The seminal, transformative issues that NATO members bitterly disagree on could make for an acrimonious summit in Riga, Latvia tomorrow and Wednesday. If testy exchanges do not flare up, tension will remain just below the surface, straining relations between NATO nations and leading to a stalemate. But if the parties involved are willing to countenance some truly spirited debate, reckon with the issues that divide them and begin resolving them, the summit (coupled with a follow up in 2008) could be remembered as a watershed in the history of the alliance. Such an outcome would be alternately noted with alarm and cheer around the world.
NATO members must grapple with two major propositions, both advanced by Washington: Should NATO claim a more global role and should it be enlarged to include Ukraine and Georgia as full members? The reaction in Europe to these two proposals ranges from wariness to explicit negativity. Moscow, meanwhile, sees its regional interests especially threatened by the second.
The prospect of a global NATO would involve a deepening of existing partnerships with countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan. Full membership of these countries is not yet envisaged, not only because it would require a redrafting of the Washington Treaty, but also because it would have unforeseeable consequences in the case Article 5 (the mutual assistance clause) were to be applied. Europeans are sceptical of the proposal mainly out of a fear that such a global NATO would draw U.S. attention still further away from Europe. That concern is especially vivid for the new member states from the former communist bloc. The prospect of Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership could, however, help reassure these countries that no new threat will re-emerge at their frontiers.
The Europeans are also averse to having a global NATO compete with or substitute for the United Nations. A global NATO could (harking back to the ethos of Madeleine Albright, circa June 26, 2000, Warsaw) come to act as the self-appointed defender, real or imagined, of a "community of democracies." A global NATO that was dominated by the United States could be tempted to act unilaterally when the UN Security Council would refrain from giving its consent for certain actions. In order to avoid that prospect, a close cooperation between NATO and the United Nations in peacekeeping operations and in providing humanitarian aid must be upheld.
A third, and final, argument against a global NATO is that it would lead to countervailing blocs. However, such phenomenon is already in the making in the form of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)-of which Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and recently Uzbekistan are members. India, Pakistan, Mongolia and Iran have observer status in SCO. Iran has applied for full membership. The United States has been denied observer status and is following the evolution of the SCO closely, especially after this organization recently announced it was creating an energy club. Given that the gas reserves of Russia, Iran, and Central Asian states make up more than fifty percent of the world's proved reserves, this has led to fears of a formation of a "Gas OPEC" within the SCO.
U.S. suggestions to enlarge NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia would expand the alliance into the heartland of the former Soviet Union. This has led to a fierce reaction by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has characterized a Ukrainian NATO membership as constituting a clear "geopolitical shift." But this grievance does not take into account that this geopolitical shift already took place fifteen years ago, with the break-up of the former Soviet Union. Since then, Russia has found herself surrounded by a half circle of independent and sovereign states. This should not be seen, on its face, as an extraordinary or threatening state of affairs.
Ukraine is a broadly considered a pivotal state. Russia plus Ukraine would recreate a formidable power to the east of the European Union. New E.U. members, not only the exposed Baltic states but also Poland, would certainly feel threatened by some kind of Russian-Ukrainian reunification. While it is correct, as many Europeans maintain, to handle Russian sensitivities with care, that need not entail granting Russian veto rights over an enlarged alliance.
In the case of a possible Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership three simple questions should be asked. First, are Ukraine and Georgia democratic European countries? If they are they have the full right to be invited by the alliance to become members (Article 10 of the Washington Treaty). Second, does Russia have the right to restrict the sovereign choices of the Ukrainian and Georgian governments? If not, Ukraine and Georgia are completely free to accept the invitation. Finally, is NATO an anti-Russian alliance? Although NATO started as an anti-Soviet alliance, it changed its objectives, strategy and membership dramatically after the demise of the Soviet Union. Russia recognized this fact when it became an official partner of NATO and set up what is called today the NATO-Russia Council (NRC).
The NATO membership of Ukraine and Georgia could play an important role in safeguarding the independence and still fragile democracies of both countries, in view of anti-democratic developments in Russia and Putin's roll back strategy of Western influence in Russia's near abroad-which has already been dramatically successful in Uzbekistan.
A reordering of the world in a multi-polar direction has already begun. The question is not should NATO remain a regional organization or become a global actor, but rather what role should NATO play on the world stage. Although it may seem paradoxical, extending NATO's reach and role could improve the world's perception of the alliance. If NATO represents only narrowly defined Western economic and security interests, it will certainly exacerbate existing divisions in its geopolitical environment. If, on the other hand, it plays a constructive role, working as an implementer of international law in close cooperation with the United Nations, it will contribute to a more stable and safe world.
Marcel H. Van Herpen is director of the Cicero Foundation, www.cicerofoundation.org, a think-tank based in the Netherlands.