The war in Afghanistan could become a defining event not just for the fight against terrorism but for NATO and US-European-Russian relations. Already the war has brought changes that just a few months ago would have been unimaginable. For the first time in its history, NATO has invoked Article 5 of the Washington treaty establishing the alliance–not to defend Europe, as was originally envisioned, but to support a US war in a region far from the European theater. And for the first time, NATO forces are operating from the territory of the former Soviet Union with Russia's blessing, and NATO officials are seriously considering giving Moscow a real voice in NATO affairs.
Yet underneath this unprecedented display of common purpose lie conflicting visions of NATO and of the American-European-Russian relationship, particularly as it connects with the troubled Arab and Islamic worlds. In both Europe and Russia, there is a palpable apprehension that Washington is using the war to advance a vision of NATO long favored by hawkish Democrats and Republicans–a more flexible NATO with a global mission controlled by Washington and acting in accordance with US foreign policy priorities.
If the Bush Administration has its way, this globalized NATO would entail a clearer division of labor between Europe and the United States: a NATO in which the Europeans assume more responsibility for post-cold war peacekeeping and nation-building in the Balkans while the United States is given a mandate to act outside the region against supposedly common enemies or on behalf of supposedly common interests in the Persian Gulf and East Asia. The United States would gain a freer hand for NATO military operations, while the Europeans would stand ready with money and personnel for peacekeeping and reconstruction. Washington would make the war, Europe would pay for the peace and Russia would politely stand aside, except when its cooperation was needed in the fight against terrorism and against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Such a NATO would provide a degree of legitimacy for American power projection while reducing the overall financial burden for American foreign policy.
The expansion of NATO to include the Baltic states as well as the Central and Eastern European countries not included in the first round of enlargement in 1997–a NATO from the Baltics to the Black Sea, to use Bush's words–is a core part of this vision. A "big bang" expansion would dilute European control, since the new NATO members, especially the Baltic states, like Poland before them, tend to be more sympathetic to the American position on most military matters. Moreover, an enlarged NATO would require a looser and more flexible military decision-making and command structure–a further extension of the Combined Joint Task Force idea that the Clinton Administration championed in 1994. Thus, by pushing another round of NATO enlargement, the Bush Administration would be able to create a more malleable alliance that would increasingly operate like a "coalition of the willing," allowing Washington to pick and choose its allies in any crisis or mission while retaining overall NATO support.
Top Bush Administration officials spoke of this larger and looser NATO early on in their term but backed off when they encountered European resistance to both the Administration's plan for withdrawing US forces from Bosnia and Kosovo, and its proposal for a big-bang enlargement. The war on terrorism has been propitious in its timing, because it allows the Administration to establish these ideas in practice before it presents them for formal adoption at the Prague summit next fall.