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Following in the footsteps

Andrzej Karkoszka examines how the experience of the newest NATO Allies could influence decisions to issue further membership invitations at the Prague Summit.

Brussels celebration: (Left to right) The Czech and Polish prime ministers, then NATO Secretary General and Hungarian prime minister celebrate the accession of the three former Warsaw Pact members to NATO (© Benoit Doppagne/Reuters)

As NATO's Prague Summit approaches, the debate on the future of the Alliance, its growth, and influence in the world is intensifying. Before any decisions are taken, it is worth examining the concerns that confronted NATO in the years preceding the Madrid Summit, the event at which the historic decision was taken to invite former members of the Warsaw Pact to join, as well as the experiences of the three new Allies, both as candidates and members. Is, for example, Europe more secure today as a result of the 1999 round of NATO enlargement? Has the Alliance been strengthened or weakened by the admission of new states? And were the many fears about possible negative consequences of that historic step justified?

Although the overall assessment of their membership in NATO has unquestionably been positive, the years since the Madrid Summit have, in many respects, not been easy for the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Financial difficulties, an economic slowdown in their main trading partners and the NATO campaign in Kosovo have tested their pledge to be net "producers", rather than "consumers" of security, as well as their reliability as Alliance members. Moreover, the legacy of more than four decades of communist rule has been difficult to overcome.

When in 1990, NATO extended a "hand of friendship" to its former Warsaw Pact adversaries, few analysts could have envisaged that within seven years three of these countries would be invited to join the Alliance. In addition to the many political hurdles that had to be surmounted, these countries had armed forces that were militarily incompatible with those of NATO members. Indeed, the adaptation of prospective members' military capabilities and defence policies to NATO standards seemed likely to take decades. After all, it was a decade or so before the German and, later, Spanish militaries could integrate fully with Allied armed forces after their admission to NATO.

In the event, the political hurdles turned out to be only a relatively minor obstacle in view of the resolve and tenacity of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to build a democratic system of government, market economy and society based on the rule of law. Reforming the militaries of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland has proved a far greater task as a result of the legacy of Soviet structures, doctrine and mindset. However, despite many technical and procedural incompatibilities, which still existed at the moment of entry, the three new members have managed to operate within NATO's integrated military structures.

The key to getting the militaries of the three new members up to the maximum basic level of interoperability with Alliance armed forces was the Partnership for Peace programme. Although initially interpreted by the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as a mechanism enabling unenthusiastic NATO members to postpone a decision on their early admission to the Alliance, it proved an extremely effective way gradually to build professional bonds, to harmonise standards and procedures, and to transform the technical and organisational incompatibilities into functioning systems. Once the militaries of the three candidate countries recognised the Partnership for Peace as the practical road towards NATO membership, they became its unequivocal proponents.

Military reform

In retrospect, however, it is clear that the Partnership for Peace and, later, the Planning and Review Process (PARP) - a process which lays out detailed interoperability and capability requirements for participants and reviews progress towards meeting them - contributed only a fraction of the assistance needed to complete the reform of former Warsaw Pact militaries to bring them up to the standards needed to meet future security requirements. The task of implementing reforms turned out to be a much greater challenge than anticipated. Defence budgets were too small, defence planning and programming lacking, force preparedness and weapons systems poor, the technological gap huge, and the capacity to field enough personnel for operating within Allied structures insufficient.

In fact, the technical and structural transformation of the three new members' defence systems proved the lesser of two major problems, irrespective of the issue of resources. Much more serious were changes of a political and systemic character, such as introducing effective democratic civilian control of the armed forces. Early difficulties in this respect were due, on the one hand, to opposition from the military, fearful of losing its decisive voice in matters of strategy, budgets, procurement and personnel, and, on the other, the lack of suitably qualified civilians.

The painful experience of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in the field of military reform contributed to the development within NATO of the Membership Action Plan (MAP), a programme to prepare the next candidate countries for possible Alliance membership. The MAP is a more robust mechanism than either the Partnership for Peace or PARP and gives NATO a means to assess the performance of the candidates and participating nations more insight into the demands of future membership. Though it does not directly help resolve all issues of building the military capabilities required, the MAP certainly creates better opportunities to prepare for the challenges ahead.

The cost of enlargement to the Alliance was a key issue in the run-up to the Madrid Summit. Early estimates in the tens of billions of dollars proved excessively high as they had been based on calculations shaped by a Cold War mindset and scenarios. NATO has, in fact, coped relatively easily with the additional financial burden. That said, the new members have struggled to meet the financial obligations of membership. While all three countries drew up comprehensive programmes for modernising and restructuring their armed forces before joining the Alliance, these plans did not reflect the real complexities of the fundamental reform needed. Further, they were based on predictions of economic growth, which turned out to be optimistic. The economic slowdown made it difficult to maintain the desired levels of defence expenditure.

The task of implementing military reforms turned out to be a much greater challenge than anticipated

In spite of a parliamentary declaration urging the government to raise military spending to three per cent of GDP, Poland has failed to increase the resources allocated to defence. Hungary too has failed to live up to its promise, given during the enlargement negotiations, to raise military spending by 0.1 per cent a year. Moreover, in both the Czech Republic and Hungary, force reductions undertaken in the hope of saving resources for upgrading technical systems were insufficient. Additional funds are needed over a long period to achieve these goals and many planned projects have had to be postponed. To keep up with their obligations under NATO's force goals and readiness standards, an increasingly wide gap is opening within the armed forces of all three new members between rapid-reaction frontline units, with relatively high standards of weapons and readiness, and second-tier forces, with older equipment, less training and lower morale. Fulfilment of obligations under the jointly approved force goals has only been achieved with some pain, indicating that the goals had been set without proper appreciation of the resources required.

A key lesson, which has been learned the hard way in all three new member countries, is that decisions on defence funding must be politically sustainable in the long term and that this requires a broad social and political consensus. Even in Poland, where the armed forces are held in high popular regard and public support for NATO membership has been unshakeable throughout the past decade, this has not translated into comparable support for an increase in defence spending, which has, nevertheless, remained stable at just over two per cent of GDP. Defence modernisation plans require greater expenditure or more drastic restructuring. However, the benign security environment, on the one hand, and the challenges posed by preparations for integration with the European Union, on the other, make it difficult to garner support for increased defence spending. Drastic restructuring, on the other hand, is hindered by institutional resistance and also by uncertainty as to how armed forces should be restructured and what priorities should be set. This is not only a problem for the new members. Many long-standing members as well as the new aspirants face similar difficulties.

Kosovo campaign

The threat to stability in Southeastern Europe posed by violence in Kosovo confronted both the Alliance as a whole and the new members in particular with an immense challenge. The politically controversial decision to intervene required a high degree of cohesion and consensus-building, which many analysts expected to be more difficult as a result of the admission of three new members. In the event, however, this was not the case and it proved as easy to make the decision to intervene at 19 as it would have been at 16. The new members, nevertheless, immediately had their pledges of loyalty put to the test and were called upon to demonstrate a practical appreciation of the Alliance's values that they had accepted in theory during the negotiations and preparation for membership.

Making the decision to intervene in Kosovo was not easy for the new members. All three countries had a history of good relations with Yugoslavia in general and a friendly disposition towards Serbia in particular. Moreover, Hungary was particularly worried about the possibility of reprisals against the ethnic Hungarian minority over the border in Yugoslavia. Public opinion, especially in the Czech Republic, was not entirely convinced of the rationale for military action. None of their forces had expected to be called to duty so soon and all were reluctant to take on the additional financial burden. These concerns and others were, however, openly discussed before the North Atlantic Council took its decision to launch the operation based on the need to preserve regional stability and the urgency of the humanitarian situation. Critically, the new members rose to meet this first and most difficult test and all three countries participated in the campaign and follow-on peacekeeping mission.

While concerns expressed prior to the Madrid Summit about the potential negative consequences of enlargement on the cohesion and effectiveness of the Alliance proved unfounded, this may not always be the case. Should a large group of countries join the Alliance, its mechanisms of consensus-building may be put under unbearable strain and break down or, at the least, be weakened. This concern, like the earlier one, may also be proven unjustified. After all, the support and cooperation of countries like Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* during the Kosovo operation, which often required resolute political decision-making and a strong sense of affinity with the Alliance's goals, was exemplary. Nevertheless, the issue must be addressed before invitations are tendered. The issue of numbers alone may on this occasion be the main problem, creating an administrative, rather than a political, overload.

Relations with Russia

Among the host of complexities of the enlargement debate of the 1990s, the issue of relations with Russia was one of the most intractable. Although Russia had no direct say in or power of veto over the decision, the country was seen then and is treated now as an indispensable partner in building and maintaining security in the Euro-Atlantic area. While enlargement was never in any way directed against Russia and was not seen by either the Alliance or by the three candidate countries as an obstacle to friendly relations, such reasoning was not shared in Moscow. Great-power instincts and a long tradition of dominating the neighbourhood made it painful to see former allies shape independent destinies. Intransigence backed Russia into a political corner, from which the only way to influence events was by becoming a problem, as, for example, during the negotiations on the Founding Act of 1997. Moreover, misperceptions and suspicions were aggravated further by the Kosovo campaign.

In the eyes of the candidate countries, especially in Poland, Russian policy in the late 1990s was designed to preserve a special droit de regard in Eastern Europe and to spoil the value of enlargement by enforcing second-class membership on the new entrants, undermining their Article 5 security guaranties. If this was indeed Russia's intent, it failed. NATO, for its part, did as much as it could to assure Russia of its benign intentions without negating its obligations towards the three new partners by adopting a careful policy of confidence-building, embodied in the decision not to station Alliance forces and nuclear weapons on the territory of the new members.

The experience of the past three years and of cooperation in building peace in the former Yugoslavia have persuaded many in Russia that they can live with an enlarged NATO. This is reflected in, for example, the recent improvement in Russian relations with Poland. After close to a decade of mutual suspicion, Russia and Poland have put their bilateral relationship on a new equitable and mutually beneficial footing. Indeed, in contrast to earlier predictions, membership of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in NATO has not caused any deterioration in relations between these countries and Russia.

While Moscow remains unconvinced of the arguments in favour of NATO enlargement, further membership invitations are no longer perceived as being so great a threat or as so detrimental to Russia's interests. As a result, the Russian factor is receding as an obstacle to the next round of Alliance enlargement. This development and the experience of the first three countries to join NATO in the post-Cold War period should facilitate decision-making in Prague and enable the Allies to open the benefits of Alliance membership to many more candidate countries.

* Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.

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