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NATO may have tough role in ethnic conflicts, scholar says

STANFORD -- The demise of the Soviet Union "undermines the very central purpose of the NATO alliance," but the resulting European situation calls for reassessing, rather than dismantling, the organization, a scholar of international conflicts says.

NATO could find a purpose in countering new threats of ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe or the "plausible scenario" of a military regime regaining power in the former Soviet Union, said James D. Morrow, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Morrow spoke at a workshop on "The Role of NATO in a New Era" that was part of the 1992 student-run "You Can Make a Difference conference.

NATO's basic role, its need for standing armed forces and American involvement all must be rethought, Morrow said. While he was reluctant to state that Western Europe faced no threat from former Warsaw Pact countries, he said, "even my very hard-line colleagues in Hoover find it very hard to say that there is still a military threat to Western Europe."

The reasons:

  • Present rulers in Eastern Europe have no political will or interest in a conflict with Western countries.
  • Former Soviet bloc military forces are not in a position to do anything, as "troops in the one-time Soviet army tend to return home, and the forces are generally disintegrating."
  • With the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe, there are no forces on its doorstep.

The clear consequences of these changes, Morrow said, are shrinking defense budgets for the Western allies and, most likely, a degrading of the NATO command structure, which is seen as "relatively redundant at this point."

The development of the European Community also will have a profound effect on NATO, he said. The 12-member community is a centralized agency for the coordination of economic and domestic policies, but member nations are likely to coordinate foreign and defense policies in the future as well.

Coordinated foreign policy currently is an "explosive issue" in Europe, but it may eventually "reduce or eliminate the U.S. role in Western Europe in terms of foreign policy," Morrow said.

Traditionally, "the U.S. decided what it wanted to do on the international front and tried to drag the Europeans in," he said. "Now, the Europeans may be in more of a leadership role themselves."

Thus, "not only will there be a reduced U.S. military presence in Europe, there will be a reduced U.S. political presence as well," he said.

Ethnic conflicts

The collapse of Soviet power has created a new type of threat for Western Europe: Almost every country in Eastern Europe is engaged in some kind of severe ethnic conflict with its neighbors, Morrow said.

"This is a major problem, because the politicians who are running these countries, with their economies in a state of disaster, may be very tempted to use ethnic identity as an electoral strategy," he said. "Ethnic issues are a good excuse to create problems - and build up political support by doing so."

Politicians may be tempted to say, " 'We are the ones who are going to save our dominant ethnic group, and to do that we have to help save our brothers in the neighboring country who are being oppressed,'" Morrow said.

NATO may find it difficult to thwart this new threat, he said, because the different members of NATO are not likely to agree on what should be done, and any reasonable NATO commitment would have to involve some kind of close maintenance of ethnic communities by relatively large numbers of Western troops.

"This sounds like a recipe that doesn't look too attractive to most of us. Think of 20,000 marines or 20,000 ground troops running around in little villages trying to make sure that each group doesn't shoot its neighbors," Morrow said. "This looks a lot like Lebanon. This is the kind of thing where a lot of the peacekeepers get shot in the process."

There are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys in most of the ethnic conflicts, Morrow said.

"Even in Yugoslavia, for example, it is not clear that the Croats, who really got the worst of what's going on, are completely innocent.

"If, say, the Romanians and the Hungarians start shooting each other, which is a real possibility, it's not clear who we would want to support."

However, it is this aspect of the situation that might make NATO the right candidate for the job, Morrow said. By using the NATO alliance as a formal apparatus, and including the United States in a symbolic fashion, the Europeans might be able to express the idea that the operation is handled on behalf of the whole Western world, rather than as a European action.

Military threat

Morrow said he is optimistic that a military government will not regain power in the former Soviet Union. However, he agrees that there is a plausible "nightmare scenario," in which an economic collapse is followed by the return of a right-wing, nationalist, military government.

He suggested three preventive strategies:

  • "It is in our interest to retain some aspects of our military force, which will allow us to remobilize large forces when necessary," he said. As an example, he suggested keeping NATO's command structure while reducing its forces.
  • To limit arms, he suggested, "deal with the people who are now in power over there and are willing to cut forces."
  • To reallocate the defense burden among NATO members, "let the Europeans have the ground commitment, with the U.S. taking its part mostly in the naval and aerial support aspects."


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