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Reality check

Tomas Valasek examines evolving attitudes to collective defence at NATO from the perspective of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Air strike : The prospect of intervention in the Balkans was far removed from the candidate countries original analysis of what NATO membership involved (© US Navy)

We may never know if the dignitaries assembled in the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, on 12 March 1999 for ceremonies marking NATO's enlargement had war on their minds. But war was what came only 12 days later. Though NATO had won the Cold War without firing a shot, the Alliance was about to wage its second air campaign in less than four years. What was remarkable about the Kosovo War that broke out on 24 March was not the fact that it broke out or where it took place, but the contrast between the accession ceremony in Missouri and reality in Kosovo.

The three new Allies - the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - welcomed on 12 March had little interest in intervening militarily in the Balkans. Their yearning for NATO membership had far more to do with feelings of historical injustice; concerns about internal insecurity; and fear of Russia to the east. Yet by the spring of 1999, the Alliance's main area of operations was firmly in Europe's south, not east, and NATO had human rights on its mind, not collective defence. The Kosovo War was, by any interpretation, a move in a very different direction from that which the new members had expected when they applied to join the Alliance. On the surface, history's cruel irony seemed to be toying with Central and Eastern Europe again. Instead of providing shelter for the new members, NATO was calling them to arms for a cause about which they were less than enthusiastic.

It would, nevertheless, be wrong to see NATO as a disappointment to its Central and Eastern European members. The post-Cold War history of NATO consists of two phases and, in many ways, two different alliances. The first phase, the "Balkan" years during the 1990s, strained the Alliance along the lines of new and old members, with the former preferring NATO to focus on its collective-defence duties and the latter expanding into new missions. However, the terrorist attacks on the United States of 11 September 2001 prompted so sweeping a rethink of NATO's purpose that five years later, few of the original dividing lines remain.

NATO's appeal

Each of the three countries that joined NATO in 1999 had its own reasons for seeking Alliance membership but the basic ingredients were the same. All of Central and Eastern Europe shared a feeling of historical injustice, a sense that through no fault of their own, two post-Second World War generations had been robbed of basic freedoms and opportunities. NATO membership could never return what had been taken away. It would, however, symbolically restore half the continent to its rightful place among free and democratic countries.

NATO was also seen as a buffer from internal strife. In 1999, a relatively short ten years separated the then-candidate countries from communism. The first years of freedom were also turbulent, and stability in the mid-1990s came only slowly. To Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, the fate of Slovakia served as a warning that communism may not necessarily be replaced with democracy. Slovakia's first post-independence government turned out to be corrupt and bent on persecuting its political opponents. While these are not issues that NATO deals with per se, membership in the Alliance did help curb potential and real anti-democratic excesses. The NATO accession process set the political framework within which the aspiring members were to operate. To the then-candidate countries, the threat of being dropped from NATO's membership list served as a powerful incentive to remain within bounds.

And lastly, there was Russia. None of the Central and Eastern European countries had an easy transition from communism, but Russia seemed to have a more difficult time than others. And while none of the former communist states was entirely secure from the possibility of a relapse to totalitarianism, Russia's political difficulties made it, in the eyes of the NATO candidate countries, a potentially dangerous neighbour. These fears were not in the least quelled by Moscow's inability or unwillingness to resolve outstanding border issues with the Baltic states. This is where NATO's original mission came into the enlargement debate. Once in NATO, the candidate countries concluded, Article 5 would deter any potential difficulties from the Russian side.

This, in a nutshell, was the thought process leading up to the 12 March accession ceremony. To the new member states, the Alliance stood as a crowning symbol of new-found freedom, as a calming influence against domestic strife, and as a friendly yet sufficiently high wall against instability in the east. Membership came several years later than originally expected. However, after much waiting and preparation, the accession papers were duly signed and the three new flags were moved from the anteroom to fly alongside those of the 16 existing members.

Needless to say, the prospect of intervention in the Balkans was far removed from the candidate countries' original analysis of what NATO membership involved. While there was a logical link between enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe and enforcing and keeping peace in the Balkans - both were meant, in the long run, to produce a stable and peaceful Europe - the demands of the Kosovo campaign and NATO's focus on Southeastern Europe were harder to appreciate in countries that only recently escaped communism and saw in the Alliance peace of mind for themselves. There was, in the contrast between the events of 12 March and 24 March, the irony of a marathon runner crossing the finish line only to discover that he must help the organisers move their heavy equipment to another race.

If the candidate countries were disappointed by the turn of events, they managed to conceal their emotions. NATO's "one for all, all for one" approach to security was one from which candidate countries stood to benefit more than others, and as such, they went along with the campaign. But there was also definite tension. Public support for the Kosovo War was at its lowest among the new members. The governments of the three new Allies found themselves on the defensive, explaining to their respective publics why an alliance that was meant to bring peace to them was now bombing Belgrade in their name - a devilishly difficult concept to defend even if the logic of bringing peace to Europe's periphery made long-term sense to most in Central and Eastern Europe.

Impact of 9/11

By 2001, views in Central and Eastern Europe had evolved. Time and progress made the prospect of domestic instability more distant. Even Slovakia turned from the black sheep of Central and Eastern Europe into an economic tiger, and Russia's domestic weakness made it less feared among its neighbours. As some of the original risks to Central and Eastern Europe receded, so too did the new members' and candidate countries' demand for NATO's collective-defence role. The gap between new and old members was gradually narrowing.

Most remaining differences vanished in one fell swoop on 11 September 2001. The attacks on New York and Washington were an equally redefining event for both new and old Allies. If until 2001 the two sides were divided by their focus on traditional versus new missions - Article 5 versus "responsibility-to-protect" operations - the potential of a catastrophic terrorist strike was one that they had both underrated.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 brought collective defence back to the forefront and centre of Allies' minds. The urgency of the threat was clear, as was, for the most part, its definition. Allies agreed that terrorism was not a conventional threat; that it was more often than not driven by groups and individuals, not governments; and that it may not be defeated by traditional means such as deterrence. Moreover, if viewed in conjunction with the threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the consequences were potentially catastrophic. But the post-9/11 consensus within NATO had its limits. It covered the diagnosis but not the cure. Exactly how to combat the prospect of cataclysmic terrorism is a question to which different Allies will give different answers.

One of the consequences of 9/11 has been the creation of new dividing lines within NATO. The contours of these lines are very different from the "new" and "old" divisions of the 1990s. The new lines wind and bend on the question of force: under what circumstances should it be used; how much international support is required for its use; and what should be done when the bombs stop falling. Today's debates have produced very different divisions from those shaped by NATO's interventions in the Balkans. Moreover, they have been sufficiently deep to undermine Allied cohesion over Iraq. Indeed, in the second Iraq War, one of NATO's newest Allies, Poland, fought alongside the United States while many of the original members stayed out. Others went in with the US-led coalition but changed course later when public support and, in some cases, governments fell.

Today's lines of partition are fluid. In addition to the questions of force, they are shaped by views of the United States. Washington initiated the action in Iraq and has taken the most assertive view on the use of force. That this would create controversy and divisions within NATO was inevitable. That some of the responses have been coloured by emotional attitudes towards the United States as such is regrettable. But a competition between a Eurocentric and a Euro-Atlantic perspective - one driven in large part by differing views about the role of the United States in Europe - is a part of Allied discourse today.

Seven years and another round of enlargement on, NATO has moved a long way since the accession ceremony in Independence, Missouri. The simplicity of the collective-defence versus "responsibility-to-protect" debate is a thing of the past. The Alliance is back in the business of collective defence but divided over what exactly this means in practice. We agree that we are far less secure than we thought we were in the 1990s but disagree on how to protect ourselves or, for that matter, through which organisation. NATO's pre-eminent position can no longer be taken for granted. Several Allies would probably prefer to limit the Alliance's role in dealing with new threats and expand that of the European Union.

Divisions may yet narrow as we absorb the lessons of both Iraq concerning the limits of force and Iran concerning the limits of diplomacy. Whether NATO returns to its undisputed position as Europe's central provider of security will also depend on how well it integrates the European Union in its midst. The progress made by the European Union towards defence integration is real, and will have to be reflected in NATO's daily life. However this relationship evolves, the Central and Eastern European Allies, either already members of the European Union or just about to join, will be sure to contribute their views to the debate. They will no longer do this as a unified camp but as parts of various and evolving associations within the Alliance.

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