Nato: A New Mission For An Old Cold Warrior

When Western foreign ministers gather in Oslo on June 4, they are likely to create a bold new mission for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In a break with the tradition confining NATO military operations to western Europe, sources say the ministers will approve plans to use NATO troops as peacekeepers in Eastern Europe and points beyond. In fact, NATO sources say that NATO troops might be sent this summer to try to quell the savage Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

If the shift goes through, it will be a major win for the Bush Administration, which has been working feverishly to remake NATO to give the U.S.-led organization staying power in a post-cold war Europe. The Administration is worried that with the demise of the Soviet threat, the European Community led by France will move toward an all-European defense policy that will eventually box out the U.S. Plans for a Franco-German army corps spur American unease. "Everything is up for grabs in this period," says a senior U.S. diplomat in Europe. "That's why we must make NATO more relevant for the future."

WEAK RIVALS. But some critics think that the Administration is taking unnecessary risks by tampering with NATO's identity. In fact, the political and security uncertainty following the Soviet empire's collapse has caused NATO's stock to rise, not fall, in Europe. At the same time, such potential successors to NATO as the Conference on Security & Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and the Western European Union have made little progress. Valuing the stability provided by the U.S. influence, the Europeans are likely to wind up allowing the U.S. to cut its troops and cash outlays to NATO while still retaining political leadership.

Still, the Administration seems convinced of the necessity to make NATO into some kind of all-encompassing body. In recent months, NATO has welcomed 10 former Soviet republics from as far away as central Asia into a new partnership council already expanded to include Moscow's former satellites in Eastern Europe. U.S. officials even talk up the possibility of eventual NATO membership for Russia.

FEWER DOUBTERS. U.S. proposals to use NATO assets to check ethnic and regional flare-ups are gaining support from the doubters, including Germany and even France. The reason: After being unable to quell the civil war in Yugoslavia, the EC is eager to avoid another fiasco somewhere else. And the former Soviet republics are asking NATO to fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of Soviet forces. "If these are going to be the dominant security problems in Europe, we can't shy away from them," says an American NATO official.

In Oslo, NATO officials aim to agree on a plan first tabled by the Dutch to provide up to 15,000 troops on a case-by-case basis to the 52 member CSCE, which includes European nations, Russia, and the U.S. The troops would be available for tasks ranging from crisis management to enforcing arms embargoes.

But the plan still seems fraught with obstacles. For one thing, the first request for NATO forces is likely to revive the divisive gulf war-era debate over whether such NATO members as Germany would assign troops beyond its borders. Sending U.S. troops into some obscure battleground in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe would also be highly risky. Any U.S. casualties could create an isolationist backlash at home that might do far more damage than any French machinations to thwart the efforts to stay engaged in Europe.

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