Afghanistan Dispute Reflects Broader NATO Crisis

NATO opens its annual summit Wednesday in Romania — one of several new, formerly Communist members of the treaty organization. Two issues are causing disagreements in the alliance: U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and the unequal burden shouldered by some NATO members in Afghanistan.

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NATO will open the largest summit in its history tomorrow. The gathering in Bucharest, Romania, will not be an entirely happy one. There are strains between the United States and some its European allies over both how to win the war in Afghanistan and how to shape future relations between the West and Russia.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has this report.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: In the weeks leading up to the summit, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that NATO could turn into a two-tier alliance. U.S., British, Canadian and Dutch troops are doing the heavy fighting against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, while other troops from Germany, Italy and Spain are stationed in safer areas of the country.

Sensitive to domestic public opinion, these European governments follow strict caveats, allowing each to decide where and how they will conduct military operations. But many analysts say the bitter dispute over Afghanistan reflects a broader crisis within the alliance itself.

Sergio Romano is a leading Italian analyst.

Mr. SERGIO ROMANO (Analyst): In fact, NATO's going through crisis that nobody really wanted to face for a long time, because it is not right to say that NATO must exist unless you know exactly what it does exist for. And that is a problem that was never really faced.

POGGIOLI: Next year, NATO will turn 60, but it's still adapting to the post-Cold War world and still hasn't defined its new enemy. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, its membership has nearly doubled and now includes nine former Soviet-bloc countries. However, there are echoes of the Cold War in U.S.-Russia relations. Moscow is angered by the U.S.-led recognition of an independent Kosovo, which broke away from Russia-backed Serbia and is strongly opposed to U.S. plans to deploy a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Yet several European governments are reluctant to follow the U.S. lead in dealing with Russia, which they see closely tied to Europe. Karsten Voigt, the German government coordinator for relations with the United States, describes Russia as a complicated partner.

Mr. KARSTEN VOIGT (Coordinator for German-American Relations): But it is still a partner and it's a neighbor, and we will have to live with this complicated neighbor and partner for the next decades, and therefore we are well-advised if we treat the Russians as a great power, which they are.

POGGIOLI: Germany is among the most vocal in Europe in opposing the Bush administration's desire to further expand NATO and put two former Soviet Republics, Ukraine and Georgia, on membership track, thus pushing NATO's borders to Russia's southern flank. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned last week that possible NATO membership for the two countries would have repercussions on any plans to improve Moscow's ties with the Western military alliance. Karsten Voigt echoes this view.

Mr. VOIGT: I think also it would be unwise from the American side to pressure forward with such a decision at this given moment.

POGGIOLI: A Harris poll published in Saturday's Herald Tribune showed majorities surveyed in Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Italy strongly oppose a showdown between the West and Russia, and do not consider Russia a threat. Russia's outgoing president, Vladimir Putin, and his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, will attend the last day of the summit. Afterwards, President Bush will continue talks with the Russians in Sochi. Former U.S. ambassador to NATO Robert Hunter believe it's time to return to the policies of the previous two administrations of George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, and deal with Russia in a less confrontational manner.

Ambassador ROBERT HUNTER (Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO): People are beginning to sober up and say, look, we don't want a nuclear war. We need to deal with Russia. Russia needs to deal with us. It can't retreat back into the Leninist-Stalinist autarchy. They're utterly dependent upon engaging in the outside world. So let's sit down and start working out a new kind of strategic relationship between Russia and NATO, and Russia and the United States. This is what we should have been doing all along on both sides, and I hope wisdom will now prevail.

POGGIOLI: Analysts say this summit could mark a turning point for the better, or a further deterioration in relations between the West and Russia, which would also widen the U.S.-European divide.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

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