Page last updated at 13:51 GMT, Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Nato disagreements still simmer

Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili and Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer before the start of a Nato-Georgia Commission meeting

By Jonathan Marcus
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

The atmosphere in the run-up to this meeting of Nato foreign ministers was acrimonious.

One diplomatic insider likened it to "bureaucratic trench-warfare" with all sides digging in and the gap between national positions seemingly unbridgeable.

In the event Nato has reached agreement, both on what its Secretary General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer describes as "a conditional and graduated re-engagement with Russia", and on a mechanism for promoting political and military reforms in Georgia and Ukraine which will help to keep them on track towards eventual Nato membership.

The argument on Georgia and Ukraine was about means rather than ends.

An alliance summit in Bucharest last April refused to give either Kiev or Tbilisi a Membership Action Plan - a tailored programme of reforms and targets intended to prepare them for future Nato membership.

'Unnecessary politicisation'

Countries like France and Germany were wary of taking this step for fear of offending Russia.

Now, in the aftermath of Russia's summer invasion of Georgia, their concerns about Moscow seem even more acute.

Russian soldiers place a Russian flag atop their tank in the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali
Russian soldiers in the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali
With senior British diplomats talking about "the unnecessary politicisation" of the whole Membership Action Plan process, this foreign ministers meeting has found a way around the problem, deciding to expand the activities of two existing bodies - the Nato-Georgia Commission and the Nato-Ukraine Commission - basically to oversee the same reforms as would have been contained in the action plan.

Anyone standing outside the Nato bureaucracy might well ask what the fuss was all about.

Georgia and Ukraine have a Membership Action Plan in all but name.

And disagreements about Nato's relationship with Russia have similarly been covered by a bureaucratic balm.

The decision to renew ties in a conditional and graduated manner surely sends a signal to Moscow that Nato (and the EU for that matter, which has pursued a similar stance) sees Russia as just too important to be isolated.

Nato has lost the glue that once held it together
Military official

The communique issued at the end of the meeting - a classic example of the drafting skills of alliance diplomats - elegantly side-stepped all of the major problems, thus maintaining the appearance of unity.

But in reality Nato is deeply divided on a range of issues, with cross-cutting battle lines preventing the real unity of purpose that characterised the alliance during the Cold War and for much of the initial period after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Fractious camps

As one military official told me: "Nato has lost the glue that once held it together."

That glue was the Soviet threat, and without it the alliance risks dividing into a number of fractious camps.

Even a resurgent Russia is not helping.

Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski at the Nato-Georgia Commission meeting
Newer Nato members like Poland are worried about Russia's stance
Moscow's more aggressive stance towards its neighbours certainly worries Washington, and it especially worries some of the newer Nato members like Poland and the Baltic States.

But the long-standing European members - "old Europe" in former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's famous phrase - are less shaken and not even stirred.

Calls by the US and the new European Nato members for a root and branch re-think of the whole approach to Moscow seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

Widening role

What some allies see as a re-emerging Russian threat throws up other fault lines as well.

Washington has tended to see Nato over recent years as an adjunct to its own global policing activities.

Nato has certainly gone along with this - the alliance's engagement in Afghanistan being the most obvious example of this widening role.

But those allies with Russia on their minds fear that all this focus on expeditionary warfare needs to be curtailed in favour of good old-fashioned territorial defence.

Afghanistan raises another even more fundamental issue. Failure there would be a major blow to Nato's image and self-esteem.

But despite the communiques and political gloss it is clear things there are not going well. Nato may not be losing - but it is certainly not winning.

Nonetheless, several key Nato governments fail to see the gravity of the stakes in Afghanistan and many of them are unwilling to rally support for operations there amongst public opinion at home.

So what difference might a new US administration make to all of this? In short, surprisingly little.

President-elect Barack Obama has made clear that he will focus strongly on Afghanistan.

That means more US troops but almost certainly also calls for more European Nato troops as well. That will not go down well in many European capitals.

Washington and Moscow

The Obama administration's stance towards Russia is also unclear.

Democratic administrations have tended to be tougher on issues like human rights and democracy than have the Republicans, though renewed efforts on strategic arms cuts may help to restore more business-like ties between Washington and Moscow.

Nato is becoming the battle-ground for competing national positions rather than being the place where things are resolved
Nato diplomat

On missile defence an Obama administration might back-track into a sort of holding position, pending a demonstration that the technology actually works.

This would please the Russians, who vehemently oppose the plan, but would worry those European Nato allies who feel threatened by Moscow, and especially the Polish and Czech governments who have invested considerable political capital in backing the scheme.

In short, Nato's divisions are likely to continue.

One veteran Nato diplomat told me that in the 1990s the alliance was able to come together and deal with strategic difficulty.

"What's happening now in the early 21st Century," he said, "is that Nato is becoming the battle-ground for competing national positions rather than being the place where things are resolved.

"The Nato brand-name," he went on, "is no longer sufficiently attractive to make people sink their differences."

SEE ALSO
Rice starts Europe tour in London
01 Dec 08 |  Americas
Rice criticises 'isolated' Russia
18 Sep 08 |  Americas
Q&A: Conflict in Georgia
11 Nov 08 |  Europe

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