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Tuesday, 19 November, 2002, 07:37 GMT
Analysis: Nato seeks new roles
Nato peacekeepers in Macedonia
Nato peacekeeping has become a major role

The big issue on the agenda of the Nato summit under way in Prague is not enlargement, but the nature of the alliance itself.

Enlargement has been essentially agreed.

All seven of what might be called the "first-rank" of aspiring members have been formally invited to join the alliance.

Nato's Lord Robertson
Nato's leadership must find new roles for the alliance
This includes all three of the Baltic Republics - the first time that the alliance has expanded to include former Soviet territory.

And, as an indication of how uncontentious this has all become, the Russian foreign minister will be attending for talks with his Nato counterparts on Friday.

No, the real business in Prague concerns the nature of the alliance itself.

Behind all of the grand words about Nato being "the most successful alliance in history" and repeated protestations that several more countries are eager to join, fundamental questions have been missed.

Spreading stability

In the wake of the Cold War, Nato was left the victor - but without an enemy.

Very quickly, the crisis in the Balkans provided the alliance with a new and testing task and one that shows no sign of ending in the immediate future.

But peacekeeping in Europe is not in itself a sufficient justification for Nato's existence in the years ahead.

It must take on new roles if it is to be relevant for the new security challenges of the 21st Century and it needs new means to carry out this task.

So what exactly is it that the new members have joined?

The problem with Nato is that it is fast becoming a multi-role organisation whose diverse activities threaten to pull it in two different directions.

One of Nato's chief tasks is to help spread stability outwards across Europe. This is why Nato is enlarging.

This is why it has partner countries stretching eastwards as far as China's frontier.

This is why it devotes time and energy to its relationships with Russia and Ukraine.

And at the sharp-end, this is why it has so many troops on the ground in the Balkans.

Military capabilities

Spreading security is an inclusive operation that by definition involves all of Nato's members.

But the military side of the alliance could be developing in a very different direction.

US soldiers with Nato
The US view of Nato is changing
For all the talk about burden-sharing and improved capabilities, only a handful of countries show a willingness to pay for the sort of military capabilities that would be of real use in a crisis.

Doing Nato's military business could become an exclusive operation as the alliance grows ever-bigger, involving a few large players with a number of bolt-on extras coming from selected minor countries.

It is also important to remember that readiness is not just about having a military capability - it's also about having the political will to use it.

Trans-oceanic tensions

The growing tension between the United States and many of Nato's European members is as much about strategic vision as it is about basic capability.

One follows from the other.

Europe and America increasingly differ on when and how force should be used.

Some in the Pentagon appear to regard Nato as a useful tool-kit upon which to draw - hence Washington's enthusiasm for a Nato rapid-reaction capability.

But if, say, a terrorist cell in some far-flung country had to be attacked, it is hard to see the Pentagon seeking to use a Nato force to do this, given all the delays and political problems that might be involved.

Such tensions do not spell the end of Nato's usefulness.

Indeed, the alliance may be a wonderful vehicle for containing and managing them.

But amidst all the summit "hoopla" in Prague such basic questions look set to be overlooked.

The BBC's Jacky Rowland reports from Lithuania
"The Russians are none too happy about this"
Expanding Nato

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See also:

14 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
16 Oct 02 | Politics
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