NATO does the splits

4 April 2008

NATO does the splits

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is doing the splits. US President George W.Bush wants to use the NATO Summit in Bucharest to bring the future membership of Ukraine and Georgia a step nearer. Russian President Vladimir Putin wants, on the other hand, to make it clear that he sees nothing to attract him to a more complete encircling of his country by the Atlantic alliance. Revival of the American-Russian conflict is particularly bad for De Hoop Scheffer, now that NATO is, in his view, in urgent pursuit of a new Atlantic Charter, a new strategic concept and a better relationship with Russia.

by Harry van Bommel, MP and Senator Tiny Kox, respectively members of the lower and upper houses of the Dutch national parliament and members of the Dutch delegation in NATO's parliamentary assembly.

Two years ago Ben Bot, at the time Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs, told the country's Senate that he was not ready to think about a new Atlantic Charter or a new strategic concept. NATO could continue quite well with the 1949 Treaty of Washington and the 1999 Strategic Concept.

Not any more, says De Hoop Scheffer. Times have changed. So he wants to see, in 2009, as he takes his leave of NATO and the organisation celebrates its sixtieth anniversary, a new Atlantic Charter under discussion, followed a year later by a new Strategic Concept. This he explained to the Brussels Forum on 15th March, and he will repeat it in Bucharest.

He gives four reasons why a new Charter and a new strategy are needed. Firstly, the existing concept is outdated, after 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan. Secondly, a new concept is needed in order to explain to the public what NATO is, what it is becoming and why it remains necessary to the security of the populations of its member states. Thirdly, the American Presidential elections will produce a new President and therefore a fresh chance for renewal. And fourthly, the burden which NATO carries is heavier than ever and for this reason a clearer strategic vision, clearer priorities and a clearer sense of what resources will be necessary are indispensable.

While De Hoop Scheffer is aware that NATO must define its place in a new global security architecture, President Bush wants to persist with the old NATO, guided by the United States. Bush is supported by most eastern European government leaders, which still see Russia as presenting the biggest threat. But various western European government leaders are on this occasion not inclined to follow Bush. They see a need for new global security arrangements, in which Russia takes its place as a partner rather than an opponent. What the Netherlands will do is not yet clear. Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen has said in Parliament that he is against the proposed enlargement of NATO to the east, but appears unwilling to take a stand on this point in Bucharest.

The Netherlands has thus far in general adopted a wait-and-see attitude as far as NATO's future goes, or the development of a new global architecture of security. This is not good. The old NATO has outlived its purpose and appears to have lost its sense of direction. The alliance almost tore itself apart over the invasion of Iraq by American and British forces and is now once again divided over the war in Afghanistan. The Americans want a more combative approach, more military personnel and more powers, while the Germans want a scaling down of the war, more reconstruction, and a greater role for the United Nations.

The Netherlands must not duck these questions but rather contribute to the thinking as to how we can better preserve and defend peace, security and prosperity on a global scale in a time in which we can see looming so great a potential for crisis and conflict: changing political and economic power relations, increasing competition over energy, a threat to food and water supplies, climate change, terrorism. Ever more people are becoming urgently aware that these problems are not to be resolved under the existing political and military arrangements. The world has a need for different and better agreements and alliances. NATO as it is now will not suffice, and an ever bigger NATO will be seen as more threatening than helpful. The need for global cooperation and new global security arrangements is stronger than ever. The repeated call of De Hoop Scheffer before the NATO parliamentary assembly, for a broad public and parliamentary debate, in every member state, over the future organisation of NATO is therefore extremely intelligent. Let's hope that Maxime Verhagen will also now quickly grasp this. Time is pressing.

This article first appeared in the Dutch national newspaper NRC Handelsblad, 2 April 2008

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