Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

NATO’s double disgrace

An old joke goes, Q: What’s the first thing you learn in French military academy ? A: How to say ‘I surrender’ in German.

Now that France, Germany, Britain and the best part of Europe are united in the NATO alliance, however, it’s probably time we adopted a more uniform military system, and all learned how to say ‘I surrender’ in Russian simultaneously. At this week’s NATO summit in Bucharest, the leaders of France, Germany and other NATO countries rejected the US proposal to invite Ukraine and Georgia into the Membership Action Plan for NATO, in order to appease Russia. George W. Bush was virtually alone at the summit in arguing that welcoming new East European states into the alliance would both encourage them in the path of democratic reform and affirm support for their independence: ‘Welcoming them into the Membership Action Plan would send a signal to their citizens that if they continue on the path to democracy and reform they will be welcomed into the institutions of Europe. It would send a signal throughout the region that these two nations are, and will remain, sovereign and independent states.’ But this enlightened view was trumped by the grubby calculations of realpolitik. As French Prime Minister Francois Fillon has made clear, ‘We are opposed to the entry of Georgia and Ukraine because we think it is not the right response to the balance of power in Europe and between Europe and Russia, and we want to have a dialogue on this subject with Russia.’

It is not clear why the right of Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO should be held hostage to relations with Russia. Supposedly, they are independent states, not simply part of Russia’s imperial backyard – a backyard which, presumably, we no longer recognise in this enlightened, post-imperial, post-Cold-War age. If NATO is not directed against Russia, then Russia can have no possible objection to NATO expansion, and there is no point in recognising any such objection as legitimate. But if NATO really is directed against Russia, then it is a pretty puny alliance which allows the enemy a veto over its expansion. Ultimately, every sovereign state, from Russia to Ukraine and Georgia, has the right to form alliances with other sovereign states. To deny a smaller state this right in order to appease a larger, stronger state is shamefully disrespectful of the first state’s sovereignty.

If the NATO powers lack the will to stand up to Russia, it raises the question of what precise purpose NATO serves. The alliance has proved less than adequate in mobilising troops from member states to fight the Taliban. The very same states that wish to appease Russia in Europe – France and Germany – have been less than forthcoming when it is a question of providing troops to fight the enemies of humanity in Afghanistan. France has now belatedly agreed to provide the minimum additional number of troops to Afghanistan to avoid the threatened Canadian withdrawal from Kandahar. But even this move faces stiff domestic opposition in France.

Nor has the Bucharest summit upheld the noble principle that NATO should serve as a framework within which the states of ‘new Europe’, along with ‘old Europe’, can coexist and cooperate. Not only did the NATO states let down Ukraine and Georgia, but they could not even muster the will to pressurise Greece into allowing Macedonia to join the alliance without first having to change its name. Macedonia’s membership in NATO is crucial for the stability of South East Europe, and Greece’s policy of trying to crush the sovereignty and national identity of a European country has nothing to do with democratic values, and much more in common with fascist traditions – it was Greece’s 1930s fascist dictator Ioannis Metaxas who pioneered the most extreme measures to forcibly Hellenise the Macedonian national minority in Greek Macedonia.

This point was amply reaffirmed by recent Greek attempt to interfere with freedom of expression in Macedonia, by pressurising the latter over the appearance of billboards in the Macedonian capital of Skopje, showing a swastika superimposed on a Greek flag. The billboards were private advertisements for which the Macedonian government was not responsible; the Greek regime’s attempt to link Macedonia’s NATO bid to its removal of these billboards puts it on a par with the Muslim fundamentalists who rioted over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed. Greece has been a very poor member of NATO; it has only about 130 troops in Afghanistan – the same number as Macedonia, a non-member with one-fifth its population. Nevertheless, a senior NATO source apparently blamed Macedonia for Greece’s veto of its NATO bid.

The sad truth is that the widely reviled Bush has shown himself to be a much better European than France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy. Although Sarkozy is an improvement on the last two French presidents, is at least relatively pro-American, and has agreed to bring France back into the NATO integrated command structure, yet he has persistently shown himself ready to put considerations of narrow national interest above higher principles – and to justify it in the crudest terms. He argued against Turkey’s entry into the EU on the grounds that ‘Turkey is in Asia Minor’ and that ‘I won’t be able to explain to French school kids that Europe’s border neighbors are Iraq and Syria.’ (This from the president of a republic that includes territories in the Caribbean, South America and the Indian Ocean as its integral parts or ‘overseas departments’). He supports Greece against Macedonia in the ‘name dispute’ on similarly principled grounds: ‘I always stressed that we support the Greek position in the name issue. Greeks are our friends.’

The US has shown itself to be more principled and more pro-European than France. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has contradicted NATO’s source, and stated unambiguously that Macedonia was not to blame for the failure of its NATO bid. The US has now promised to boost assistance to, and bilateral relations with Macedonia; one source suggests that this may even take the form of a strategic partnership similar to the one that the US has with Israel. It is a sad day for NATO when the US must bypass it to support the more youthful and vulnerable members of the European family.

One of the sorriest aspects of this dismal NATO summit was the failure of our own Prime Minister Gordon Brown to support the US, either over Ukraine and Georgia or over Macedonia. The charitable explanation is that this was the inaction of a PM inexperienced in foreign affairs who still has not found his feet. The more worrying possibility is that Brown is reacting to Tony Blair’s controversial experience by attempting to be less pro-American and more ‘pro-European’ (i.e. anti-European but pro-Franco-German). This would be a mistake. If it is left to the US, alone of all the major NATO countries, to stand up for the East Europeans, this will not be good for European unity.

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Saturday, 5 April 2008 - Posted by | Balkans, Caucasus, Croatia, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, France, Georgia, Greece, Macedonia, NATO, Russia, Turkey

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