat to Russia. But accusations by the US and eastern Europe that NATO is throwing itself at Putin are exaggerated.

The NATO-Russia Council offered a big stage to the outgoing president to reiterate his old and unfounded allegation at an emotional press conference. This is probably meant for the domestic audience in Russia -- NATO diplomats merely shake their heads in disbelief at Putin's behavior.

Despite all verbal attacks, Russia and NATO cooperate on a practical level, such as a common missile defense on the battle field or the transport of supplies to Afghanistan. For the first time, NATO also discussed the orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, where it has been since 2001.

Long overdue guidelines for when the multinational assistance force will hand over to Afghans were finally decided on. In the short term, NATO will have to send even more troops to Afghanistan to get the security situation under control.

The Germans will be called upon in the fall at the latest. In Bucharest, the chancellor cleverly managed to avert a debate on an expanded role for the German military in Afghanistan, but it cannot be avoided forever.

Bernd Riegert covers NATO as DW-RADIO's Brussels correspondent (win).