The Bucharest Summit: NATO’s Curious „Transformation“

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In the run-up to the April 2-4 NATO summit in Bucharest there was some talk, particularly in some “progressive” media, that this gathering would mark another dangerous step towards “military confrontation with Russia”, the “militarisation of the European Union,” or even an adoption of the American “preventive nuclear war” doctrine (NSS-2001) as “NATO doctrine.”

Letter from the Rhine, April 8, 2008
by Michael Liebig


However, the Bucharest NATO summit turned out to be something different:

  • 1. Russian President Vladimir Putin came to the Bucharest summit, and thereafter held a rather constructive meeting with George W. Bush in the Black Sea resort Sochi.
  • 2. Ukraine and Georgia were not given “green light” for an early entry into NATO.
  • 3. In respect to Afghanistan, there are first indications that an “exit strategy” is being initiated for the NATO deployment there.
  • 4. No substantial change in relations between NATO and the EU has occurred.

The Strategic Context

Before we look at these four points more closely, let us not overlook the strategic context of the NATO summit, which is not so much dominated by diplomatic brawls or geopolitical conflict zones. Instead, it is the US-centered financial-economic crisis that is currently shaping the international strategic situation. The fact that most “security experts” are missing this point, is a different matter. Britain sided with Germany and France against the USA in halting a fast-track entry of Ukraine into NATO. Wondering why British Prime Minister Gordon Brown acted the way he did, the London Independent noted, “Mr. Brown’s preoccupation remains, however, the world banking crisis which is casting a shadow over every aspect of the NATO summit.”

Whatever George W. Bush has been doing lately in terms of geopolitical-diplomatic pin-pricks against real or imaginary foes (and friends), he will be out of office soon. His legacy will be disastrous, irrespective of what he will do or not do during his final months in office. Therefore everyone’s real preoccupation is trying to figure out what will be US policy after Bush.

A few days ahead of the Bucharest NATO summit there was a most unusual gathering in Athens, organized by the Southern Center for International Studies in Atlanta and the University of Georgia’s School of Law’s Dean Rusk Center. Sitting at the podium were former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, James Baker III, Warren Christopher, Madelaine Albright and Colin Powell. There were of course differences among them about what the next US President should do, but there was a remarkable consensus that America’s foreign policy priorities will have to be:

  • Rebuild the United States’ devastated international reputation
  • Close down the Guantanamo prison
  • Significantly reduce the US troop presence in Iraq
  • Initiate direct negotiations with Iran
  • Recognition of the fact that there is no “military solution” for Afghanistan
  • Push for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, including talks with Hamas
  • Do not treat China as a military adversary
  • Deal firmly but constructively with Russia

I think, in many ways the Bucharest NATO summit echoed this “post-Bush” consensus in the US foreign policy establishment. And former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld probably smelled it when he told bloomberg.com in his own characteristic fashion that “the [NATO] alliance risks flirting with irrelevance in the 21st century.”

The Issue of Ukraine

Before the Bucharest NATO summit, President Bush had gone to Kiev where he loudly proclaimed that Ukraine should rapidly join NATO. Said Bush: “NATO should welcome Georgia and Ukraine into the membership action plan.” The latter with the initials MAP means a “fast-track” entry procedure. Ukraine ist ruled by a rather shaky “orange” coalition of President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, which is pushing for an early entry of Ukraine into NATO. This is opposed by the “blue” opposition under former Prime Minister Yukanovich, which lost the national elections last year by a small margin. A 2/3 majority of the Ukrainian population is against Ukraine joining NATO. And, of course, Russia is vehemently opposed to NATO’s eastern borders being just 250 km away from Volgograd, the former Stalingrad. The current Ukrainian government’s desire to join NATO is backed, within NATO, not only by the USA and Canada, but most of the new East European NATO members, most outspokenly Poland and the Baltic states. But, some Eastern European countries, notably Hungary and also Slovakia, have expressed reservations on Ukraine joining NATO.

The majority of the “old” NATO members do not want Ukraine to join NATO in the forseeable future, which means that they don’t want the MAP procedure initiated for Ukraine. Among them are Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium – and even Britain. They say, Ukraine could join “in principle,” and then the “buts” are added.

On March 4, German Foreign Minister Steinmeier called Ukraine a “key country,” and Germany welcomes her “coming closer” to the European Union and to NATO. “But this process must not undermine our efforts for an all-European order of peace. Hasty decisions help no one, including Ukraine herself, where the majority of the population is sceptical about this [NATO] question. Conditions need to be created which allow a further rapprochement, without ripping open new conflict lines.”

On March 8, German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian President Putin and newly elected President Dimitri Medvedev (She was the first foreign head of government to do so). At a joint press conference with Putin, Merkel said that the precondition for Ukraine’s entry into NATO would be: a) that the majority of the Ukrainian people, not just the political class (itself deeply divided on this issue) supports joining NATO, and b) that Ukraine would be “free of conflicts.”

The latter condition refers to the unresolved issue of “Transnistria”, a strip of land east of the river Dniester at the border between Ukraine and Moldava, which de jure belongs to Moldava, but declared its “independence” in l991. The majority of the population in “Transnistria” is ethnically Russian and Ukrainian, while Moldava it is ethnically Romanian. “Transnistria” is a “frozen conflict” with a Russian-supervised ceasefire regime, which ended the armed conflict with Moldava in 1992.

Another potential point of conflict is the Russian naval base of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula, where most people speak Russian, not Ukrainian. This home base of the Russian Black Sea fleet has been leased by Russia from Ukraine until 2017.

But the most serious conflict potential would be the reaction in the Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine to a NATO entry. It cannot be ruled out that, with the covert or not so covert backing of Russia, Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine may separate from Western-Central Ukraine in one form or another. One can only speculate on scenarios, but Ukraine joining NATO will certainly create an incalcuable situation within Ukraine itself.

Of course, “frozen conflicts” are even more an issue in Georgia. On Georgia’s de jure state territory, there are two “entities” which the government in Tblisi does not control: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In both entities there is a ceasefire regime, supervised by Russian troops. Both entities want to join the neighboring Russian Federation. Russia has alluded, in respect to “independence” of Kosovo, to the possibility of her recognizing the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. One can easily imagine what these “frozen conflicts” could transform into, were Georgia to become a NATO member. In a cogent comment on the NATO summit, American conservative political figure, Patrick Buchannan, asked: “Should we fight for South Ossetia? … Can any sane man believe the United States should go to war with a nuclear-armed Russia over Stalin’s birthpalce, Georgia?”

At the Bucharest summit, German Foreign Minister Steinmeier said, in private, that the West’s diplomatic recognition of Kosovo meant the “limit” of what the West’s relations with Russia could endure without risking to do truly severe damage. And this view is the consensus in Western Europe. And therefore, Ukraine – and Georgia – were not granted the MAP procedure for joining NATO. The diplomatic formula in Bucharest, for the sake of Bush and Polish President Kaczynski, that, in principle − or “some day”, as the Frankfurter Allgmeine put it – Ukraine and Georgia can join NATO. The issue would “reviewed” at future NATO foreign minister meetings.

Afghanistan “Exit Strategy”

On April 4, the German weekly Der Spiegel carried an article, titled Does NATO want to leave Afghanistan? The magazine reported that a top-secret paper was circulating at the Bucharest summit that “may represent the beginnings of an exit strategy” from Afganistan. The paper was produced on Germany’s initiative and with major input by her. Der Spiegel reported that the paper contains no specific date for withdrawal, but sets “benchmarks” for the Afghan government, for generating – with the help of NATO – self-sustained administative, military and security structures allowing a phased withdrawal of NATO troops.

In the media coverage of the Bucharest summit much attention has been given to French President Sarkozy’s commitment to send an additional battalion to Afghanistan. But much more important is the summit comunique’s emphasis on an integrated military-civilian appoach. It can be assumed that other NATO allies in Afghanistan have meanwhile recognized why Northern Afghanistan is more stable and secure than the South: In the North, under German security stewardship, an integrated military-civilian appoach has been practized for some time. Germany has understood since long that there will be no “military solution,” which is what the Unites States have tried to achieve since 2001 – without success.

I think it is quite remarkable, and indicative for future directionality of NATO’s Afghan deployment, that Henry Kissinger states: “I must tell you frankly, I don’t know exactly what to do in Afghanistan, except to tell you I don’t believe it’s possible to democratize Afghanistan through a military operation.” He said so at the above-mentioned conference in Athens on March 27.

Russia knows that NATO’s strategy in Afghanistan is changing indeed. I think that Russia’s decision to allow the transportation of NATO’s logistical supplies via the Russian railway system to Afghanistan, which was formalized at the Bucharest summit, is indicative for this. It should be noted that German military supplies to Afghanistan have gone through Russia already for several years.

Beyond Bucharest

The Bucharest summit has – again – confirmed that France is persuing a policy of rapprochement towards NATO. This policy was no invented by President Sarkozy, but has been emerging for several years. It is based on a rather pragmatic calculation: The duplication or substitution of NATO’s existing military capabilities and organisational structures by the EU member states is simply too costly – financially as well as politically. Therefore the leading EU countries have adopted a “synergetic” approach: A kind of “cross-utilisation” of military capabilities and structures between the EU and NATO. And in that sense, no changes in relations between NATO and the EU have been decided at the Bucharest summit.

The next NATO summit will be held in 2009 in Strasbourg, France and Kehl, the neighboring German town on the other side of the river Rhine. This choice is, of course, symbolic. France’s rapprochement to NATO comes at time when the internal balance within NATO is shifting. NATO is no longer a simple extension of America’s imperial power projection, unilaterally instrumentalizing her European “junior partners”. I think not only the Russians have understood this.

The Bush-Putin summit in Sochi, right after Bucharest, has demonstrated that both the USA and Russia do nt want (and cannot afford) Cold War-type confrontation against each other. The main point of contention between the two powers remains the planned US anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. But, the most likely options for the fate of the BMD project are: a) The next US President and Congress will quietly bury it for financial and political-strategic reasons; or b) the BMD system will be transformed into a joint venture of the USA, NATO, the EU and Russia. In the meantime, as Putin stated in Sochi, “a package of confidence-building and transparency measures” can be “important and useful in helping to resolve problems of this sort. In other words, an avenue for working together has opened up now and we are ready to take it … I am cautiously optimistic about our ability to reach a final agreement.”

Indeed, the next US president will face such a barrage of truly existencial problems, that it seems quite unlikely that he or she would want to waste further political and financial resources on this BMD project. The Bucharest summit has shown that NATO is indeed being “tranformed,” but in ways that are rather different from what was generally assumed only a short while ago

The assertion quoted in the introduction was derived from a study titled Towards a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World: Renewing the Transatlantic Partnership, written by the former Chiefs of Staff Shalikashvili (USA), Lord Inge (UK), Naumann (Germany), Lanxade (France) and van den Breemen (Netherlands), and published by the private Dutch Noaber Foundation.

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