NATO Summit Squabbles Europe Waits Out the Bush Administration

At their summit in Bucharest this week NATO member states are expected to squabble over Afghanistan, missile defense and eastern expansion. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in particular, is playing for time -- and pinning her hopes on a new US administration.
Von Cordula Meyer und Alexander Szandar

Just the thought of NATO's big anniversary summit next year is enough to warm the heart of Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. It will be marvelous when the heads of state and government come together in the spring to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the north Atlantic alliance.

Sometimes Scheffer envisions world leaders discussing the "everlasting fundamental elements" of trans-Atlantic cooperation, a "new strategic concept" and an "Atlantic charter" that will even make sense to the "milkman in Omaha."

Imagining a glowing future sometimes helps the former Dutch foreign minister escape the dismal present. No one knows as well as he does that a rather different summit will have to be tackled first, a summit that promises to be far from cheery.

'Foundation of the Alliance'

Beginning this Wednesday, leaders of NATO states will meet in the Romanian capital Bucharest, where they will air differences that, in the assessment of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, have long torn at the very "foundation of the alliance."

The agenda includes Afghanistan, a perpetual bone of contention, the expansion of the alliance eastward and the controversial plans for an American missile defense system. NATO is deeply divided on most issues. It appears former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was right after all, when he divided the continent into an "old" Western and a "new" Eastern Europe.

The Eastern Europeans valiantly defend American positions, while Western allies have long since written off US President George W. Bush, for whom the Bucharest NATO summit will be his last. "The Europeans are in a wait-and-see mood," says Stephen Larrabee of the Rand Corporation, an influential American think tank. "They want to wait out the Bush administration."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, of all people, stands at the head of those seeking to slow down NATO's plans. If Bush has his way, the alliance will be expanded to include more than just Croatia, Albania and Macedonia. A "membership action plan" has even been put in place to facilitate rapid entry into the alliance for Ukraine and Georgia.

Another Sensitive Project

Secretary General Scheffer and the Eastern Europeans support the plan, which has encountered bitter resistance in Moscow. "No Russian president can ever accept the NATO membership of Ukraine," says current President Vladimir Putin. Merkel supports his position, although for different official reasons.

Countries like Ukraine, in which there is no "significant support for NATO membership within the population," says Merkel, are just as unsuited to be members of the alliance as "countries that are involved in regional or internal conflicts themselves." In the latter case, she means Georgia.

"Many Western European partners agree completely," said German defense expert and Green Party member Alexander Bonde after a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels. Bonde is convinced that they are hiding behind the Germans and are "confident that Ms. Merkel will remain resolute."

The Germans are also expected to try to delay another sensitive project: the Americans' controversial missile defense plan. Berlin diplomats have stated that the summit will "generally" support the Bush project to station 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar facility in the Czech Republic, the goal being to defend against Iranian missiles, if need be. But at Berlin's urging the triumphant announcements Washington wants will not happen.

Because the American missiles cannot protect Europe completely, the United States wants to develop a second missile defense system -- at its partners' expense. This system would protect Turkey and Norway to the north against a nuclear threat from Iran, but it would also cost enormous sums of money. Experts estimate that it would require an increase in the German defense budget of at least €1 billion ($1.58 billion), leading to a total of more than €30 billion ($47.4 billion). Officials at the Chancellery say that this would not be politically feasible, prompting Berlin to postpone a decision on the second system.

'German Combat Battalion in Kandahar'

These delaying tactics reflect the hope that a new US administration under Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton would not support the costly missile defense system as adamantly as Republican President Bush.

But even a new US president will not make things easier for Germany in Afghanistan. One thing that Bush and all of his potential successors have in common is the call for more German troops. They agree that what Obama calls the "dirty work" in the embattled south and east should no longer be left entirely to the Americans, Canadians, British and Dutch.

"The Americans," says a member of the staff of German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, a Christian Democrat, "are still dreaming of a German combat battalion in Kandahar." Scheffer, who shares their dreams, wants the remaining Europeans to deploy troops to the combat zones "in solidarity." According to Scheffer, there can be "no division of labor in which some specialize in fighting while others handle the cleanup work."

This is another area where Merkel is applying the brakes. She repeatedly insists that she is opposed to a "contest of dangerousness," and that Germany will stick to its deployment in the quieter north, even though, as she adds, "isolated assistance" elsewhere, "when friends are in need," is a matter of course.

The north can also be dangerous, as the German military, the Bundeswehr, experienced only last week near Kunduz. Three soldiers were injured, two seriously, when the force from the explosion of a Taliban explosive device swept their "Dingo" armored vehicle off the road.

The French Show

In response to pressure from the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), government experts' deliberations on whether to significantly expand Germany's Afghanistan mandate have been placed on ice for the time being. The Bavaria-based sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) is anxious not to enter into such a politically risky proposition before its state parliamentary elections in September. Even Bush understands the domestic political pressures faced by the Merkel administration, a relieved German diplomat reported from Washington. "We will not be pilloried in Bucharest," the diplomat said.

By contrast, French President Nicolas Sarkozy now plans to make a show of France's efforts in Afghanistan. Paris diplomats in Brussels have announced that the president wants to send 1,000 regular troops and 200 members of the special forces to support the US in the east and Canada in the south. There are currently about 1,500 French soldiers in Afghanistan, most of them stationed in relatively calm Kabul.

NATO will finalize two documents on Afghanistan in Bucharest. One is meant for the public and describes in general, superficial terms the goal of "self-supporting stability." The other document, a "political and military plan of action," is to remain confidential.

The secret document is based on ideas that Defense Minister Jung presented to his counterparts last fall "as part of an exit strategy." Jung spoke at length about "networked security" and reconstruction, while the "fight against the insurgents" was generally mentioned as an aside. The US's priorities, so far, have been precisely the reverse.

Precarious Situation

The secret compromise document now contains a graduated plan intended to enable NATO to eventually pull out its troops. The document specifies dates by which Kabul is to satisfy certain requirements for drug enforcement and the development of a justice system, and which regions NATO could gradually turn over to Afghan forces.

But neither the Germans nor the Americans and British are interested in setting too specific a timetable. Berlin fears that this would force it to enlarge its NATO contingent and send additional war material, like helicopters, to Afghanistan. The Americans, British and Canadians are hesitant to announce a fixed withdrawal date. Because of the precarious situation in the east and south, they would probably be the last to bring their soldiers home.

If one thing is certain, it is that the NATO Secretary General's dream of transforming the 2009 anniversary summit into a conflict-free, visionary and harmonious meeting will not come true.

The Americans would have preferred to celebrate in Berlin, but Sarkozy wants to celebrate his country's return to the military structures of NATO, from which the French armed forces removed themselves in 1966 at the behest of President Charles de Gaulle.

The anniversary summit, which is now to be held in Strasbourg and its smaller German neighbor across the Rhine River, Kehl, is unlikely to last very long in the first place. French diplomats recently insisted that the Bucharest meeting, initially planned for three full days, be shortened to no more than 48 hours. President Sarkozy's "capacity," astonished NATO diplomats were told, is "limited to two days."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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