'Old Europe' and the New NATO


Feb 18, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on February 18, 2003.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's recent dismissal of France and Germany as "Old Europe" has prompted outrage in Paris and Berlin. But the characterization merely reflects a new reality: the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is likely to affect alliance policy in ways that are yet to be fully appreciated.

The addition of seven NATO members from Central and Eastern Europe will shift the center of gravity within the alliance to the east. After ratification by legislative bodies in existing NATO nations, 10 of the 26 NATO members - 40 percent of the alliance - will be former Communist states from Central and Eastern Europe.

The perspective of these new NATO members differs from that of many older Western European members. This could create a sharper divide between "Old Europe" and "New Europe" on some issues.

This East-West divide could become particularly apparent regarding policy toward Russia. After living for decades under Soviet domination, many of the new NATO entrants are cautious about embracing Russia too warmly. As a result, these new entrants may take a harder-nosed approach to efforts to develop a cooperative partnership with Russia.

Many of the nations invited to join NATO are also likely to give greater priority to developing close relations with Ukraine. They see Ukrainian membership in NATO and the European Union as an important strategic priority.

In contrast, many older Western European members of the alliance tend to be skeptical about Ukrainian membership in both organizations.

Poland in particular has pushed for intensifying the alliance's ties to Ukraine and integrating Ukraine into Euro-Atlantic institutions. Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria share this perspective to a large degree. This is likely to ensure that Ukraine is given greater attention in alliance policy in the future.

The new NATO invitees are more pro-American than many West European members of the alliance, except Britain. Nations of Central and Eastern Europe see the United States as an important geopolitical counterweight to the other larger European members of the alliance and to Russia, whose involvement in alliance activities is likely to increase in the future.

The key question is whether this pro-American feeling among many NATO nations will last. As Europe becomes more secure and stable, and as the countries of Eastern Europe become more prosperous and integrated into the European Union, will they continue to give security and relations with the United States the same high priority they have to date? Or, will they begin to act more like some West European members such as France or Germany?

Another issue relates to new missions. Many of the new entrants see NATO as an insurance policy against a resurgent Russia. However, NATO's orientation is changing. Today, most of the threats to the alliance's security are not in Europe but emanate from beyond Europe's borders. How willing will these new NATO members be to send troops to far-flung areas of the globe?

The hesitation evinced by Hungary and the Czech Republic during the initial phase of the Kosovo conflict - which broke out only a few weeks after their entry into NATO - gives pause in this regard. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic always had assumed that NATO was there to protect them. Kosovo was a sharp reminder that joining the alliance entailed obligations and not just benefits.

The response of the new NATO entrants to the conflict in Afghanistan, however, suggests that the latest group of entrants may be less squeamish about contributing to military operations beyond Europe. Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia made small but useful contributions to the campaign in Afghanistan. Even before they officially entered the alliance, they began to act like allies.

The new entrants also have shown greater resolve and mettle regarding Iraq than many more established European members of the alliance. At the Prague summit, the 10 newest members of NATO issued a statement that said if Iraq failed to comply with U.N. Resolution 1441, they were prepared to contribute to an international coalition to enforce the U.N. resolution and disarm Iraq. This was stronger than the statement on Iraq by NATO members, which referred only to the willingness to assist and support the efforts of the U.N. to assure full and immediate compliance by Iraq with the resolution.

When it comes to the defense of core Western values, the record of the new entrants to NATO is encouraging. It suggests that "Old Europe" may have something to learn from "New Europe."

Larrabee holds the Corporate Chair in European Security at RAND and served on the National Security Council staff in the Carter White House.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.