4.03.2008 | Has NATO lost its way?

Uneasy alliance? After today's meeting, NATO's path from West to East seems less certain. To those less in the know, NATO stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (you might be forgiven for not knowing it exists). The image above is based on the organization's flag, a white four-point compass on a blue field.

It's a question that's stayed in my mind — and indeed many others — since the end of the Cold War. With the threat of Soviet domination gone, why do we need a transatlantic military alliance? To many, the answer is obvious, and they are not necessarily wrong in thinking so: the new global, non-state threat of radical Islamic terrorism has replaced the old totalitarian Soviet bloc.

But as today's meeting of the 60-year-old alliance revealed, there is a larger question at stake in the future of NATO. Though its members are generally supportive of combating terrorism (France has committed new troops to Afghanistan, par exemple), they are less certain about expanding the membership of NATO eastward. In his attempt to bring the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine into the fold, President Bush ran into resistance from France and Germany, who wanted to avoid antagonizing Russia.

“Georgia's and Ukraine's membership in the alliance is a huge strategic mistake which would have most serious consequences for pan-European security.”

Alexander Grushko, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister

While Albania and Croatia were extended formal invitations — the former of which should be eyebrow-raising as Serbia chafes over the recent independence declaration by majority-Albanian Kosovo — Georgia and Ukraine were put on hold for now, (though they have been promised closer relations of some kind). The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was rejected outright after objections from Greece, who chafed at posters recently on display in Macedonia's capital depicting Greeks as Nazis.

Combined with U.S. plans to install a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe (which NATO backed at the meeting), Russia's skittishness about an American military alliance reaching into its sphere of influence should be understood. It may even be just a point of pride, as former Warsaw Pact members (NATO's old Soviet equivalent) fall away from the old Soviet influence and embrace the West (Bush has been particularly keen to reward Eastern European allies for their participation in Iraq). Perhaps not coincidentally, today's meeting was held in the capital of Romania, a former Warsaw Pact member.

“The Cold War is over and Russia is not our enemy.”

— U.S. President George W. Bush

But as NATO invites each new member into the fold, it invites new possibilities for military intervention in the future — each member of the alliance is pledged to defend the other in the event of an attack. I can't help but recall how the world wars showed us how entangled alliances can be troublesome — something that couldn't have been far from France's and Germany's national memories as they raised their objections.

While it is admirable to seek to bridge the gap that was carved between Europe's East and West during the Cold War, Macedonia, Georgia and Albania each have their own simmering disputes and political baggage to carry with them. As NATO seeks to expand, it should tread carefully, and watch out for the Russian bear in the woods.

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