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NEWS ANALYSIS : ‘New NATO’ Proving Hard to Pin Down

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Behind the self-congratulation and talk of “historic steps” that surrounded NATO’s decision to give its European members a new role in the Continent’s defense lie substantial hurdles to making the concept a reality, analysts said Tuesday.

The changes agreed to by NATO foreign ministers here Monday will enable the Europeans to “borrow” U.S. military assets for independent missions in the region--clearly one of the most significant shifts ever made in North Atlantic Treaty Organization doctrine. They were considered essential if the United States’ most important, and most durable, alliance is to survive as an effective force for combating the threats posed by the post-Cold War world.

“We’re revolutionizing NATO so we can do things in small, flexible packages,” said Robert Hunter, U.S. ambassador to the alliance.

“This creates a new alliance,” said French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette. “It is a great success for Europe.”

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Beyond such generalizations, however, it has quickly become clear that some European allies--especially France--and the United States have radically different visions of how the concept will translate into reality.

“A historic papering over of cracks,” summed up one analyst, who declined to be identified.

For France, which decided only six months ago to rejoin NATO’s military arm after an absence of three decades, the agreement reached Monday is the cornerstone of a much-discussed “European defense and security identity.” That identity will be one in which the Europeans can, on their own, move boldly and aggressively against an array of security threats without U.S. ground forces--but with such valuable “borrowed” U.S. assets as heavy-lift aircraft, satellite communications and intelligence information.

In briefing reporters, French officials repeatedly spoke of “the new NATO” and stressed that they will be re-integrating their forces only into this new NATO, not the “old NATO.”

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During the laborious negotiations that produced the accord in Berlin, France pressed hard for--and eventually got--the right to identify in advance key NATO commanders and elements that could quickly break off and take on new tasks in a European-led operation. The formula is referred to as “double-hatting” because those commanders and elements would also retain their place in the full alliance structure.

While agreeing that the changes are extremely important in principle, U.S. officials insist that in practice, little will change.

“We’re not sure [they’re] ever going to happen,” Hunter said of the European-only operations, which would be carried out under the auspices of the little-used West European Union. “If it’s important, we’ll want to be there. What the WEU will do will be at the low end of the totem pole.”

The U.S. also resisted efforts to tag European officers and units for potential WEU operations in advance, fearing that such a visible European identity might dilute NATO’s much-cherished unity of command.

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Although language referring to “a new NATO” appeared in the alliance communique issued following the agreement, U.S. officials tended to avoid the term.

In part, these different views reflect domestic political realities in Paris and Washington. For French President Jacques Chirac to win domestic support for a full re-integration of his country’s military forces into the alliance, he must accentuate both the extent of the changes that are occurring and the important role France will play in the new order.

Clinton administration officials, on the other hand, are concerned that any perceived wholesale Europeanization of NATO could raise questions in Congress about America’s continued role in the defense of the Continent. U.S. officials in Berlin stressed that any U.S. planes or equipment lent to support European-led operations could be withdrawn at any time.

And there are other differences. For France and some other European allies, the prospect of a strong European-only dimension is viewed as increased security. The impotence and humiliation of the Europeans’ failed three-year struggle to find a solution to the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina before the U.S. committed ground forces remain fresh in their collective memory.

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At the same time, senior U.S. military officers worry that the European dimension could weaken NATO’s unity of command, a key factor in its stability and success.

Merging these diverse interests as planning proceeds is certain to require difficult compromises, defense analysts believe.

“It was a balancing act to get this far; it will be a balancing act to get it implemented,” said a German official.

NATO foreign ministers Tuesday concentrated on a second, equally important balancing act: reiterating their commitment to enlarging eastward while building a constructive relationship with Moscow.

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With the Russian presidential election less than two weeks away, neither Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov nor NATO political leaders wanted to talk about the differences that divide them.

In his only comments to reporters, Primakov praised the changes agreed to by the alliance and said Russia is interested in engaging NATO in a dialogue about the future of European security.

In a meeting with Primakov, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher praised Moscow for completing the agreement that transferred Soviet-era nuclear weapons from Ukraine to Russia and for resolving differences that had placed in jeopardy a treaty limiting the size of conventional forces in Europe.


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