President Bush's visit to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO) summit this week in Prague marks a triumph for a man critics once
dubbed a lightweight on foreign policy. This trip -- Bush's 11th abroad --
is a far cry from his first European visit in June 2001.
On his first visit, the Europeans derided the new American
president mercilessly. "No one," sniffed the Spanish paper El Pais, "has
ever bothered more people in less time."
Most Europeans are singing a different tune this week. The
president's role in arguing for the most important expansion of NATO's
mission in the alliance's 53-year history demonstrates real leadership. No
longer is Bush the foreign policy neophyte but a tested war leader who
understands why NATO must change if it is to remain relevant.
The president is pushing for NATO to make the war on terrorism
its top priority and will support the inclusion of several new nations into
the NATO alliance, including three countries that were once part of the
Soviet Union: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
NATO was formed in the aftermath of World War II as a bulwark
against the expansionist policies of the Soviet Union. Throughout the Cold
War, the United States led NATO in keeping Western Europe free. With the
demise of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe,
however, NATO's role has been less clear.
Even as NATO expanded its membership from its original 12
countries to an expected 26 members after this summit, it seemed to lose its
bearings as the premier military alliance in the world. Military alliances,
after all, are formed to protect members from a perceived common threat.
With Soviet imperialism no longer threatening Europe and the world, what
need was there for NATO?
September 11 changed that perception, however. If the United
States -- the most powerful nation in the history of the world -- could be
attacked by a group of Muslim fanatics whose weapons were commandeered
civilian airplanes loaded with fuel, what countries were safe? Europe, with
its large Muslim populations in countries like France, Germany and Spain,
seemed even more vulnerable than the United States. Islamic terrorists have
replaced the Soviet Union as NATO's raison d'etre. Unless nations band
together to fight this unconventional threat, no Western country will be
immune from attacks on its citizens.
Although much of the attention this week will be directed toward
whether President Bush is able to garner unconditional NATO support for the
anticipated U.S. war against Iraq, the president has another challenge as
well. If NATO members, especially the wealthier nations, are to be equal
partners in the war against terrorism, their military capabilities must
improve. Yet many NATO members' defenses lag far behind, especially against
chemical, biological and nuclear threats. Most European nations have not
increased their defense spending, even in the wake of this new threat. A new
report by a Virginia-based think tank, the U.S. Center for Research and
Education on Strategy and Technology, notes that only a handful of European
countries will increase military spending in the coming year, while
Germany -- a vital NATO member -- intends to cut spending.
For more than 50 years, the United States spent trillions of
dollars protecting Western Europe from the Soviet threat through NATO. Now
it's Europe's turn to help the United States -- and itself -- remain free
from the threat posed by Islamic extremists. President Bush must make this
case to his colleagues in Prague and encourage them to improve their own
military capabilities. In addition to the creation of a new NATO
rapid-response force able to respond to threats to members outside of
alliance territory, the president must convince our allies to beef up their
military spending. This is a tall order for the man many of these same
leaders once disdained. But President Bush has surpassed European
expectations nearly every time he's gone overseas, and he's likely to do it
again this time.