On eve of NATO’s Prague summit, questions abound around the relationship between the alliance’s proposed cutting-edge rapid-reaction force and Europe’s plan to set up a rapid deployment force of its own.
In Prague, NATO is expected to unveil plans for a 21,000-strong, US-led response force (NRF) that could strike at terrorists or "rogue" states as identified by Washington. The force will involve land, sea and air units. Meanwhile, Europe has already made headway in setting up a 60,000-member rapid reaction force of its own. While the extent to which the two forces are planned to overlap or complement each other is still unclear, analysts already question their viable coexistence.
Through NFR, Washington aims to command an allied force that could be deployed anywhere in the world - which observers note would represent a major departure from NATO's original 1949 mission to protect western Europe from outside attack. US officials see NFR as capable of supporting Washington's new aggressive security policy, which is designed to anticipate threats and eliminate them through preemptive strikes. In the Pentagon's view, the planned European rapid reaction force would specialise in handling "lower-end, humanitarian situations".
NATO's pending transformation into an alliance tasked with countering terrorism and WMD proliferation will likely create tensions and rifts on several levels within the EU. In absence of solidly detailed plans regarding the European rapid reaction force, questions abound regarding the coordination of NATO's and the EU's security policies and also the degree of interaction between the two forces. While France continues to advocate a separate defense identity for Europe, Britain, the US' staunchest European ally, remains inclined to side with Washington's NATO-related development plans. Also, a split is seen within Europe between the older NATO members like France and Germany and the newly adopted eastern European states. The former would prefer a far more marked defense identity for Europe, while the latter are inclined to be supportive of the US plans. Finally, the contrast between the current US administration's markedly unilateralist bent and NATO's consensus-based standards may impede the clarification of NRF's role versus the EU force.
Germany, for one, has already addressed the issue. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has said he wants NATO to assume a more political role, stressing that Germany will be keeping a "low profile" in the field of defense spending. Regarding NRF, Fischer has set out three conditions: the deployment should be agreed unanimously by the NATO members; Germany's role should be decided on by the Bundestag; and NRF should not double up with EU's own rapid reaction force.