In search of a mission

The Casa Poporului is the unfinished work of one of Europe’s last megalomaniacs, Nicolae Ceausescu. Much of historic Bucharest was levelled to create a building that the Romanian dictator could boast of as the largest in the world. An odd choice of venue by Nato — an organisation that attempts to define itself as much by shared democratic values as it does by brute force — for its summit.

Nato has been the great survivor of international relations in its 59 years of existence. It has outlived the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact and the break-up of Yugoslavia (which entailed the formation of four separate Nato-led operations). Nato is currently being reshaped on the anvil of Afghanistan, where its first expeditionary force is deployed.

But survival is not a substitute for purpose. While the building they are meeting in had a clear purpose, the leaders of the 26 Nato countries and the thousands of officials accompanying them have no clear idea what the alliance is about.

Geared to defend Europe from a land attack during the Cold War, Nato has no agreed mission, doctrine or strategy with which to define itself. Is it a bulwark against a re-emergent authoritarian Russia? The Baltic and east European member states regard Nato as the cornerstone of their independence. For them membership is not a choice but an existential issue. For Germany, keen to forge a workable strategic relationship with Russia, it is anything but.

Some members see it as a global organisation to combat global threats, but others are deeply sceptical. Nato’s response to its difficulties in Afghanistan contains all of these elements.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, will buy goodwill at the Bucharest conference by announcing the deployment of 1 000 French combat troops in the east of Afghanistan. However, his quid pro quo is a greater role for civil and economic agencies. But is Nato best suited to perform the function of a muscular aid agency?

The wisest decision Nato will take at this summit will be to defer, for at least a year, a decision on whether to set Ukraine and Georgia on the path to membership. If Nato had a hard time in the Balkans, it should think several times before involving itself in the Caucasus, where oil, religion and centuries of conflict meet, explosively, in the mountains.

And it should be wary of becoming entangled in the identity problems of Ukraine, a significant portion of whose population is hostile to Nato – unless, of course, it wants to guarantee that the next president of Russia remains a hardline nationalist. If Nato survives it will need to blur its edges, not recreate lines of division in terrain with which it is deeply unfamiliar. — Â

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