NATO's Growing Pains

NATO: Bigger, Not Better at Fighting Terror

German troops in Kuwait train to counter nuclear, chemical, and biological attack
German troops in Kuwait train to counter nuclear, chemical, and biological attacks, Dec. 16, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

There was an air of self-congratulation as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ended its summit meeting in Prague. Seven countries from behind the former Iron Curtain were invited to become members; a joint statement was issued on Iraq that papered over the divisions; and commitments were made to intensify the fight against terrorism and to create a NATO response force for quick deployment to trouble spots.

It would be churlish not to lift a glass to the celebrating Lithuanians, Romanians, and others who were oppressed for so many years by former communist leaders Stalin, Brezhnev, and Ceausescu, and their like.

But amid all the euphoria of the East Europeans and the smug satisfaction in a number of summit speeches, there were still some nagging questions and concerns. NATO is a very large military alliance, which is about to become even larger, going from 19 to 26 members. It has access, through its member-states, to the sinews of war in abundance, from nuclear and conventional weapons to massive forces on land, at sea, and in the air. Nothing like it has been seen before.

And yet, there are question marks over its future and even its current usefulness. The tragic events of Sept. 11 were brought about by a small group of determined zealots wielding nothing more lethal than boxcutters. What use are nuclear weapons in such a scenario?

The attacks of Sept. 11 could have been prevented by better intelligence-gathering, sharper police work, proper airport security, a more watchful immigration service, and greater vigilance among ordinary citizens. NATO is no more suited to this job than a bear is to catching wasps.

The summit saw a renewal of vows in the war against terrorism. But Al-Qaeda was hardly trembling in its shoes. When this terrorist organization sends out its deadly packages, there is no return address. How can you strike against an enemy when you don’t even know where he lives?

The turnout [in Prague] was very high-powered, except for the Irish representation. Sensitivities about our neutrality meant that when Bush, French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and Britain’s Tony Blair represented their respective countries at a meeting of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), the Irish seat was occupied by a noncabinet member, the minister of state for European affairs, Dick Roche.

The EAPC is a forum for consultation between NATO countries and those, like Ireland, who are not ready, willing, or able to join the alliance.

The non-NATO participants are members of the Partnership for Peace (PfP), which promotes better military relations and cooperation with full NATO members. Despite the fact that the NATO secretary-general, Lord Robertson, chaired the EAPC meeting, Roche stoutly insisted it was not a NATO event and that, although he was in Prague, he was not attending the NATO summit. Even his meeting with Irish journalists did not take place in the summit conference center, but at a nearby hotel.

But the Czech president and former dissident icon, Vaclav Havel, did not let Ireland off the hook. In his opening speech to the summit, he said NATO should “declare permanent accessibility” to neutral countries like Finland, Switzerland, and Ireland.

Sooner or later, these countries would question the point of neutrality when there were no longer two major opposing power blocs “and when the common enemy of all consists of organized crime, terror, or the advancement of weapons of mass destruction.”

Havel himself described the alliance as “a large, but somewhat empty structure” of commanders without troops and committees without influence, until member-states made their forces available.

Whether NATO is capable of being transformed into the kind of instrument suitable for dealing with future Mohamed Attas and their fanatical followers is far from clear and is open to some serious doubt.

If, as many expect, there will be another Sept. 11, it will come where we will least expect it and at our most vulnerable point.

In this doomsday scenario, gatherings of smiling politicians remote from the ordinary people and bunkers full of missiles with no target to aim at probably won’t be much help.