Alliance will survive this reckless determination and hypocrisy

By Charles Powell

WHEN an American Defence Secretary describes the behaviour of two of Nato’s largest and most influential members as “shameful”, the term Donald Rumsfeld applied to France and Germany at the weekend, it is time to sit up and take notice. Is Nato in crisis? Is its continued existence under threat?

The issue that has invoked Mr Rumsfeld’s justified wrath is the refusal of France and Germany to agree to Nato contingency planning to defend Turkey against Iraq if necessary. It is unprecedented for the Alliance to refuse a fellow member help of this sort. The practical effect will be minimal: the help will be forthcoming anyway from the US and others, outside the formal Nato framework if necessary.

What is extraordinary is that France and Germany should provoke so deep a rift in the Alliance over such a formality. It is hypocrisy on France’s part to deny others contingency planning when simultaneously undertaking its own by sending a carrier group towards the Gulf.

For Germany in particular, which has benefited more than any other country from Nato solidarity, it is an extraordinary decision and can only reflect a reckless determination on the part of Gerhard Schröder, the Chancellor, to put domestic political considerations and fealty to his bilateral relationship with President Chirac of France above any calculation of national and European security, let alone transatlantic relations. Konrad Adenauer must be turning in his grave.

The same thinking is evident in the ill-considered German-French proposal to increase the number of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq and provide a UN force to protect them. The effect would be to take the pressure off Saddam to come clean about his weapons of mass destruction. It would turn the inspectors from auditors into detectives, retreating from a regime predicated on co-operation to one that again accepts Iraqi cheating. If Saddam co-operates there is no need for extra inspectors, but without co-operation no increase in inspectors can make a difference. Meanwhile Saddam would have a UN shield behind which he could continue to conceal and develop his weapons.

The impact of all this on American opinion can only be highly damaging. One strongly pro-Nato American senator, speaking at last weekend’s Security Policy Conference in Munich, said that if France and Germany continued to obstruct assistance to Turkey and a second UN Resolution, then Iraq could be to Nato and the UN what Abyssinia was to the League of Nations: a death blow.

The danger is greater given the context of continued decline in Europe’s defence spending at a time of steep increase in the American defence budget, leaving the US to carry an excessive share of the Nato burden. It is also made worse by the perception, even among traditional Atlanticists in the US, that Europe’s nascent security and defence policy is conceived by some European countries as an eventual alternative to Nato and designed in the long term to exclude the US. Current French and German actions serve only to accentuate this damaging impression.

Yet Nato has survived many crises in the past: Suez; Skybolt; the Multilateral Force; endless burden-sharing disputes; French withdrawal from the integrated military structure; deployment of intermediate-range nuclear forces in the 1980s; Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. It succeeded in overcoming these problems because Nato’s members recognised that their shared interests and values were too important to be put in jeopardy by short-term disputes or politically painful decisions.

The question now is not whether that perception of shared interests is still strong enough, or whether Nato’s European members continue to rely on the organisation to protect their most fundamental security interests.

The flood of applicants to join Nato demonstrates its continuing appeal and relevance. Mr Rumsfeld did us all a favour by distinguishing the new and old Europe. The sense of transatlantic solidarity felt by those new members was very much in evidence at the weekend in Munich, and also in the now celebrated Letter of the Eight, described by an experienced German editor as a diplomatic Pearl Harbor for France and Germany, plus the subsequent and equally powerful statement by the Vilnius Ten. Rather, the question is whether short-term political manoeuvring by a few will do irreparable damage to the fabric of transatlantic trust.

It is hard to believe that, however obsessed they are with short-term manoeuvring and posturing, France and Germany in the last resort want to risk Nato’s collapse. But American exasperation is very real. Unless the French and Germans change tack quickly there is a real possibility that US forces will be withdrawn from Europe. Fifth Corps is now being deployed from Germany to the Gulf; it could easily go home afterwards, like Seventh Corps in 1991 after the Gulf War. Without those forces and the US commitment they embody there is no Nato.

We are in for a difficult few weeks that will severely test the bonds of loyalty that characterise the Alliance. I believe Nato will come through, but M Chirac and Herr Schröder need to remember Winston Churchill’s maxim: there is only one thing worse than fighting with one’s allies and that is fighting without them.

· Lord Powell of Bayswater is former Foreign Affairs and Defence Adviser to the Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

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