President George W. Bush's top goals heading into his final NATO summit included winning support for U.S. policies to deploy strategic anti-missile systems in Europe and extend NATO membership to former Soviet allies and republics. The administration claimed success afterward even though the alliance agreed to less than Bush sought.
A priority for the Bush administration since early last year has been getting backing for its initiative to base 10 long-range ballistic missile interceptors in Poland and a missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic to counter what Washington says is a growing Iranian missile threat. On April 3, the administration took one step toward its goal by concluding negotiations with the Czech Republic to host the radar. In a joint statement, the two governments said the agreement would be signed "in the near future." The agreement would then need to be approved by the Czech parliament, and U.S. lawmakers would need to fund the project for the radar to be built. U.S. negotiations with Poland remain unfinished. (See ACT, April 2008 .)
The administration's anti-missile project also got a boost at the April 2-4 NATO summit in Bucharest. In a final summit declaration, the leaders of NATO's 26 members stated they "recognise the substantial contribution" that the current U.S. proposal could make in protecting against long-range missiles. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates April 4 called the statement "significant," and many media stories blared that NATO supported missile defenses.
Certainly, the fact that European countries subscribed to a positive statement about the U.S. project was a boon for the Bush administration. Some NATO countries, such as France and Norway, have voiced various reservations with missile defenses. Moreover, Russia has been extremely hostile to the U.S. deployment proposal, and there is strong domestic opposition in the two countries where the systems are to be based.
Still, some officials of NATO governments told Arms Control Today in April interviews that the statement was not quite the victory that was portrayed. The Bush administration reportedly sought stronger language, such as "welcomes" or "supports," but settled for "recognise."
In addition, the officials noted that the alliance did not commit itself to developing any missile defenses. Instead, NATO agreed to "develop options" for systems to protect areas, particularly southern Europe, outside the notional coverage of the proposed U.S. system. Those options, NATO stated, would be reviewed in 2009, but the alliance did not say a decision to pursue any option would be made.
NATO is currently developing the Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (ALTBMD), which is a command and control system intended to allow NATO members in an emergency to link up their separate sensors and missile interceptors against short- to intermediate-range missiles. Currently, nine NATO countries have or are developing various systems that could be linked by the ALTBMD system, which is supposed to be made initially operational in 2010.
Apart from the ALTBMD system, NATO has not been eager to work on missile defenses. In 2006, NATO leaders decided against initiating work on defenses to protect alliance members' territories and population centers against the full range of missile threats despite a 10,000-page study that found such defenses feasible. Some NATO members have expressed concerns about the effectiveness of such systems, their cost, and their potential for damaging relations with Russia.
In the Bucharest declaration, NATO members indicated they wanted to avoid a rupture with Russia over the U.S. missile defense project. The alliance stated it was "committed to maximum transparency and reciprocal confidence building measures to allay any concerns." It further encouraged Russia to respond positively to a package of recent U.S. proposals to ease Russia's worries that it is the true target of the initiative. Still, Gates noted April 1, "the Russians are probably...never going to like missile defense."
Similarly, Russia has consistently and vehemently protested NATO's drive to add new members. That effort was contentious even among NATO members at the Bucharest summit. The United States pushed for inviting Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia to join the alliance and offering Membership Action Plans to Georgia and Ukraine. Those plans pave the way for a country to be formally asked to become a member. Greece, however, objected to extending membership to Macedonia because it claims that country's name reflects territorial ambitions for a Greek province of the same name. Furthermore, many countries, led by Germany, opposed giving Georgia and Ukraine membership plans in order to avoid antagonizing Russia.
In the end, the alliance compromised. It officially invited Albania and Croatia to become members, declared Macedonia would be invited to join as soon as it resolved the name dispute with Greece, and agreed that some day Georgia and Ukraine "will become members." The alliance said a decision to extend membership plans to the two former Soviet republics could be made as early as this December. Russian President Vladimir Putin reacted to the news April 4 by warning that Russia would view "the appearance of a powerful military bloc on our borders...as a direct threat to the security of our country."