Issues Facing NATO On Its 60th Birthday

F. Stephen Larrabee, a specialist on European security issues, says NATO’s troubled expedition in Afghanistan shadows its 60th birthday summit in April, while prospects exist for easing tensions with Russia over missile defense in Europe.  

February 26, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

F. Stephen Larrabee, a long-time specialist on European security issues, says the most critical issue facing NATO on its 60th birthday summit in April is what to do about Afghanistan. He says it needs a "comprehensive strategy" that brings into the discussion regional powers, a view the Obama administration also seems to support. He also warns that Moscow seems determined to defend what he calls "its post-Soviet space," even to the point of using force, as it did in Georgia last summer. And he says NATO has to take into account the security risks of admitting either Georgia or Ukraine to the alliance.

It’s been nearly twenty years since the break-up of the Soviet bloc, and NATO’s still going strong;  the size of the alliance enlarged in the 1990’s from fourteen to twenty-six. Would you have thought that NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] would still be an active body so many years after the Cold War ended?

More From Our Experts

Although no one was thinking in 1989 about expanding NATO, it became clear in the early 1990’s that the central European countries wanted to enter NATO. I was strongly in favor of this. I felt that it would strengthen stability in Europe; indeed it was not something that was directed against Russia. Russia could benefit from having stability on its borders, although of course Moscow didn’t see it that way. But I would have advocated bringing the central European countries into NATO whether or not Russia existed. This was not something that was done because there was a military threat, but rather to improve stability and security in Europe.

More on:

Security Alliances


“The Obama administration has embraced the idea that you need a comprehensive strategy that looks at the problem of Afghanistan regionally, and that goes even beyond Pakistan and India but in some way takes into consideration the interests of Russia, Iran, and even China.”

With the twenty-six NATO leaders planning a celebratory 60th anniversary summit on April 3 and 4 in Strasbourg, France and Kehl, Germany, what are the dominant issues facing the alliance?

The first issue, obviously, is Afghanistan. If the situation in Afghanistan cannot be stabilized, there obviously will be repercussions for NATO and NATO’s own reputation. So handling that problem, and finding a way to stabilize Afghanistan is critical.

Is this a question of most NATO countries being reluctant to send many troops to help the Americans, Canadians, and British, who are doing most of the fighting?

Simply sending more troops there in my view will not do very much unless there is an understanding and recognition that you need a comprehensive strategy that recognizes the linkage between the stabilization of Afghanistan and the stabilization of Pakistan and also takes into consideration how India fits into the larger regional security context.

More From Our Experts

The Obama administration in its early days acknowledged this regional dimension by appointing Richard Holbrooke as a special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and on his first trip out there he also visited India. There’s been considerable talk about bringing the Iranians into the picture as well. Do you see some kind of regional conference evolving?

I wouldn’t exclude that, but I was thinking more conceptually; and here the Obama administration has embraced the idea that you need a comprehensive strategy that looks at the problem of Afghanistan regionally, and that goes even beyond Pakistan and India but in some way takes into consideration the interests of Russia, Iran, and even China and that probably you’re not going to be able to stabilize that region without in some way bringing in the other powers. And therefore a conference at some point would probably be useful, but not necessarily right away.

What are the other problems for NATO right now?

We touched upon the question of enlargement. Here I would say that there’s a very different situation today than was the case with admission of central and eastern European members, because the two countries that now are being considered for membership, or at least who have applied for membership, Georgia and Ukraine, are part of the post-Soviet space. And here, Russia is very sensitive, much more sensitive than it was about central Europe and eastern Europe. The invasion of Georgia last August only underscored the sensitivity that Russia feels about any further expansion of NATO; indeed in the way it was designed not simply to punish President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia for his pro-Western orientation and desire to join NATO, but to send a broader message to the West. That message was that Russia considers itself to have vital interests in the post-Soviet space, and is prepared, if necessary, to defend those issues with force.

More on:

Security Alliances


More on:

Security Alliances


“The invasion of Georgia only underscored the sensitivity that Russia feels about any further expansion of NATO… Russia considers itself to have vital interests in the post-Soviet space, and is prepared, if necessary, to defend those issues with force.”

That puts the situation in a very different context, because it does mean that before any further expansion of NATO, the alliance needs to undertake a really serious examination of how it can carry out an Article 5 security commitment [to defend any member state] to Ukraine and Georgia. I’m not saying they shouldn’t become members, but before they do, the alliance has to undertake that type of study. It has not.

On the same subject of former Soviet areas, recently, of course, the President of Kyrgyzstan went to Moscow, got a deal for a $2 billion loan, and then canceled the U.S. rights to the airbase in Kyrgyzstan, and the parliament backed him up. Do you think this is another sign of Moscow weighing in, showing where it’s interests lie?

Absolutely. The message was very clear, which was if you want something in the post-Soviet space in Central Asia, don’t talk to the tenant. Talk to the landlord. And in that case, basically they were trying to emphasize again that this is an area of what President Dmitri Medvedev has called "privileged interest" to Russia. And if the United States wants to do anything there, it has to talk to Russia first.

I noticed Russia has agreed to allow land shipments to Afghanistan go through Russia into Central Asia. But that, of course, gives Russia the right at any time to hold it up, right?

That would be one of the dangers, but the other is the larger point, which is that they’re angling for a deal, but this deal would require the United States and the West to de facto agree that post-Soviet space is part of a Russian sphere of influence, and that this has been a policy that Russia and the Soviet Union have always pushed over a long time.  It was true during the Cold War and it’s still part of Russian foreign policy. But this would be contrary to the whole thrust of U.S. and Western policies since the end of World War II and particularly since the end of the Cold War, which has been not to agree to spheres of influence and not to try to build new dividing lines, but rather erase old ones.

Talking about old spheres of influences, you have this controversy over the U.S. plan to install missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, which of course until 1989 were parts of Moscow’s sphere of influence, the Warsaw Pact. The Obama administration seems to now be hedging on the missile deployment. What would be your advice on this?

I would advise them to hedge. Obama has rightly said in the campaign that he supports missile defense in principle, but does not see a reason to rush; that he wants to make sure the system works, first of all, and secondly that he wants to make sure that the policy is coordinated with our NATO allies. And by not rushing, this opens the prospect of discussions with the Russians, and I’m not entirely convinced that the Russians are not going to be willing to discuss this issue more openly than they were with the Bush administration. In the last eighteen months of the Bush administration, the Russians showed little or no interest in trying to discuss missile defense seriously. They were waiting for the next administration, and there are some possibilities here that need to be explored, and there’s no need to rush forward with the missile defense system at this time. If we started deploying it a year or two after discussions with the Russians, if the Russians prove uncooperative and intransigent, then we can move forward, but there’s no need to go forward so fast now.

And of course the Obama administration has indicated early on now to the Russians that it wants to go ahead with the renewal of the START treaty, which expires in December this year. Is that a major development?

It’s an important development. And here again there will be a difference of approach on this in the Obama administration because the Bush administration essentially had an aversion to negotiated arms control deals in general and much preferred unilateral arms control. It was against, or tended to be against negotiated arms control, because that required them to make concessions that they did not necessarily want to make or circumscribed U.S. freedom of action, whereas unilateral measures didn’t. But the Obama administration now will go back to a much more traditional approach, which is to try to get a negotiated arms control agreement. And here the Russians have a major interest in this, because their strategic systems are becoming obsolete more quickly than ours are. Therefore they would be better off with a renewed arms control agreement.

Are there any other negotiations on the table with the Russians?

They’re not on the table, but one of the important ones is the CFE, the Conventional Forces in Europe agreement. The Russians suspended their involvement in this as a kind of threat, but it is important, because it involves so-called "flank limitations," which the Russians opposed because they want to keep their forces on the flanks, particularly in the southern flanks in the Caucasus. And of course in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Georgia, they’ve increased their forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in violation  of the CFE agreement. So trying to get that back on track will be important.

When President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was President of the EU during the summer, he talked of France’s rejoining the military part of NATO.  Will this happen?

He has said this is what he wants, and it is expected that he will probably formally announce that France will reenter the military command of NATO from which President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France in 1966. He will probably announce this at the summit in April. And this is a very important step. It would end the source of tension that has bedeviled the trans-Atlantic relationship and the U.S.-French relationship in particular since France’s withdrawal in 1966. It would also significantly increase the alliance’s capacity for crisis management and should make NATO-EU relations much easier.


Top Stories on CFR


The global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is underway, but the emergence of new coronavirus strains threatens to make the pandemic far worse before it gets better.


What does it take to make a Hollywood blockbuster? Movie stars? A great script? How about approval from the Chinese government? In this episode, two guests explore the surprising role of Chinese censorship and oversight in the production of U.S. films and ask what’s at stake as their presence increases.

Politics and Government

History will judge the Trump presidency to have been a consequential one, but more for its destructive effects than for its achievements.