NEW YORK -- NATO will be 50 years old in April, and the United States has extremely ambitious plans for it. NATO is the central element in a new American conception of global policy. What Washington calls the "New Strategic Concept" for NATO would make the alliance a major actor in world affairs, under American leadership.
The Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement on Kosovo in October was accurately described by U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as unprecedented event. NATO had intervened in an internal conflict inside a sovereign non-NATO state, not to defend its own members, but to force that other state to halt repression of a rebellious ethnic minority.
NATO did this essentially on its own authority, which for practical purposes means on U.S. initiative. It did so even though two members of the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China, had said that they would veto a U.N. resolution authorizing a NATO attack on Yugoslavia. NATO did not ask for U.N. authorization.
Washington sees this as a precedent for a new NATO that would deal with a variety of existing and future problems inside and outside Europe. This goes beyond Balkan unrest to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as in Iraq, Iran and South Asia, other trouble-making by "rogue states," international terrorism and even the drug trade.
This new vision of NATO sees it expanding throughout Eastern and Baltic Europe, possibly taking in Russia itself, if that country stabilizes, and incorporating other states that formerly were part of the Soviet Union.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his latest book, "The Grand Chessboard," sees the alliance as the instrument of an "integrated, comprehensive and long-term geostrategy for all of Eurasia," in which NATO would eventually reach Asia, where another American-led alliance would link western Pacific and Southeast Asian states.
In recent days, Washington has announced plans for new relations with Southeast Asia by which the United States would acquire access to military bases in Asian countries in exchange for financial help in buying U.S. arms. The Pentagon's recently released East Asian Strategy Report describes this new basing program as offering the United States "a credible power projection capability in the region and beyond, including to the Arabian Gulf when necessary."
The Pentagon has also just made it known that it is looking for new "forward operating locations" in Central and South Americas to replace the bases in Panama being given up as the United States relinquishes control of the Panama Canal.
All of this adds up to an extraordinarily ambitious new global program. The Clinton administration is revamping NATO and redefining its mission to make it an instrument of American world engagement as peacekeeper, peacemaker and policeman. The U.N. figures in this, an official says, "as far as possible," but the new definition of NATO is meant to include the possibility of action without U.N. mandate.
Little policy debate
This program has much support in the U.S. foreign policy community but has never been seriously debated either in Congress or across the country. Since NATO members and partners in Europe are expected to assume active if subordinate roles in this new U.S. program, as are allies in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, the matter is not just a U.S. issue but an alliance problem.
It amounts to a globalization of U.S. strategy and foreign policy that would run parallel with the economic globalization and integration of world markets already well-advanced.
Whether the U.S. public really wants such a foreign policy, or would pay and sacrifice for it, is an open question, which is why the program is at some risk domestically -- and perhaps also why it has not until now been given much public exposure.
Equally important is what the allies will make of it, as it is revealed to them in the run-up to the NATO anniversary. Britain's former Conservative defense minister, Michael Portillo, recently made a resounding attack on those European allies who want a separate European defense and security identity, and "whose wider project," as he said, "is to establish a European power bloc that offers the world an alternative economic and foreign policy to America's."
Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mr. Portillo's political opponent, is one of those who have recently been talking about strengthened European defense cooperation. But there are many across Europe who agree with Mr. Portillo.
There are many others in Europe who support NATO as it is, but are likely to draw back from this proposed expansion and transformation of the alliance.
There are still others, notably but not exclusively in France, who do want Europe to become an independent and autonomous power, and to have "an alternative economic and foreign policy to America's." That is what the European Union as a whole has said that it wants.
Whether the E.U. wants this enough to block NATO's adoption of the New Strategic Concept is an interesting question. It is a question which could split NATO, but could also split Europe.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 12/07/98