|Georgia and Ukraine split NATO members|
|November 30, 2008|
By Steven Erlanger
NATO foreign ministers gather this week in Brussels, with the United States and Germany quarreling over just how much distance to keep from Georgia and Ukraine.
The debate is ostensibly over the mechanisms through which Georgia and Ukraine will, at some point, become members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But the real debate is over relations with Russia, especially in the aftermath of its conflict last summer with Georgia. And those ties with Moscow are wrapped up in domestic politics, both in Germany and the United States.
The administration of President George W. Bush, which has maintained close ties with Georgia and with pro-Western politicians in Ukraine, wants to give no concessions to what it sees as a newly aggressive Russia. It wants NATO to send a clear message that Moscow cannot intimidate the alliance and that it does not get to veto NATO membership.
At her last NATO ministerial meeting, the main task for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be to give substance to a vague promise by NATO last April that Georgia and Ukraine would some day become members.
After this week, the next NATO summit meeting will be held in April, when the organization marks its 60th anniversary and when France is scheduled to reintegrate fully into the military wing of the alliance. But by then, U.S. relations with NATO will be the responsibility of President-elect Barack Obama and his intended secretary of state, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In a possible indication of her views on Georgia and Ukraine, Clinton - alongside Senator John McCain of Arizona - nominated Presidents Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia and Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine for the Nobel Peace Prize in January 2005 for their roles "in leading freedom movements" and "their extraordinary commitment to peace."
Not all NATO members are so enthusiastic. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing a strong challenge from her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who will lead the Social Democratic Party into elections next year that will openly pit the parties of the divided coalition government against each other. Merkel, a Christian Democrat, has been relatively tough with Russia in the softer German context; Steinmeier is considered friendly to Russia, a powerful neighbor on which Germany depends for much of its energy supply.
Germany, according to both German and U.S. diplomats, wants to send an accommodating message to Moscow, both by slowing down NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine and by welcoming a call by President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia for talks on a new "security architecture" for Europe.
For now, Germany insists that Georgia and Ukraine go through what is called a Membership Action Plan, or MAP, before NATO enlargement is considered.
At the NATO summit meeting in Bucharest last April, Germany and France blocked a last-minute push by Bush and some newer NATO members - those with experience under Soviet rule - to give Georgia and Ukraine immediate membership action plans. Berlin and Paris argued that Ukraine was politically divided and that neither it nor Georgia was ready.
They also argued that a membership action plan for Ukraine would outrage Russia, which regards Ukraine as a crucial part of its mental and physical landscape, and that a plan for Georgia could destabilize the Caucasus.
Bush fought hard but lost, after annoying Merkel, who thought she had received a promise from Bush not to press for membership plans.
Paris and Berlin compromised by agreeing that Ukraine and Georgia could become members, but they did not say when. They agreed with Washington that the membership action plans would be reconsidered at the meeting this week.
But that was before fighting in Georgia in August, when Russia ended up taking over the enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia - within the sovereign borders of Georgia - and then recognizing their independence. In doing so, Russia cited Washington's recognition of independence for Kosovo, wrested from Serbia militarily without a UN resolution.
Realizing that many Europeans are convinced that Saakashvili either started the Russian-Georgian conflict or fell rashly into a Russian trap, Washington now says that having a Membership Action Plan is not important. U.S. diplomats say that "MAP has been fetishized" by the Europeans, who see it as a step too far; by the Russians, who see it as an offensive move; and by the Georgians, who see it as a form of deterrence, a commitment of NATO aid even before membership.
Knowing that it would probably lose another fight for a plan now, Washington is instead arguing that NATO can work to make Ukraine and Georgia ready for membership through other means, in particular the NATO-Ukraine Commission, established 11 years ago, and the NATO-Georgia Commission, which was created after the August war.
Daniel Fried, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, said in Washington last week that "MAP was never an end in itself" and that it "is not the only way to get there." He emphasized that such plans were only created after the first former Soviet bloc nations joined in 1999.
France seems content with the U.S. formulation, which raises no new flags with Moscow and does little to hasten membership for Georgia and Ukraine.
But Berlin was angered, seeing the U.S. position as "MAP without MAP," or the substance without the label, according to one German official who spoke anonymously because of diplomatic practice.
Germany insists that MAP remain a condition of NATO membership and has accused Washington of making an "end run" around the Bucharest compromise.
A senior U.S. official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that everyone now accepted it would take "years and years" before Georgia and Ukraine are ready; even then, every NATO country must ratify enlargement. "I don't really understand what the Germans want," he said.
"They're clinging to MAP, but they refuse to use it. They will use it only when a country is already ready to become a NATO member, so why insist on it? They say they want to preserve it as a final hurdle. We say, 'Let's get out of this hamster ring, since everyone really is in agreement, and get on with it."'
As for Russia, the U.S. official said, Washington is telling Berlin that "if you make MAP such a big political deal, then it is more of an issue for Russia." But the official also conceded that Merkel remained angry about Bucharest and that "standing up to the United States," especially to a disliked, lame-duck Bush administration, may be good domestic politics.
The French are being constructive, the U.S. official said. "We want to get out of this conflict and move on, and they don't want it to be a big issue" for the April meeting, Obama's first and a big anniversary for the alliance.
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