Gamble by UK’s Ambassador to NATO Misfires, and the NATO Alliance Ruptures
By all accounts there have been few more difficult and dramatic meetings in the 54-year history of Nato. At 10.30am, the besuited ambassadors of all 19 nations assembled around a large table, knowing that they were going to depart from the habit of a lifetime and indulge in a full-scale row.
Usually meetings at the alliance are short and uncontroversial, the deals having been stitched up in corridors well in advance. But even staid diplomats describe the atmosphere yesterday as “emotionally charged” and “heated”, one adding that there was uncharacteristically “trenchant argument and plain speaking”.
On the table was a request to start sending to Turkey defensive military equipment, including Patriot missiles, Awacs surveillance planes and equipment to combat nuclear, biological and chemical warfare in case of attack by Iraq.
Under procedures laid down by the Nato secretary general, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, the plans would have gone ahead unless an alliance member objected – to use the Nato jargon “broke silence” – by 11am. With relations between Washington, Paris and Berlin so strained on how to tackle Saddam Hussein, Lord Robertson’s decision to force the issue was always a gamble.
And when formal letters of objection were registered from France, Germany and Belgium, it failed. Turkey deepened the crisis, putting on record its desire for emergency talks under article four of the alliance’s founding treaty, a clause that covers crises where countries feel they are under military threat.
Benoît d’Aboville, the ambassador of France, spoke first. According to one of those present, he broke with his normal custom and read from a script, as if to make the point that he was under orders from Paris. The point of breaking silence, according to French sources, was not “to send a bad message at a crucial time”. Many of the measures could be taken without Nato approval, Paris argued, pointing to the fact that Germany was making Patriot missiles available to Israel bilaterally.
After briefer interventions from Germany and Belgium, all pretence of unity was abandoned. America, Canada, the UK, the Netherlands and Norway all attacked the position of the “gang of three”. According to one participant the message was: “These countries were gambling with Nato’s future”. According to another, one ambassador pointed to the three and told them: “You are doing grave damage to the alliance.”
Few dispute the gravity of the situation, particularly as ambassadors were unable to reach agreement in a second session yesterday afternoon. Such was the discord that America and France even disagreed on whether article four had been invoked before (the ambassador for the US described this as the first occasion; the French say it was used in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War).
The row was so serious because, as one Nato diplomat put it, “the blockage in two countries [France and Germany] is at the highest possible level.”
Nicholas Burns, the youthful, sharp-suited US ambassador to Nato, abandoned customary ambassadorial anonymity to attack the three countries for taking a “most unfortunate decision”, one which left Nato “facing a crisis of credibility”.
In the sprawling complex in the suburbs of Brussels, diplomats were comparing the crisis with previous dramas that have tested its purpose: Nato’s rift with General de Gaulle in 1967, or the crises of the 1980s over the deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe, and of the 1990s over the Balkans.
The surprise is that such a big split should have been produced by such a relatively minor issue. The dispute is, as Lord Robertson pointed out, largely an issue of timing, with America determined to push the pace and France and Germany resisting.
Mr Burns argues that military deployments must be accelerated now, and that “the UN is doing contingency planning for Iraq, the EU is doing contingency planning for Iraq and all of the 19 members of Nato, individually, are doing contingency planning for Iraq”.
France says it ultimately will not block the dispatch of equipment to defend Turkey from possible attack, but that to send such a signal before Friday’s report by the UN weapons inspectors would be to prejudge their findings.
French sources made clear yesterday that the row had nothing to do with the alliance, and everything to do with the wider UN process. The decision was a result of “the evolution of the debate in New York”, said one senior French official. “It is not a problem at Nato.”
Nevertheless, Nato may be an early victim of a diplomatic rift that threatens to consign it to insignificance. Not only has the split highlighted a disagreement over what Nato is for, proving that even small deployments are contentious, it has also pushed America’s considerable impatience with the alliance to breaking point.
“We are not going to allow Turkey to go defenceless,” said one senior Nato official. “The US and other allies will ensure that does not happen.” Once again, Nato might find itself cut out of the action.