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LONDON — The appointment of George Robertson, formerly the British secretary of state for defense, as secretary general of NATO has rekindled discussion on a number of important defense issues facing Europe. Robertson should be able to influence the outcome, but decisions will largely rest with the governments of NATO countries.

The first need is to reclarify the role and objectives of NATO. As long as Russia has large numbers of nuclear weapons there remains a potential threat to peace, but the threat is of an entirely different order from what it was during the Cold War. There is no longer any likelihood that hordes of troops and armored divisions will pour across Europe in an effort to destroy NATO. Nor is there any current likelihood of a pre-emptive nuclear strike. But there remains the danger of a serious nuclear accident, of sabotage of Russian nuclear weapons and the leaking of nuclear supplies and knowhow to rogue regimes. The threat of extremist nationalists grabbing power in Russia cannot be ignored although there can be no certainty that they would be backed by Russia’s weakened military.

The greatest threats come from political instability, perhaps resulting from economic distress, leading to civil war in parts of the former Soviet Union, and from ethnic and/or and religious rivalries and hatreds. In Europe the Caucasus and the Balkans look the most vulnerable. Even though NATO’s remit remains Europe, the NATO powers are inevitably going to be involved in threats to the peace in the Middle East and to a lesser extent elsewhere.

The concept that force should only be used to deter invasions or frontier violations is outdated. Opinion in NATO countries generally supports the principle that serious abuses of human rights are a threat to peace and stability and justify limited intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. National sovereignty has become increasingly limited by international treaties and can no longer be used as an excuse for criminal acts such as organized torture or genocide, euphemistically termed “ethnic cleansing.”

Robertson will inevitably have to play an active part as an international “policeman” and “firefighter” although he will not be in command of the “police forces” and “fire brigades.” NATO’s ability to tackle outbreaks of violence is limited by the nature of the forces allocated by governments to NATO and the extent to which NATO governments are willing to use these forces. At the end of the 20th century, democratic governments are increasingly reluctant to accept casualties. This inevitably means that their armed forces can only be used with extreme caution and must also often delay their action until it is almost too late.

Kosovo brought these dilemmas into the open. In the end, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic agreed to Serb withdrawal from Kosovo, but it is doubtful how far this was the result of NATO air attacks. Considering the weight of the missiles and bombs used, Serbian casualties, especially civilian ones, were fortunately comparatively light. Material damage caused was huge, but it is far from clear that airstrikes succeeded in destroying a significant part of the Serb armed forces. A question, therefore, remains about how far it will be possible in future conflicts to rely so heavily on air power.

The obvious reluctance of NATO leaders, especially U.S. President Bill Clinton, to prepare and threaten to use ground forces to carry out an invasion of Kosovo — which would inevitably have led to significant NATO as well as Serb and Albanian casualties — was noted by the Serbian leaders and almost certainly made them more reluctant to accept defeat. To many observers this suggested that NATO was conducting a war like a fighter who engages in combat with one arm tied behind his back.

Armchair strategists, not fully informed of all the facts and considerations (including political factors), will rightly be criticized by those who have the responsibility for making life-and-death decisions, but no one denies that the weeks needed to force Milosevic to give in were used by the Serbs to force huge numbers of Albanians to flee their homes which were then consistently destroyed. There is also ample proof that during these weeks there was large-scale looting, rape and murder. NATO overestimated the likelihood of an early Serb capitulation and as a result the number of atrocities increased.

For many years Britain and the United States have had professional armed forces and have dispensed with conscription. Other countries in Europe, including France, are following suit, but Germany has been reluctant for historical reasons to move toward wholly professional forces. This is not the place to argue the pros and cons of conscription, but the fact is that armed forces increasingly use sophisticated technology that can only be operated by highly trained professionals.

One of the most pressing needs for NATO is to upgrade the quality of weapons systems and technology. This inevitably requires increased budgets that most NATO governments are unwilling to concede because of other pressing needs. It also requires better weapons procurement systems and integrated standards. To achieve economies of scale, more mergers of defense supplier companies and improved cooperation between these suppliers will be needed. This immediately raises nationalist attachments to home companies and reluctance to become dependent on foreign suppliers. As a result, costs rise and the various weapons systems of the NATO countries become increasingly difficult to operate jointly.

In the war in Kosovo the bulk of the air power came from the U.S. The U.S. remains firmly committed to the NATO alliance, but Congress increasingly expects European members of NATO to play a growing role in European defense.

The sort of wars in which NATO is increasingly likely to be involved require quick responses. NATO accordingly needs well-trained highly mobile forces with sophisticated equipment. NATO should have tough mobile forces ready to move at a moment’s notice to trouble spots. In Europe probably only the British and the French are at present in a position to supply such forces.

Yet another issue facing the NATO countries is that of enlargement. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are now members, and others such as Romania and Bulgaria would like to join. NATO governments have to decide not only whether the applicants have made sufficient progress toward the adoption of democratic institutions and methods but also whether their armed forces are in an appropriate state to integrate into the NATO system. More importantly NATO governments must decide how far they can safely go in expansion of NATO without deepening the European divide too far and exacerbating East-West rivalries.

The new secretary general’s problems also include how best to develop within the NATO structure purely European defense forces and how to cooperate with the European foreign-policy supremo, Javier Solana, his predecessor as secretary general, and with the European Commission, where Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong, has been given responsibility for EU foreign policy coordination.

Robertson has now, in effect, bowed out of British politics but he has accepted instead responsibility for a very arduous set of tasks. He needs patience, diplomacy and application, but above all good luck.

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