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This year, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the world’s largest and most powerful military alliance, will celebrate its 60th birthday. Since 1949, NATO has provided for the collective defense of the United States, Canada, and their European partners. Today, NATO’s 26 member nations collectively contribute millions of troops, trillions of dollars of material and services, and entire libraries of intelligence information to a central command in Brussels, Belgium, while NATO military units are involved in regional security and peacekeeping developments in the Western Balkans, the Gulf of Aden, and Afghanistan.
While these developments—as well as the expansion of the alliance into the central European region in 1999 and 2004—are encouraging, the transatlantic partnership must return to its roots. If NATO is to remain relevant to European security, the organization must refocus its energies toward defending its newest and most vulnerable members against a Russian resurgence. At the same time, harebrained schemes for further expansion must be reconsidered. Toward that end, NATO must adopt a more comprehensive agenda—one that tackles larger issues like energy and information security, economic stability, and the details of military and security cooperation—in order to remain an effective guarantor of European peace and stability.
The regional divide in NATO must be overcome to make this reform a reality. Specifically, this means recognition across the continent that a resurgent Russia represents a very real and even existential threat to some members of the alliance. The recent history of Eastern and Central Europe helps to explain why the newer members of NATO—especially Poland and the Baltic states—are extremely concerned with a Russian military resurgence. The invasion of Georgia last year should serve as a chilling reminder of just how far Moscow is willing to go to preserve its national interest in the former Soviet sphere.
While the Bush administration’s scheme to place missile interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic was admittedly inflammatory, Polish and Czech agreement to the plan reflects a very real concern for the conventional military guarantees included in the pact. Even if the Obama administration does not go ahead with the plan to install defensive systems in these Central European nations, it should still make it clear that any sort of aggression against our allies in this region would be absolutely unacceptable. To that end, the Obama administration should implement a conventional defense treaty with Poland and the Czech Republic, maintain our already extant bilateral relationship with Bulgaria, and sign a comprehensive defense agreement with all three Baltic republics, including the continuation of the vital Baltic Air Policing program until at least 2018.
Meanwhile, America’s strongest allies in Western Europe—particularly Germany—have been reluctant to criticize the post-Soviet oligarchy (or “managed democracy”) that supplies them with vital natural gas. This divide has persisted even in spite of a recent announcement by President Dmitri Medvedev that Russia would embark on a massive new spending and modernization scheme for its outdated military. Therefore, a new energy security policy—one that effectively minimizes the risk of overt dependency on Russia while investing in alternative and renewable technologies—should be at the top of the agenda at the alliance’s annual meeting in Strasbourg, France, and Kehl, Germany, this weekend.
Aside from the Bush missile plan, one of the most heavily debated and controversial issues in European security affairs is the continued expansion of NATO into geopolitically unstable regions of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Specifically, the issue of Ukrainian or Georgian membership has been of significant import to the future of the alliance. While Ukrainian aspirations to the alliance are particularly strong (and emotionally affective, given the tragic history of that country), NATO leaders should proceed cautiously and not be afraid to deny admission to these two countries.
Unlike the Baltic republics, which enjoyed a relatively brief but politically significant interlude of political independence between the two World Wars, the idea of a Ukrainian or Georgian nation-state is one that did not become a reality until 1991. Since then, both nations have been paralyzed by economic crisis and political turmoil. Until the situation in these countries is stabilized—which, given the international financial crisis, may not occur for a few more years—NATO should be reluctant to grant them Membership Action Plans. The Partnership for Peace program—which encompasses a far larger group of countries with a distinct interest in maintaining political stability on the continent—should instead be used as a dialogue to mediate between these states and their former imperial master.
During his presidential campaign, then-Senator Obama made it clear that he wanted to support the new and emerging democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. While there are many factors that may affect the emergence of stable democracies and market economies in the region, one thing that will positively affect the trajectories of all the countries on the continent is a continued American military presence on the European continent and a strong transatlantic dialogue. Toward that end, the Obama administration should spearhead the effort to build a better NATO.
Eugene Kim ’10, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Kirkland House.
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