The Washington Times

The Senate voted earlier this month to approve admission of seven Central and Eastern European countries from the former Soviet bloc into NATO, the transatlantic alliance. The vote was 96-0, which was testimony not only to the strength of the political case that has been laid out over the years in behalf of a whole, free and secure Europe, but also, no one doubts, to the diplomatic support the United States received from the aspirant countries in the debate that preceded the Iraq war.

Though some responded with derision to, say, Latvian support for a war to which it could contribute nothing on the battlefield, the diplomatic support from the seven was timely and helpful for the United States. Nor was it costless for the seven, who also aspire to membership in the European Union. French President Jacques Chirac, in a fit of neo-Gaullist overkill, openly questioned the membership prospects of those with the temerity to support the United States on Iraq.

Their support has, however, been fully appreciated in Washington. While there was never danger of the vote failing, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told me that the stance of the seven on Iraq paved the way to the unanimous outcome.

Unfortunately, however, there has been something of a funereal quality to Washington discussions of NATO in the aftermath of the crisis there over Iraq. The problem was that the opposition of France, Belgium and Germany to the war led them to block efforts in the North Atlantic Council, the political body overseeing the alliance’s operations, to make provisions for the defense of Iraq’s neighbor, Turkey. Their argument was that undertaking preparations would amount to a NATO endorsement of war. NATO makes its decisions by consensus, so any member can block action. The crisis threatened to leave Turkey in the lurch and to reveal the security guarantee of the alliance to a member in some peril to be meaningless, the consequences of which would be disastrous.

There is another body that can take NATO decisions, however the Defense Policy Committee [DPC], on which France does not sit, having withdrawn from NATO’s military command structure. Germany indicated that after a suitable interval measured in days, it would support Turkey in the DPC, leaving it only for Belgium to cave in, which it did, unwilling to stand alone in opposition. The crisis was as severe as they come and led many to conclude by the end of March that the days of the alliance are numbered.

Not so fast, please. At NATO headquarters in Brussels, a very different picture emerges. NATO may be in a cocktail party crisis, in that the alliance’s woes have been variously lamented or relished in policy circles in Washington and European capitals. But in this case, the conventional wisdom is stuck at about March 30, whereas the alliance has moved on.

For starters, NATO will be taking over the peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan no small achievement for an institution that only a few years ago wondered whether it could act outside the borders of its members. Then last week, NATO took a small but critical step into postwar Iraq [and quite possibly not its last step, either]. NATO will provide various support to Poland in taking charge of a quadrant of the Iraqi occupation. Since Polish capabilities in terms of personnel, logistics and planning are not very great, the NATO role is bigger than it sounds. The decision was taken unanimously in the North Atlantic Council without objection from France, as well as Germany and Belgium, that is.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson is also completing a number of reforms that hold promise for increasing the effectiveness of the alliance. The NATO military commander now has authority, in consultation with the secretary-general, to take immediate action in response to an imminent military threat to a member. [If the DPC had failed to deal with Turkey, this authority might have come into play]. Mr. Robertson has also bolstered the clout of the secretary-general’s office in a number of other ways and reduced by a third the 400-plus committees that were unnecessarily encumbering alliance operations. He has also introduced a potentially very useful mechanism, according to which his office will regularly assess the performance of members in meeting the capabilities and other goals to which they have committed themselves. An accountability mechanism based on candor and transparency, albeit [rightly] lacking enforcement power, will encourage realism in making commitments.

The point about NATO is that it’s not just a treaty, it’s an organization one whose members work together in pursuit of aims they agree on. It bounced back from March because it has real utility. The Security Council, similarly, has once again demonstrated utility in its unanimous resolution on postwar Iraq [with Syria not voting no, but abstaining].

At the cocktail party crisis, it’s always the end of this era or that institution. In the real world, NATO’s new members will be joining an organization with even more future than past.