NATO bracing for expansion and reforms at Prague summit

At their Prague summit on 21-22 November, the 19 Member States of NATO intend to invite seven eastern European countries to join. They are also expected to make commitments and define timeframes for providing specific new military capabilities.

NATO's fifth "big bang" enlargement would be the biggest expansion in the bloc's 50-year history. By accepting membership applications from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, the Alliance will have increased its total population by 14 percent, from 735 million to 839 million since the last expansion round in 1999. The scheduled inclusion by the transatlantic club of the seven former communist states will have profound implications for the stability of the continent, analysts point out.

However, the real significance of the summit is not so much in the long-anticipated expansion as in the Alliance members' reaction to Washington's plans to transform NATO into a modern strike force capable of high-intensity warfare. The Bush administration has challenged NATO to create a 21,000-strong US-led rapid reaction force. Failing that, analysts fear that NATO will soon become defunct on account of its obsolete military command and lagging strike force. The NATO summit now faces a decision that would force the Member States to commit to increased defence spending - this at a time when the EU nations are grappling with sluggish economies. In 2001, the US spent 85 percent more on defence than the other 18 NATO members combined.

The summit will also have to address the issue of how to strengthen Europe's military identity through a common security and defence policy in light of the US' reluctance to carry Europe any further. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld believes that the "mission defines the coalition" and not the other way round. NATO will now have to reconsider the French view that Europe must become a counterbalance to American power.


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