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World - Europe

Kosovo at heart of debate over NATO future

June 14, 1998
Web posted at: 11:37 a.m. EDT (1537 GMT)

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (Reuters) -- Despite declarations of unity, the United States and its NATO allies have a serious difference of approach to taking punitive military action against Yugoslavia that threatens to undermine its strategy on Kosovo and touches on its philosophy for the future.

The issue is whether the alliance can be justified in attacking a non-member country to defend against an anticipated security threat without recourse to any other world authority -- in this case the United Nations.

It is a fundamental debate as NATO, formed nearly 50 years ago to combat the menace of Soviet expansion by force into Western Europe, works on a new "Strategic Concept" for an expanded, less ideologically driven role in the post-Cold War period.

The alliance is to present that strategy next April, and the Kosovo crisis has given an early public airing to basic transatlantic differences over how far it should evolve from the self-defensive organization it is to project itself as a defender of democratic principles and peace around the world. Many member states, and in particular the old enemy Moscow, are anxious that the immediate outrage at the brutal attacks by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Serb forces on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo should not prompt the alliance to dramatic actions that pre-empt that debate.

"We should not create a precedent when NATO acts outside the territories of its member-states without a relevant decision by the U.N. Security Council," Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov said in late May, anticipating a possible aggressive response in Kosovo.

Washington apparently stands alone inside the alliance in its insistence that NATO should not be subservient to the world body when it believes it needs to take action outside its borders.

"NATO should not be required in each and every case to go to the United Nations for its authority. It should be in a position to make its own decisions," Cohen told reporters during a visit to Denmark as the alliance prepared its military response to Milosevic. He added: "NATO works by consensus. That means that all the countries ultimately agree or there is no action. But to subordinate NATO's concern for security ... to the United Nations is inadvisable and not necessary."

He was speaking to reporters after meeting Baltic and Nordic defense ministers who have for decades sat on the front line with the Soviet enemy and who are engaged in a delicate dance to engage militarily and politically with the West without alarming their giant neighbor Russia.

Danish Defense Minister Hans Haekkerup, warmly praised by Cohen for playing a quiet but forceful role in promoting such links, made no secret of his disagreement with the United States over getting U.N. authority to intervene militarily inside Kosovo.

"For Denmark to participate in such action, Denmark would need United Nations Security Council authority," he said as he sat alongside Cohen. French and other leaders have been equally explicit, and Britain, which tends to be close to Washington's line in much alliance business, is working strongly on a relevant resolution in New York.

NATO defense ministers agreed on Thursday to begin planning a range of military action in and around Yugoslavia, ranging from a no-fly zone over Kosovo to actual air strikes on Yugoslav military positions to stop the conflict, which they fear could destabilize the whole Balkans.

It is not clear what effect the differences over strategy inside the alliance will have on the effort to get Milosevic to agree to a cease-fire when he meets President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow early this week.

The wily Serb leader exploited differences among the allies for years over Bosnia, whose 3 1/2 years of war was induced largely by Milosevic's fanning of Serb nationalism.

The war only ended after the West abandoned a tentative approach and, robustly projecting its power beyond its frontiers for the first time, bombed rival forces and sent in a big multinational force to ensure a cease-fire held. The lessons of Bosnia are driving much of the thinking both over Kosovo and the remaking of the alliance, which takes in the three former Soviet bloc states Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic next year and may well expand further in the future.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told NATO foreign ministers in Brussels last month that though the primary mission remained collective defense, the alliance must face a wide range of military contingencies beyond its borders.

They included peacekeeping duties, not envisaged under previous NATO doctrines, and dealing with the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

Although several U.S. senators argue hotly against expanding NATO's function into that of a world policeman, the body prepared the ground for the Kosovo-related debate over NATO's authority to act in a resolution in April backing ratification of the three new members. It said the alliance must be able to take "any action pursuant to the North Atlantic Treaty in defense of the North Atlantic area, including the deployment, operation or stationing of forces" without requiring the consent of the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

France has been the most outspoken on the opposite view, that U.N. authority is needed for the use of force outside the borders, and insisting that NATO concentrate on its own geographical area.

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