German objections dominate the debate over NATO expansion in the final days leading up the military alliance's summit meeting in the Romanian capital Bucharest. James Goldgeier, a member of the National Security Council in the administration of former US President Bill Clinton, told SPIEGEL ONLINE: "I am amazed at how openly the current differences between Berlin and Washington are being aired. In February it was the German role in Afghanistan. Now it's about the issue of NATO expansion, in which Germany quite openly orchestrated the resistance to Ukraine and Georgia. This is relatively unusual in advance of this sort of summit."
Goldgeier's words ring especially true when one considers the importance of the issue for the Bush administration. NATO expansion is one of the few strategies it took over almost seamlessly from the Clinton administration. "Bush absolutely wanted to get the acceptance process for Georgia and Ukraine underway in Bucharest," says Goldgeier.
A clear signal that things will not go quite as smoothly as Bush had hoped was the discussion among foreign policy and security experts at the Brussels Forum, sponsored by the German Marshall Fund, less than two weeks ago. Moderator Ronald Asmus, who, as a senior official in the Clinton administration in the 1990s, played a key role in the initial push to expand NATO eastward, opened the meeting by calling EU and NATO expansion an historic success. Asmus went on to rave about how the map of Europe had been redrawn, and praised the joint tour de force by Europeans and Americans.
But after his nostalgic excursion into the past, Asmus was forced to segue into a significantly trickier present, one in which the euphoria of new NATO and EU membership has all but disappeared.
The crucial question is this: In addition to membership invitations that will be extended to Albania, Croatia and Macedonia at the NATO summit in Bucharest from Tuesday to Thursday of next week, should Georgia and Ukraine be given the thumbs up for membership in the not-too-distant future?
In addressing the conundrum, Asmus' tone quickly turned from jubilant to sober. Would the United States be able to achieve these goals, he asked the group apprehensively? There are already many critics today, he added, critics like the Germans. "An official from the German foreign ministry told me recently that he couldn't think of one member of the foreign affairs committee of the German Bundestag who supports the initiation of NATO membership negotiations with Ukraine and Georgia," Asmus said.
Many Germans were sitting in the audience -- and agreed with Asmus' characterization. Eckart von Klaeden, foreign policy spokesman of the conservative Christian Democratic and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) parliamentary group, was only too willing to list Germany's concerns. In Ukraine, he said, large segments of the population oppose the idea of NATO membership. And Georgia, with its internal conflicts? "We don't want another Cyprus in NATO," said von Klaeden, referring to the Mediterranean country's division into Turkish and Greek regions.
Volker Stanzel, a highly-placed official at the German Foreign Office, described the regional effects of another NATO expansion -- and the concerns in Moscow. "Russia is in the process of domestic political change, which, together with a new president, also affects its foreign policy," says Stanzel. Is the right time for NATO to seek conflict with the Russians by pushing eastward? Stanzel's position: "Is this truly necessary?"
Despite the German objections, diplomats say that a row in Bucharest is unlikely. Washington now seems more receptive to arguments coming from its allies. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, a NATO expert at Stanford University, told SPIEGEL ONLINE: "There is already a lot of frustration among our partners over NATO's fixation on Afghanistan and Kosovo. It takes up so many resources that there is very little room left for strategic debates within the alliance." According to Sherwood-Randall, the member nations are making it increasingly clear to Washington that they do not feel that their contributions are sufficiently recognized -- contributions that in many cases were achieved in the face of substantial resistance from within their populations.
All of which suggests that the Americans will hold back in Bucharest, at least when it comes to new finger-pointing relating to the Afghanistan mission. The Canadians will likely take a similar approach. In a recent interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, their defense minister, Peter MacKay, reiterated Canada's call for a stronger German role. But now the Canadians assume that their demands will be met in Bucharest, where other member states are expected to pledge 1,000 additional troops to come to their aid in embattled southern Afghanistan.
And the expansion issue? Last week Bush continued to campaign for Georgia and Ukraine with personal calls to European capitals. He also plans to pay a demonstrative visit to Kiev just before the NATO summit. But even senior Washington diplomats expect the Bush administration to come around, perhaps by accepting a declaration that would lay the groundwork for the beginning of an acceptance process for Ukraine and Georgia. The White House apparently no longer believes that a rapid admission process, like in the first expansion round, is possible today.
As expansion veteran Asmus recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, three key factors have changed since then: the global situation, the candidate nations and Russia. "Finally, Russia has changed," he wrote. "In the 1990s, it was a weak, quasi-democratic state that wanted to become part of the West. Now, a more powerful, nationalist, and less democratic Russia is challenging the West."
This has not failed to escape the attention of President Bush, who has spent the last few weeks seeking closer ties with Moscow. He sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Moscow to allay Russian concerns over the planned US missile defense system in Eastern Europe. The president even plans to meet directly with Putin after the NATO summit, on April 6 in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, an accommodating gesture that has surprised even some of his top advisors. "Good relations with Russia are important to us," Bush said this week.
Perhaps the election has something to do with it. John McCain, who is campaigning to succeed Bush in the White House, could suffer in the presidential race as a result of his support for the unpopular president's Iraq policies. A new escalation with Russia, instigated by the White House, would only underscore the impression of a devastating Republican foreign policy legacy.
Of course, McCain himself is seen as being highly critical of Moscow. The Arizona senator has often said that he sees only three letters in Putin's eyes: "a 'K', a 'G' and a 'B'." While Bush was sending his love letter to Moscow this week, his fellow Republican had a different message for the Russians. As long as democracy does not progress in Russia, McCain said in a speech on foreign policy, there could only be one conceivable reaction: The G8 must exclude Russia.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan