On the first day of the NATO summit in Bucharest on Wednesday, US President George W. Bush suffered a first setback when he failed to persuade the alliance to open the door to Ukraine and Georgia for membership. France and Germany stood firm in their opposition, despite the pressure Bush had piled on in the run-up to the summit with a visit to Ukraine and a keynote speech in which he urged his European allies to reward both countries for their democratic revolutions.
As the summit opens for its first full day on Thursday, the NATO leaders will be hoping that the gathering can now focus on more positive news. The confirmation by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday that France would be sending a battalion to east Afghanistan seems like a good start. Coming in addition to an extra 3,200 US troops, the move should help to placate Canada, whose beleaguered forces in the south of the country have suffered heavy casualties at the hands of the Taliban.
The Canadian parliament had threatened to pull its troops out of Afghanistan unless they got 1,000 reinforcements from another ally. "This is good news for Canada and good news for NATO," Sandra Bucker, spokeswoman for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said in response to the new troop commitments.
This new injection of troop numbers will give a boost to the alliance as it prepares to release a "vision statement" later on Thursday setting out its long-term commitment to Afghanistan. However, leading allies, including Germany, Italy and Spain, are still refusing to send combat troops to the volatile south.
On Thursday, the 26 leaders will also search for a way to console the disappointed presidents of Ukraine and Georgia after rejecting their bids to become formal candidates on Wednesday evening. Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili had already cautioned earlier in the week that a rebuff would amount to an "appeasement of Russia" and encourage separatists in the two breakaway regions of Georgia.
However, it was this very instability that has caused Berlin and Paris to question Georgia's readiness to be granted a Membership Action Plan (MAP), which helps prospective members prepare to join NATO. As for Ukraine, the fact that the majority of its population opposes membership spoke against opening up the path to membership right now.
As German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Bucharest for the summit on Wednesday, she reiterated her opposition to admitting the two former Soviet republics. "We have reached the conclusion that it is too early to give both countries MAP status," she said. While Canada, the United Kingdom and many Eastern European countries had backed the US push to see the NATO alliance expand eastwards, France and Germany have warned that this would unnecessarily provoke Russia, which has voiced concerns about the alliance's expansion to its borders.
The NATO leaders are now expected to discuss how to maintain links with the two countries. On Thursday morning, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer insisted the door of the alliance remained open to European democracies. "That hasnt changed," he told reporters. "We have confirmed here in Bucharest that the NATO family will continue to enlarge."
However, in another blow for enlargement plans, Macedonia's membership bid is likely to be blocked by Greece due to an unresolved dispute over the former Yugoslav republic's name, which it shares with a northern Greek province. Although NATO spokesman James Appathurai insisted that NATO was united in the view that Macedonia should be offered the opportunity to begin acession talks "as soon as possible," analysts warn that a rebuff could destabilize the ethnically divided state, with possible knock-on effects in the region.
Also on the agenda for Thursday is the US plan to build a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to meet her Czech counterpart Karel Schwarzenberg on Thursday, amid expectations that Prague is ready to sign off on the shield. NATO is expected to endorse the system, which Bush has insisted is aimed at a possible threat from Iran, not Russia.