Old NATO Meets the New Europe
Mark P. Lagon
Newsday (New York, NY)
June 20, 1999

NOW THAT the bombing campaign against Serbia has concluded, the struggle to keep the Balkan peace is just beginning. And, inevitably, the question of NATO's proper role has returned to the foreground.

In the weeks and months to come, we will come to understand that the future of the alliance rests largely on maintaining continuity with its past. The Balkans crisis indicates that NATO's success hinges on much the same cohesion that allowed NATO so effectively to outwit and outwait the Warsaw Pact. In particular, four broad principles bear close attention at this critical moment: NATO unity depends on the primacy of the United States. During the Cold War, cooperation in NATO depended on American leadership in two senses: America's sheer power, and the will and skill of U.S. statesmen to point the way for our allies. We need to rediscover the old meaning of "consultation" with our allies: previewing the course we are charting, rather than offering them countless opportunities to cavil over NATO's agenda.

In the Kosovo crisis, some decision-making by committee obscured NATO's aims - and the leadership of British Prime Minister Tony Blair sometimes eclipsed that of President Bill Clinton. But ultimately the U.S.-led alliance managed to coerce Yugolavian President Slobodan Milosevic into withdrawing Serbia's troops from Kosovo. The European Union, lacking U.S. leadership, and the United Nations Security Council, with Russia and China wielding veto power, failed to deal with the crisis. NATO's ability to forge on with military action against Serbia without UN approval was a tribute to American leadership.

Credibility deters aggression. NATO dissuaded the Warsaw Pact from invading Western Europe with the threat of a nuclear first strike. Even without a single clear enemy today, if Europe's strongest military body makes a pledge or threat, it had better live up to it.

Clinton and his foreign policy team ignored that basic truth after Serbia started an armed buildup in Kosovo in the spring of 1998. The Clinton administration repeatedly threatened the use of force, and then pulled back from the threat. As a result, NATO didn't act for nearly a year. Critics of the air campaign need to realize that NATO had to use force or it would be a laughing stock.

Indeed, credibility would have been better served by keeping the prospect of a ground invasion on the table throughout the conflict. It is no accident that, after two months of bombing, Milosevic caved during the week Clinton shifted to saying a ground invasion was possible - and quite pointedly scheduled meetings with his military chiefs about deploying the ground-war option.

In the messy aftermath of Serbia's bombardment, credibility remains essential.

Kosovo's autonomy and the stability of the region at large depend on Belgrade realizing that consequences will be swift and painful if it reinserts police or military forces into Kosovo.

NATO must still contain Russia and isolate totalitarian powers. The empire built around Russia used to be the central problem for NATO. And as a sheer function of its size, global position and lingering illiberal governance, Russia remains a problem for NATO. As defense reporter Bill Gertz has disclosed, Russia is not only modernizing its own arsenal while receiving U.S.

"denuclearization" aid, but also acts as a diplomatic patron and technology-supplier to rogue states such as Iran and Iraq.

To be sure, Russia also produced some inadvertent silver linings during the Kosovo crisis, including the dismissal of Iran and Iraq's best friend, Yevgeny Primakov, as prime minister - and Primakov's predecessor Viktor Chernomyrdin oiling the gears of peace talks with Belgrade. But Russian brokering is a function of a Russo-Serb Orthodox axis, which bears out Samuel Huntington's prediction that the foreign policy landscape will be dominated by a "clash of civilizations." Last week, Russian troops zealously interposed themselves as peacekeepers in Pristina as if to shield their bloodthirsty brethren retreating from Kosovo. Giving a bankrupt and corrupt Russia a role in the G-8 economic coaltion may be magnanimous, but giving it a real seat in NATO councils - or a foothold in Kosovo - is a mistake.

NATO outlasted leaders with totalitarian aims through the Cold War standoff in Europe - from the USSR itself to East Germany. Just as Russia has not disappeared as a problem completely, neither have totalitarians.

NATO should work to unseat those uniquely virulent dictators determined to exterminate peoples within their borders or in neighboring lands. The mass deportations, mass graves and mass rape Slobodan Milosevic sponsored first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo earn him the totalitarian label as well. His forces drove 900,000 ethnic Albanians from their homes and killed at least 10,000 just this spring.

Yet NATO continues to negotiate with the man Clinton respectfully calls "Mr.

Milosevic." Balkans envoy and UN Ambassador-designate Richard Holbrooke quite irresponsibly told an interviewer last year: "I'm not into making a moral judgement at this time about somebody with whom I've had to negotiate." A Milosevic supporter told the Sunday Times of London that after Kosovo: "we will start on Montenegro, our next stop ... As for the refugees, they will never come back - 80 percent of their homes are destroyed. They are scared to death of us." Because he has whipped up this kind of murderous nationalism to justify a closed society, stability requires that Milosevic be given handcuffs, not handshakes.

NATO should focus on consolidating democracy. Beyond collective defense, an important secondary aim of the Cold War alliance was to help democracy coalesce in member states such as West Germany, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Turkey. So, too, has NATO membership been a tremendous incentive, spurring liberalization in the newest members of the alliance, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

The Kosovo crisis arose just as these three new members formally joined NATO.

The three were queasy about what they had gotten themselves into, especially the Czechs. But over the course of the bombing campaign, the new members made good on the promise, central to last year's Senate debate over NATO expansion, that they would be security providers, not just security consumers. If NATO had opted for a land invasion - especially one designed to take Belgrade and remove Milosevic - Hungary could have provided the territory from which to launch the effort.

Now in the aftermath of the 11-week air campaign, NATO should go boldly forward with further expansion. Within the Balkan region, Slovenia was denied a solid bid for membership two years ago, while Albania and Bulgaria earned good will assisting NATO during the campaign. The Baltic democracies remain concerned about an unstable Russia. Slovakia has gotten its act together after lagging behind its more liberalized former spouse, the Czech Republic. All these nations would be more stable inside NATO.

Just because the context for NATO action appears dramatically different, it would be foolish to forget these core principles. NATO can take on lots of new tasks - even peacekeeping and bombing missions in Europe it had never previously anticipated. But the conduct and aftermath of the Kosovo crisis show that when NATO retains these touchstones it succeeds, and when it diverges from them, it will founder. And most of all, without sound U.S. leadership, none of these organizing principle can ever achieve clarity of purpose.

Mark P. Lagon is a Council on Foreign Relations fellow at the Project for the New American Century