Prague summit to transform NATO
By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley
LONDON, England (CNN) -- They are calling it the "transformation summit" for NATO, a set of initials dismissed by cynics not long ago as standing for Now Almost Totally Obsolete.
Certainly the NATO which will emerge from the leaders' meeting in Prague this week will be one with a different role, a new strike force, the promise of increased capabilities and probably seven more members to add to the existing 19.
Expected to gain invitations to join the alliance during the Thursday-Friday summit are the seven former Communist states of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria.
Few of them have much to offer by way of military assets. But NATO is not just a military organisation for fighting wars; it has also become a political organisation for the propagation of democracy and market economics and the extension eastward of Western-style democracy.
That, rather than any perceived military advantage, is why U.S. President George W. Bush and his government have been pushing for the "big bang" extension.
The United States, in the shape of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, has been behind another major NATO development to be unveiled in the Czech capital -- the creation of a 20,000-strong Rapid Response Force.
In an interview with CNN, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson called the force "a very sharp new tool in the NATO toolbox, able to go very quickly and to hit very hard where there is a security interest."
The creation of the new force is part of the reshaping of NATO to cope with the post-September 11 world, in which countering terrorism in its many guises is the new military preoccupation. Without such a reshaping, the organisation might well fall into terminal decline.
Although individual NATO members have played their part in the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban since September 11, NATO as such has been little involved -- apart from the supply of AWACS spy planes to patrol U.S. skies while U.S. military assets were in use elsewhere.
Some question whether the United States -- irritated by tardy committee decision-making, European governments' preference for diplomatic initiatives over military action, and low defence spending levels of European governments -- would ever want NATO fighting alongside it again.
But Lord Robertson has lobbied hard for European governments -- apart from the UK and France -- to lift their defence spending and channel what they spend more effectively.
The new NATO members are being encouraged to develop niche expertise in areas like providing field hospitals or decontamination squads.
Robertson recently condemned the $150 billion European defence budget as a "waste of money," saying: "There are two million troops in uniform in Europe, half a million more than the Americans, but only a fraction are deployable."
But he told CNN this week that European leaders were now willing to spend at a higher level. Though it would not mean an end to the U.S.-Europe capability gap or the European deficit, Robertson promised "an impressive package of capability improvements" at Prague.
NATO also has seemingly leapfrogged all its old inhibitions about being a defence force confined to a traditional area. It has become willing to plan a worldwide role fighting terrorists or coping with failed states seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
Next year, NATO will take on a role in Afghanistan supporting the German and Dutch troops who will then be leading the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
The key question will be whether the European nations in NATO will be willing to find and fund the special troops, smart weapons and heavy-lift capacity which will be required to make the new multinational Rapid Response Force a reality over the next two years.
One problem will be that Europe almost certainly won't be able to manage both that and the planned 60,000-strong Rapid Reaction Force which the European Union has been trying to put together.
Not so long ago, defence analysts were predicting that the Prague summit would be a "train wreck summit" emphasising the differences between a unilateralist, gung-ho United States and its doubting European allies.
Bush's willingness to go down the U.N. Security Council route over Iraq, at least for the moment, has lessened those tensions considerably.
But Iraq will still be an awkward subject at the summit, especially between Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose re-election came at the expense of bruised relations with Washington.
Further tensions are likely over the U.S. push for European nations to adopt missile defence plans.
And much scepticism will remain over whether NATO has been able to reinvent itself and avoid permanent decline until its Rapid Response Force is actually up and running.