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ANALYSIS-September 11 puts NATO's future in fresh doubt
By John Chalmers

BRUSSELS, Dec 2 (Reuters) - When the Soviet Union collapsed it was fashionable for columnists to sound the death knell of NATO. Now, as Europe sits on the sidelines of an unquestionably U.S.-driven war on terrorism, they're at it again.

Few would argue that the 19-nation alliance is on its last legs, but many are asking what role can be left for NATO when its military machinery has not even been cranked up for the first big war of the 21st century.

Is the alliance becoming more of an umbrella organisation for political consultation, one which sets military standards and ensures interoperability among allies but fights no war under its own name?

It is against this backdrop of doubt about NATO's primacy as the organising focus for Western security efforts that allied foreign ministers will meet in Brussels next week.

Conventional wisdom in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington was that the world had changed, that nations would be drawn together in a powerful coalition against terrorism.

There was plenty to suggest that this was happening.

NATO allies quickly invoked Article V, their organisation's founding mutual defence clause, under which an attack on one ally is treated as an attack on all.

Never in NATO's 52-year history had they taken such a step, not even during the long Cold War with Moscow whose might the alliance was set up to contain.

And Russia's help in the offensive against Afghanistan's Taliban, which has been sheltering the prime suspect behind the attacks, Osama bin Laden, suddenly quickened the pace of a rapprochement between the transatlantic alliance and its old foe. Tension over NATO's plans for enlargement into Russia's back yard subsided.


But many believe such solidarity will not last. They see NATO being undermined by the United States' unilateral impulses.

"As to NATO, it is almost completely worthless as far as the 'war against terrorism' is concerned," Anatol Lieven, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in a provocative article for Prospect magazine.

"This campaign and all future such campaigns will be 'coalitions of the willing', completely dominated by the United States, and with contributions on a bilateral basis."

Julian Lindley-French of the Western European Union Institute for Security Studies said it became clear after September 11 that Washington does not view NATO as a vehicle for effective military organisation of the West.

"Article V...ain't what it used to be," he wrote in a paper for a conference on "Transatlantic Relations and the New World Disorder."

"No longer a pseudo-automatic armed assistance clause, it seems to have become merely a way of corralling the allies into supporting U.S. policy and disciplining them thereafter, and preventing them from airing any criticisms that might emerge."

Before September 11, the Bush administration had demonstrated its distaste for political multilateralism, walking out of the Kyoto climate change accord, challenging the global nuclear order with its plans for missile defence and disengaging from efforts to resolve the Middle East problem.

Many believe the attacks brought no great conversion.

Perhaps drawing on the messy experience of NATO's war-by-committee in Kosovo, Washington chose to send its own troops and warplanes to Afghanistan with just a sprinkling of help from individual allies, chiefly Britain.

"The United States has clearly demonstrated how they consider any kind of multilateral coalition as very cumbersome. Allies want to ask questions and control what targets are hit," a senior French defence official said.

"I don't believe the Americans are converted to multilateralism. On the contrary, they are more unilateral than ever."

That's a view echoed by John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, who says Washington's new focus on homeland defence and on its military capability for campaigns like Afghanistan will bring pressure for a reduction of U.S. forces in Europe.


NATO still provides a structure and a planning tool for an array of operations -- humanitarian and rescue missions, separation of warring parties and all-out war -- that could be needed in future hot spots from North Africa to the Caucasus.

It ensures American control -- or at least a veto -- over European security at the price of a loose American guarantee of help if the Europeans get into trouble.

But Rob de Wijk, head of research at the Royal Netherlands Military Academy and a former defence planner, sees a refocus of the United States' strategic orientation away from Europe.

"U.S. vital interests are no longer at stake in the same way in Europe as they are in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East," he said.

If U.S interest in Europe did diminish that would make the European Union's plans for its own rapid reaction force to deal with crises in areas such as the Balkans all the more important.

The idea right now is that because this force will lack capabilities for high-intensity conflicts, European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) should be closely linked with NATO.

But Michael Ruhle, head of policy planning and speechwriting in NATO's political affairs division, warned -- in an otherwise upbeat essay on what the alliance will look like in 2011 -- that the Europeans could go the other way.

"...should ESDP become an exercise in EU self-assertion or even in 'counter-balancing' a unilateralist United States, it would become a liability rather than an asset for transatlantic relations," he said.

Lindley-French said uncertainties over U.S. policy and Europe's security and defence ambitions have made NATO ever more fractious, "ever more like the EU."

"The alliance has, we are told, become progressively more political, which seems to have become a metaphor for an inability of anyone to agree about anything," he said.

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