Death of NATO

Well, the first wave of post-Iraq decisions is confirming that the Bush administration has successfully blundered into unravelling almost 60 years of western diplomacy.

Forieg Editor Briefing at the Times tells all.

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April 30, 2003

Blow to Nato is old Europe’s payback time

By Bronwen Maddox

THIS time it is not an exaggeration to talk about the death of Nato. What we are watching is a slow death, but the plan put forward yesterday by France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg is a heavy blow.

Anyone could be forgiven a look of pure bemusement on reading the joint statement that emerged from the four countries. It is tortuous, even compared with previous attempts to say what that elusive phantom, a European defence force, might look like.

But we should be clear what it represents: an attempt by France and Germany to corral the stuttering project of a “rapid reaction force” for Europe.

Serious attempts to create that force date from December 1998 in St Malo. At that point, it was an Anglo-French enthusiasm. It did, however, complicate Tony Blair’s relations with America when the Bush Administration took power two years later.

President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, a singularly caustic Secretary of Defence, responded with a cool disbelief to Blair’s assurance that a European force would not undermine Nato. It would, of course, if it ever came into existence. But although European leaders managed to agree that the force would be 60,000-strong, they have spent five years wrangling about who would control it and how it would fit in with Nato. In particular, they never resolved whether forces belonging to Nato members, such as Britain, would be available to both alliances (the obvious answer was no, but it was one that leaders struggled not to give).

American distaste was tempered only by the conviction that it would never get off the ground. (In symmetrical scepticism, European leaders were polite or silent about America’s cherished missile defence plans because they doubted that the US could afford to make them work.) The irony, from America’s point of view, is that since the end of the Cold War it has exhorted European countries to take more responsibility for their own defence.

This year, the US plans to spend $396 billion (£248 billion) for its general defence forces — plus $75 billion more for the war in Iraq. In the past few years, it has been spending more than 3 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence, and that is rising.

In contrast, Britain and France, the two European Union countries with the largest defence commitments, spend only about 2.5 per cent of GDP; most of Europe spends a far lower proportion (with the exception of Greece, at just under 5 per cent). Despite America’s urging, many European capitals have insisted on taking a “peace dividend” since the collapse of the Soviet Union and have backpedalled on their spending.

The summit yesterday shows why America should have been more careful in what it wished. It wanted Europe to take more responsibility; well, here is a vision of Europe’s defence that excludes America — and possibly even Britain. Perhaps before the Iraq war this might just have been construed as benign in Washington and London. Now? No chance. The four countries who devised the scheme were those who fiercely opposed the war.

If there were a better way of provoking Bush and Blair, in the relieved calm of the war’s aftermath, it is hard to see it. Call it payback, if you like, for the famous “Letter of Eight”, a testament of support for US military action by European leaders, which deliberately excluded France and Germany.

Having said that, the significance of the mini-summit was in its gesture of independence, rather than the detailed content. The suggestions, at root, are almost identical to existing plans for the rapid reaction force. The main difference is in language, calling the heart of the force a “nucleus of a collective capability”, which dodges the question of its exact size. It would be formed by “interested parties”, rather than all EU countries — leaving open the chance that Britain might be left out.

But there are signs that the statement was watered down at German insistence, to avoid causing unnecessary anger in America and Britain. A Belgian clause asking for a headquarters entirely sepa- rate from Nato was dropped. Germany, unlike France, reckons that America would probably accept a penitent bid to repair relations. It is quietly taking steps to close the rift caused by Gerhard Schröder’s anti-American election campaign and by Germany’s opposition to the war.

So does this move matter at all? Well, yes. In content, it is nothing new. But it is part of a trend towards small pacts between a few like-minded allies, rather than broad multi-national ones. It has echoes in the stalling of world trade talks and, of course, in challenges to the United Nations.

Yesterday’s scheme is largely posturing, but it is still fair to call it a direct hit on Nato