NATO's True Mission
Op-Ed, New York Times
October 21, 1997
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Preventive Defense Project
Fifty years ago Secretary of State George Marshall called upon the people of the United States to contribute to the building of a new Europe ''united in freedom, peace, and prosperity.'' Succeeding generations of Americans rallied in support of Marshall's vision, electing leaders who were committed to fostering and maintaining the strongest possible ties between America and Europe's democracies, both old and new.
The most important expression of this commitment has been the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And, we believe, NATO still has that central responsibility even though the political and military circumstances that prevail in Europe have changed.
It is true that the alliance has achieved its original military mission, having deterred attack from the Warsaw Pact. But that was never its only role. It was given that task in the context of General Marshall's much larger vision -- of a democratic Europe committed to working together instead of against itself, with the unflagging involvement of the United States as the ultimate guarantor of that spirit of cooperation.
The United States must continue to play this role as democratic Europe itself enlarges, and this is why a Senate vote against enlargement of NATO would be a major mistake.
But it is also time to move beyond the enlargement debate. Adding new members is not the only, or even the most important, debate over the alliance's future. A much larger issue looms: What is the alliance's purpose?
The alliance needs to adapt its military strategy to today's reality: the danger to the security of its members is not primarily potential aggression to their collective territory, but threats to their collective interests beyond their territory. Shifting the alliance's emphasis from defense of members' territory to defense of common interests is the strategic imperative.
These threats include the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, disruption of the flow of oil, terrorism, genocidal violence and wars of aggression in other regions that threaten to create great disruption.
To deal with such threats, alliance members need to have a way to rapidly form military coalitions that can accomplish goals beyond NATO territory. This concept is not new. Such a ''coalition of the willing'' made up the Implementation Force in Bosnia under alliance command and control, and another made up the war-fighting force in Desert Storm, which drew heavily on alliance training and procedures.
Such coalitions will include some -- but not necessarily all -- NATO members, and will generally include non-members from the Partnership for Peace program, the alliance's program of training the militaries of the former Warsaw Pact. In both the Persian Gulf war and in Bosnia, the coalitions did not include NATO members alone. So the distinction between full membership and partnership promises to be less important in the alliance of the future.
The decision to use the alliance's forces beyond NATO territory would require a unanimous decision of its members, including the United States. That is the answer to those who fear that such troops might be deployed imprudently on far-flung missions to other continents.
Defense of members' territory would remain a solemn commitment of the Allies, of course. But such territory is not now threatened, nor is it likely to be in the foreseeable future.
What should NATO do with, and about, the Russians? An evolution in the alliance's focus and forces from defense of territory to defense of common interests would signal to Russian skeptics that NATO had moved beyond its original purpose of containing Moscow. Moreover, Russian military leaders can well understand the alliance's shift from the large static deployments of the cold war to smaller, more mobile forces. They are trying to do the same in their own program of military reform. They have a strong incentive to carry out such reforms in cooperation with other partners.
The NATO-Russia Founding Act, which provides the framework for the new alliance and the new Russia to work together, is an important step toward forging a productive relationship between the two. Putting the act's political provisions into practice will require responsible actions on both sides. But the Founding Act's military provisions are less problematic and more important. They offer tangible benefits to both sides in the short and long term.
The objective of these provisions should be permanent, institutionalized military relationships modeled on those forged in Bosnia, where NATO and Russian soldiers have served shoulder to shoulder. As has happened before in the alliance, such cooperation changes attitudes by creating shared positive experiences to supplant the memory of dedicated antagonism. It also engages a critical constituency in the formation of the new Eurasian security order: the Russian military. Practical cooperation dealing with real-world problems of mutual concern is more important than meetings and councils.
And what should the alliance do about other countries seeking admission? It should remain open to membership to all states of the Partnership for Peace, subject to their ability to meet the stringent requirements for admission. But no additional members should be designated for admission until the three countries now in the NATO queue are fully prepared to bear the responsibilities of membership and have been fully integrated into the alliance military and political structures.
What about the alliance's relations with other non-member states? The security concerns of most countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union will be addressed outside the context of NATO membership. But the alliance and the United States must play a crucial role. Partnership for Peace should receive attention comparable to that accorded to enlargement. In particular, the partnership should receive substantially more financing from alliance members. Partnership for Peace countries should be as capable of working with NATO as NATO members are.
The alliance must also devote time, attention and resources to its relations with Ukraine, now formalized through the NATO-Ukraine Charter, and continue its strong support of regional military cooperation among partnership members.
We well understand that some of the ideas we are advancing go beyond tradition. But to resist change because change entails risk is not only short-sighted but also dangerous.
One thing is clear. Neither the American public nor the citizenry of its allies will continue to support an alliance -- enlarged or unenlarged -- that appears to focus on nonexistent threats of aggression in Europe. For NATO to succeed, it must develop the ability to respond to today's security needs.
Leadership requires vision. It also entails determination, persistence, and having the courage of one's convictions. George Marshall understood what it meant to lead. So must we.
Warren Christopher was Secretary of State from 1993 to 1997. William J. Perry was Secretary of Defense from 1994 to 1997.
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