The NATO Summit in Bucharest

Afghanistan, missile defense, enlargement, and peacekeeping in Kosovo form a complex agenda for NATO's three-day conference that starts today.

Representatives from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, including President Bush, are gathering today in Bucharest, Romania for a three-day conference to address some of NATO’s most pressing challenges and to reach a greater consensus on the alliance’s mission in a modern, post-Soviet security environment.

On the table will be issues ranging from equitable burden-sharing among alliance partners for the mission in Afghanistan, the enlargement of the NATO alliance to include more candidates from the Balkans and the former Soviet Union, missile defense, and the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, which recently declared itself independent of Serbia. Yet it is unclear how much consensus will come out of the Bucharest conference given the complexity of the conference itinerary, the fundamental lack of agreement among lead nations on Afghanistan and NATO expansion, and President Bush’s limited time remaining in the White House.


Foremost on the agenda will be the NATO mission in Afghanistan, where member nations are currently contributing approximately 47,000 troops to a United Nations-mandated International Security Assistance Force tasked with rebuilding the country and staving off a resurgent Taliban campaign against the Karzai government in Kabul.

As the mission in Afghanistan has faltered, internal rifts in the NATO alliance have grown and been aired publicly. Disagreements over burden sharing, coordination, and strategic direction are plaguing the alliance.

The United States, which is contributing approximately 19,000 U.S. troops to NATO and another 11,500 troops to a separate military command as part of “Operation Enduring Freedom,” has complained repeatedly that some members of the alliance are not contributing fully to the ISAF mission. Many NATO members have placed strict conditions on the use of their forces, limiting their troop deployments to missions in the less violent northern areas of the country and leaving the United States, Britain, and Canada as the primary contributors of ISAF combat forces.

The frustration that some members of the NATO alliance were becoming “free riders” has been expressed publicly on several occasions leading up to the NATO conference. Defense Secretary Robert Gates pointedly warned in February 2008 that NATO was in danger of becoming a “two-tier alliance,” with some members willing to “fight and die to protect people’s security and others who are not.” U.S. defense officials have estimated that Afghanistan needs between 3,000 and 10,000 more troops to meet mission requirements.

Gates’ criticisms echoed the January 2008 findings of a panel commissioned by the Canadian government, which demanded that other members of the alliance contribute at least an additional 1,000 soldiers to southern Afghanistan (as well as force multipliers like helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles) in exchange for Canada’s continued participation in the conflict. En route to the Bucharest conference on Monday, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley reiterated the White House position that European members of the alliance “are not doing enough, they’re not spending enough.”

Many European militaries—most of whom only receive a fraction of the defense spending enjoyed by United States forces—are constrained in their ability to meet troop shortfalls by widespread domestic political opposition to continued involvement in the Afghanistan mission and their limited expeditionary capabilities.

Germany, which has been subject to particular criticism for its limited engagement in Afghanistan, has already formally rejected a U.S. request for more troops. It has refused to expand its existing force of 3,200 troops, who currently carry out limited peacekeeping and reconstruction operations in the north. Germany has contributed 250 soldiers to a “quick reaction force” to replace outgoing Norwegian forces, but the majority of their forces are still subject to restrictions that limit their ability to fight the Taliban or assist other allied forces in doing so.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent pledge to increase his country’s contingent of troops in Afghanistan is expected to relieve some of the pressure by fulfilling the troop levels demanded by Canada, but the tensions produced by the imbalances in alliance member contributions to the collective mission are likely to endure.

NATO Enlargement

Two controversial enlargement issues will be debated at this week’s summit: NATO expansion into the Balkans, and issuing a Membership Action Plan to Ukraine and Georgia.

Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia (the Adriatic Three) are all being considered for membership. The foreign ministers of the NATO member states have already agreed in principle that Albania and Croatia should be offered membership. Yet Greece is threatening to veto a membership offer to Macedonia unless there is a resolution to the controversy between the two states over the latter’s name. Greece has protested the former Yugoslav republic’s constitutional name for more than 15 years because it believes that the use of the name Macedonia implies a claim to a region of northern Greece also called Macedonia. Despite vigorous bilateral negotiations, it is unlikely that there will be a compromise.

The other contentious debate is whether to issue a Membership Action Plan to Ukraine and Georgia. The MAP is a roadmap of actions that states aspiring for membership must follow in order to be considered; it is not an offer of membership, nor is it a guarantee of any offer in the future. Both states have formally requested a MAP, but the alliance is split over the issue.

Western European countries, led by Germany and France, are arguing against the MAP offer, while the United States and the newer members of NATO in the East support it. Opponents give several reasons for denial of the MAP, but the primary argument is that it would anger Russia, whose relationship with the West has grown cold over recent issues like Kosovo, the missile defense system, and arms control in Europe. Many Russians still view Georgia and the Ukraine as under their sphere of influence, and believe that a stronger relationship with NATO will diminish this influence. There is also consideration of the ethnic Russian populations in these countries, particularly Ukraine.

Status of Kosovo

Kosovo, which recently declared its independence from Serbia, is home to over 15,000 NATO troops. NATO members will discuss the Alliance’s future role in the region, as well as the continued tension between Pristina and Belgrade over Kosovo’s independence and the security of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. There has been sporadic violence in the region since independence was declared, including attacks on UN personnel and NATO forces.

Missile Defense

There are currently three multilateral ballistic missile defense programs, the most controversial of which is one being developed by the United States in Poland and the Czech Republic. This system has become a point of contention both within the alliance and with Russia. Some NATO countries worry that U.S. bilateral initiatives will undermine the principle of “indivisibility of security” by potentially leaving some countries uncovered. (The ballistic missile defense assets proposed for the Czech Republic and Poland may not be able to track and intercept missile launched from Iran aimed at Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Turkey.) Russian policy makers complain bitterly about NATO BMD plans, alongside concerns about NATO expansion and NATO countries’ failure to ratify the updated Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty.

French Reintegration

France, a founding member of the Atlantic Alliance, withdrew in 1966. They returned to NATO in 1996, but remain outside of the Nuclear Planning Committee and the Defense Planning Committee. President Nicholas Sarkozy has expressed interest in full participation, but has demanded prestigious senior command positions for France.

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Caroline Wadhams

Senior Fellow