NATO Riga Summit

NATO Summit throws up a surprise

Asia Times

(5 December 2006) - THE SUMMIT of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization at Riga last Tuesday and Wednesday came to be narrowly focused on the alliance's operations in Afghanistan. Yet Afghanistan is only one of the major operations that NATO is currently undertaking; others are Kosovo, Darfur, Iraq and the Mediterranean.

The conclave was a departure from tradition insofar as NATO summits in recent years invariably set ambitious agendas. The 1999 Washington summit marking the 50th anniversary of the alliance exceeded ceremonial trappings. The administration of U.S. president Bill Clinton, though lame-duck and discredited by scandalous escapades, nonetheless ensured that the summit made a key decision to intervene in Kosovo. Besides, the Clinton administration succeeded in making NATO's eastward expansion in the post-Cold War era irreversible no matter Russia's objections, by having the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland join the alliance on the eve of the summit and having their leadership take part in the gala gathering in Washington.

Again, NATO's 2002 Prague summit invited seven countries to begin accession talks, heralding the biggest-ever expansion of the alliance. The summit also made the historic decision on the NATO Rapid Force. Afghanistan figured as a major theater of NATO's operations in the alliance's 2004 summit at Istanbul. The summit brimmed with optimism as NATO was raring to go in, setting right the vexed, disjointed Afghan problem.

In a grand gesture to the U.S. of letting bygones be bygones, the summit also agreed to help Iraq's interim government train its security forces. Furthermore, the so-called Istanbul Cooperation Initiative aimed to forge closer cooperation between NATO and the countries of the Middle East, signaling the alliance's determination to wade ashore in the Levant and to engage the strategically vital oil-rich region, while at the same time steadily strengthening its new-found ties with Israel.

Given this tradition of NATO summitry, expectations were naturally raised when, speaking at a May 25 National Press Club address in Washington, DC, General James Jones, supreme commander of the NATO forces, asserted that 2006 would be a "pivotal year" for the trans-Atlantic alliance, perhaps more so than in any of the previous several years.

Jones went on to say that the focus of the alliance was shifting "180 degrees in terms of its military capabilities and culture," as from a "reactive, defensive, static alliance," it was on its way to becoming "more flexible, more proactive," poised to take on missions to abort future conflicts instead of merely reacting to conflicts that were already born. The general was optimistic that NATO's "best days are very possibly in its future."

The international community keenly noted Jones' speech, as Washington invariably set the agenda of NATO summits, and a serving four-star U.S. general was speaking. Washington's choice of Riga as the venue of the 2006 summit itself was imbued with a great deal of political symbolism - the first-ever NATO summit to be held on the soil of the former Soviet Union.

Almost at the same time as Jones spoke, NATO spokesmen and senior U.S. officials were fanning out with statements heralding a brave new world in which NATO would patrol the Black Sea and would seek the withdrawal of Russian peacekeeping forces in Moldova. They said, disregarding the presence of the Russian naval fleet in Sevastopol, that NATO would welcome Ukraine's accession. They boasted that NATO would lower the bar of efficiency to facilitate Georgia's accession negotiations, and would thereafter proceed to settle decisively the "frozen conflicts" in the Caucasus and Eurasia.

These spokesmen taunted Moscow and Beijing that NATO would offer new partnership formats to Central Asian countries and to the far-flung countries in the Asia-Pacific region (Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand), and even to democratic India. Some envisaged for NATO a role in the Middle East and in safeguarding the West from "geopolitical blackmail" by its energy suppliers.

Indeed, such was the hype that NATO's Riga summit was keenly awaited as a transformational event turning the Cold War alliance into a veritable 21st-century global political and military organization that would sit in arbitration over the emergent world order, no matter the role of the United Nations.

The Riga summit, therefore, turned out to be a huge surprise as the debate spawned over the past two to three months about NATO's possible entrapment in the "war on terror" in Afghanistan dominated. This debate grew louder in no time and rudely elbowed out other big issues from the center stage at Riga. But on Afghanistan, too, there was no breakthrough and the summit had to settle for a messy and inconclusive compromise that can only lead to conflicted meanings in the coming months.

The alliance as a whole was plainly unwilling to provide the 2,200 extra troops that U.S. and British commanders said they badly needed in fighting the resurgent Taliban. The result is that the U.S., British, Canadian and Dutch contingents have been left to continue to bear the brunt of the fighting in the southern and southeastern regions of Afghanistan, while others have promised to send reinforcements in "emergencies."

French President Jacques Chirac has since said his country would consider any such emergency needs on a "case-by-case" basis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel left vague as to what role any German reinforcements would play in combat operations as well as under what conditions German troops would respond to "emergencies."

Turkey and Italy, too, firmly rejected the U.S. plea for additional troop deployments in Afghanistan. Clearly, with major NATO powers hedging, the Riga summit has virtually admitted that troop strength is not the main issue in Afghanistan.

Russian deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov gently rubbed in this paradigm shift in an interview with Der Spiegel on the eve of the summit. Ivanov said: "The current situation in Afghanistan is indeed very reminiscent of the late 1980s when the Soviet Union was involved there. It is painful to talk about it, but even with its 110,000 elite soldiers, the Soviet Union never managed to gain control over the entire Afghan territory.

"I am firmly convinced that the security situation will never improve until you are able to very effectively monitor the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan ... [But] it's also difficult because Pakistan is a U.S. ally, and because, at the same time, it is not an entirely democratic state, and is a state that possesses weapons of mass destruction and is even involved in proliferation -- to North Korea, for example."

Curiously, it is from the perspective of Ivanov's "undiplomatic" take on the nexus between U.S. President George W Bush and President General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan in the Afghan war that the outcome of the Riga summit can be assessed with a degree of cautious optimism.

Perhaps it is no mere coincidence that from Riga, NATO's assistant secretary general for political affairs, Martin Erdmann, headed for Moscow to brief the Russian side about the outcome of the summit, and to "candidly discuss certain problem aspects in our relations and the prospects of cooperation, particularly in the interest of responding to common security challenges and threats" (to quote the Russian Foreign Ministry).

Moscow will closely study a proposal made by Chirac about NATO initiating the formation of a "contact group" -- an idea, if it is allowed to take shape, that may form the legacy of the Riga summit. Moscow would regard it extremely significant that Chirac chose to go public even before Riga formally commenced. In an article published in the European press on November 28, Chirac wrote, "The establishment of a contact group encompassing the countries in the region, the principal countries involved and international organizations along the lines of what exists in Kosovo is, I think, necessary to give our forces the means to succeed in their mission ... and refocus the alliance on military operations."

Chirac embedded his proposal within a vision of what NATO's role ought to be in the international system. He wrote about the need of NATO developing a "trusting relationship" with Russia and he stressed the need to avoid the "creation of new fault lines." Chirac insisted that the United Nations should remain the "sole political forum with universal authority." And he repeatedly called attention to the "new reality of Europe," which, he said, necessitated a "more substantive strategic and political dialogue between the U.S. and EU."

Chirac summed up that the European Union's voice should be heard within NATO, with the EU members "consulting between themselves within the alliance" in an institutional format so that NATO transformed as a "mutually supportive alliance in which North American and European allies will be able to ... work side by side," upholding the "principles and objectives of the UN Charter."

Chirac set in motion an altogether new political process over Afghanistan, which took Washington by surprise. The Bush administration would rather have the clock back, but Chirac was not alone in Europe in harboring such thoughts. However, the main difficulty for the U.S. at Riga was that Bush's entreaties (faithfully supported by British Prime Minister Tony Blair) -- that by augmenting its muscle power in Helmand and Kandahar provinces by 2,200 soldiers, NATO could win the Afghan war -- did not carry conviction with the hard-boiled statesmen from Old Europe. The point is that the colossal U.S. defeat in Iraq has begun impacting on NATO. Iraq was the ghost at NATO's banquet table at Riga. The gathering realized that it was time to prepare for the defeat of the U.S. in Iraq, with all its unpredictable consequences.

To be sure, Chirac's proposal on an Afghan "contact group" reflects the growing disquiet about the very same Anglo-Saxon caucus that has been in the driving seat in Baghdad choreographing NATO's Afghan war. During last week's debate in the UN General Assembly in New York on Afghanistan, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) delivered joint statements testifying to their consolidated position.

CSTO and SCO have for long sought NATO's cooperation in Afghanistan. But Washington remained obdurate that NATO shouldn't enhance the credibility of CSTO and SCO as security organizations. Chirac's ingenuity lies in that he assesses that neither Russia nor China can afford to wish for NATO's defeat in Afghanistan. NATO's defeat would usher in an entirely new national-security situation for those two countries on their southern tiers. Chirac's proposal invites Moscow and Beijing to talk about NATO and an international system in which their concerns and interests can be addressed.

That is to say, while it is too early to envisage Afghanistan as a prototype of a global collective-security model, Chirac, sensing what Russian analysts have lately begun calling the "game without rules" ("multipolar chaos"), is in effect suggesting that a serious collective effort involving NATO, CSTO and SCO is entirely conceivable.

China would draw satisfaction over the outcome of NATO's Riga summit. The U.S. proposal for NATO to have partnerships with the Asia-Pacific region is of direct concern to China. In the event, the Riga summit neatly sidestepped the proposal. NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in an interview with the People's Daily calmed Chinese sensitivities that "NATO is not pushing into Asia or the Pacific region." He offered that NATO could as well have "closer contacts" with China and in "working together" with China. Scheffer stressed there needn't be any contradiction between China's involvement in SCO and a partnership with NATO.

In comparison with Beijing's reticence, Russian observers have been quite explicit. Moscow will remain wary that the Riga summit notwithstanding, Washington has far from abandoned its agenda of NATO's membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Moscow will also closely monitor U.S. intentions to deploy anti-ballistic-missile components in Central Europe. The Kremlin has let it be known that any U.S. deployment of a missile defense system will be the "red line," and that if a point of no return is reached, cooperation within the framework of the Russia-NATO Council may be called into question. Russian commentators hinted that Moscow's "asymmetric" response might include denial of permission to NATO aircraft overflying Russian airspace en route to Afghanistan.

At any rate, soon after returning to Brussels from his consultations in Moscow on October 26, Scheffer announced that admitting new members was not a priority for NATO at the Riga summit, and that it would remain suspended until 2008. For the present, Moscow has reason to feel satisfied, though. As Andrei Kokoshin, an influential Kremlin politician who heads the Duma's committee on Commonwealth of Independent States countries, wrote even as the Riga summit was winding up, "It seems that the Russian position, expressed in no uncertain terms, is beginning to find understanding among some Western politicians, particularly in the countries of Old Europe."

* M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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