Competing Agendas in Bucharest

Posted in NATO | 05-Apr-08 | Author: Jackson Janes| Source: AICGS Advisor

The meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission takes place in the Palace of the Parliament at the NATO Summit in Bucharest April 4, 2008.

Winners and Losers
The NATO summit in Bucharest came out as might have been expected - with some winners and losers. Two new future members of the alliance were welcomed - Croatia and Albania - and one (Macedonia) was put on hold until a ridiculous debate about its name can be worked out with Greece. The losers, for the time being, were Georgia and Ukraine, who were told they were not ready for NATO membership until they put their respective political houses in order. Bush had pushed for including the two countries in the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), which paves the road to membership in the future. The communiqué adopted in Bucharest now reads "We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO," which is more than the Germans wished for and less than the Americans wanted. The decision was only postponed until December 2008, when NATO foreign ministers are to reconsider Georgia's and Ukraine's bid for MAP status. That message came after a long and at times edgy debate between one group in NATO led by Germany and the other led by the United States.

Bush's Legacy and Concrete Goals
Bush came to Bucharest loaded with a clarion call to include all five states as part of his "Freedom is on the March" legacy, and to suggest that NATO expansion should continue with more states in the Balkans. Attending his last NATO summit meeting, Bush's agenda was also driven by the desire to get a missile defense program approved by NATO. That plan worked and the two countries where the system will be deployed, Poland and the Czech Republic, signaled that they would sign their agreements with Washington. Achieving unanimous consent among NATO members in regards to the missile defense plan can be seen as the real success for the Bush administration during the summit. Not only has this issue been heavily debated and at times strongly opposed by many Western European states (including Germany) over the past few years, but by placing the issue so prominently on the agenda in Bucharest - to the surprise of many - the U.S. administration forced critical European countries to take a firm position, something Germany especially was hesitant to do of late. Although the NATO communiqué states that the system remains a U.S. system for now, Bush was successful in securely placing it under the NATO umbrella and thereby hushing the opposing voices in Europe. By approving the missile system, NATO members accepted the notion that potential threats of Iranian missile development were real, and Putin's arguments that the deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic were a threat to Russia were rejected. While some remain skeptical about the ability of the missile defense system to actually work, the fact that it will be built sends a political signal to Iran - or other sources of proliferation - that their ambitions will be held in check by NATO.

The summit in Bucharest was also an opportunity to emphasize the need for NATO to redefine its mission in the twenty-first century where the sources and types of threats are transforming into areas well beyond Europe's frontiers. This part of President Bush's agenda was seen as important in follow-up talks on Saturday in Sochi with Russian President Putin and his successor, Dmitry Medvedev. NATO approval lends him more leverage in negotiating with Russia over a variety of issues, including Iran, Afghanistan, the Middle East, and even the missile defense initiative in which Russian can be possibly engaged - if Moscow's rhetoric cools down.

Expanding NATO to the East
Despite the consensus reached over missile defense, the debate over Georgia and Ukraine was about competing agendas.

Those in Kiev and Tbilisi were clear about their own, and they were using the arguments of President Bush to buttress their case. They were also accusing those who opposed the idea of considering NATO membership for the two states of caving in to Moscow's wishes. Germany was especially the target of such criticism, which also came from several Eastern European states supporting Ukraine and Georgia. At times, the clash seemed to echo the battle between the so-called "old" and "new" Europe as coined by Donald Rumsfeld in 2003.

Still, what permeated the discussions were the still unresolved questions about how to deal with a Russia whose direction and security interests remain uncertain.

Chancellor Merkel's insistence on the need to postpone a decision on further expansion of NATO was criticized as a signal to Moscow that it can exert influence on NATO if it shouts loudly and forcefully enough. But that seems as exaggerated as those in Tbilisi and Kiev who argued that the Bucharest decision of NATO membership for them was a "now or never" situation. Today's Europe is always a work in progress, defined more by small steps rather than dramatic gestures. Also, the concerns Germany and others in Western Europe had regarding NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia cannot be brushed off easily. Two arguments seem to be particularly thought-provoking. First, Ukraine's less-than-stable domestic situation, with large parts of the public seeing the country's direction more favorably towards Russia as opposed to the West, should at least trigger some hesitance in making the country a NATO member. Second, Georgia's still unresolved and tricky territorial disputes with Russia could lead to open conflicts further down the road. A collective defense responsibility towards Georgia should indeed be considered with caution.

What to do with Russia?
At the same time, Russian tantrums over Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia did not change anything. And most NATO members believe that having the states bordering on Russia in NATO has actually offered more security to Russia, as they have no incentives or rationale to undertake aggressive actions, as if they actually could to begin with. But this is yet another example of diverging perceptions between NATO and Russia. At a surprise press conference after the Bucharest summit, Putin made his position very clear by saying: "A powerful bloc at our borders will be seen by Russia as a direct threat to our security."

Tensions in the complicated Russia-NATO relationship will continue. Indeed, NATO has expressed its intention to continue talks with Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina about possible inclusion in the future, perhaps leading to eventual membership in the European Union. Even Kosovo can be embedded in such a scenario notwithstanding that we are talking generational transitions to get there.

So why the clash over Georgia and Ukraine now?

Part of the answer is the desire in Berlin and elsewhere in Europe to see what happens in Moscow after the new president takes over. Whether Medvedev offers new opportunities for more cooperation with Europe and the United States cannot be known. But Germans and others in Europe clearly want to give him some time and space to see what he will do, and whether Putin's confrontational style will be dissipated under Medvedev's presidency. By forcing him to confront a fait accompli by NATO in including Georgia and Ukraine now, it is argued, the chance that we might see a new direction might diminish, especially if Putin can exploit such a move to heat up populist sentiments against the alliance as trying to undermine Russia. Based on some of the discussions with Russians in Bucharest and Putin's appearance at the NATO-Russia Council following the NATO summit in Bucharest, there is a real potential for that. But we need time to sort that out.

New Leaders Around the Globe
The other part of the answer is that seven months from April 4, Americans will choose a new president. Bush is lining up the issues he knows will define his legacy whether it is in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the Middle East, or dealing with a resurgent Russia, among the many others. In Bucharest he was reminding his audiences of what he wants that legacy to look like: steadfast and unwavering in spreading democracy around the globe. Bush may well be right when he argues that it will be a long time before what he has done can be evaluated as having contributed to that transformation or whether his decisions have worsened the choices we will be facing long after he is back in Texas. But whatever that judgment might be, the need to keep on responding to current challenges remains on the table for those remaining to deal with them while Bush looks on from Crawford.

Decisions about facts on the ground need to be made now. Just as Merkel is waiting to see what emerges in Moscow, she along with her European neighbors are awaiting the results of November 2008 in the U.S. to see how agendas can be forged.

And with national elections on the agenda for Merkel next year, keeping an eye on controlling the number of conflicts to be managed is an important issue for her. But the important question is how the set of foreign policy choices is defined.

Positioning for the Future
What happened in Bucharest was a demonstration of something normal in politics at home and on the world stage: competing agendas with competing goals. The need for Bush to complete his run in Washington with an affirmation of what his intentions were and are was on clear display in Bucharest. The need for Chancellor Merkel to position herself and Germany for the next chapter under her leadership was also clear. Merkel sees her choices differently than does Bush even if they agree on the desired outcomes. They differ primarily on the sequence; some of that has to do with home consumption. What Bush was escalating in Bucharest was his presidential profile as he leaves office in January of 2009. What Merkel was doing there was setting her agenda for one very important political year in the fall of 2009, not only for Germany but for the EU.

Next year both Germany and NATO mark a sixtieth anniversary and the summit will be jointly hosted by France and Germany. President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel will mark that occasion by celebrating the event on both sides of the Rhine, in Strasbourg and Kehl, which face each other. The Rhine was once a symbol for conflict and war between France and Germany. Now it represents binding bridges for Europe. NATO was set up to both defend Europe as well as to protect its reemergence as a model of cooperation among former enemies. In large measure, it has accomplished that, but it did take decades.

The same issues which were found in Bucharest will be revisited on the Rhine in a year. While Bush will not be there, Merkel, a new American president, as well as a new Russian president can be expected. The challenge for them all will be to see whether competing agendas can be also used to create shared opportunities.

Dr. Janes is currently in Romania attending The Bucharest Conference.

This essay appeared in the April 4, 2008, AICGS Advisor.