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Analysis: Divisions within NATO

By CNN's European Political Editor, Robin Oakley

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Nobody doubts that the United States will strike back against the terrorists responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Centre and on the Pentagon.

The questions are only when and where. But how much support will there be for any U.S. military action?

As their peoples have demonstrated their sympathy with America’s suffering, the politicians of many countries have declared their solidarity with the United States.

Tony Blair, the British prime minister, has insisted that the UK will “stand shoulder to shoulder “ with the United States. Experience in the Gulf War and in enforcing the no-fly zone over Iraq since then suggests that is no idle boast from a traditional ally.

From Robin Oakley
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UK Prime Minister Tony Blair vows to combat terrorism worldwide (September 14)

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In his interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Mr Blair became the first European leader to say, like Bush, that his country was committed to a “war” against terrorism. And Gerhard Schroeder, the German Chancellor, has been strongly supportive too.

French President Jacques Chirac, who is not always foremost in his praise of all things American, told CNN: “When it comes to punishing this murderous folly, France will be at the side of the United States”. But a question remains about how much all the rhetoric will mean in practice.

Much has been made of NATO’s invocation of Article Five, interpreting the attack on the U.S. as an attack on all 19 members. Jack Straw, the UK Foreign Secretary, told CNN that it certainly meant that NATO would offer military support, not just moral support, to the United States.

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But NATO’s declaration of support referred not to the “Act of War” as President George W. Bush described the terrorist assault, but only to an “act of barbarism” after protests from some parties in the Belgian parliament.

Alain Richard, the French Defence Minister, was quick to stress that it was a “political declaration” and refused to use the word war to describe the attacks on the United States. Rudolf Scharping, his German counterpart, also insisted: “We do not face a war.”

The German constitution requires the seeking of parliamentary approval before any troops are committed. Scharping has suggested German support might be limited to medical facilities and Johannes Rau, Germany’s president, has said that German troops are unlikely to join any U.S. war effort.

In Italy Defence Minister Antonio Martino ruled out a call-up and said “Italian troops will not be leaving.” There are clear differences among the NATO allies as to what level of retaliatory action by America they would support. Countries like Norway, with a heavy involvement in Middle East peace efforts, would be wary of anything which smacked of over-reaction.

The UK’s Straw told CNN that the terrorists who struck New York were ratcheting up the level of terrorism and that if they were seen to escape without penalty the world would become a more dangerous place. But even he has insisted that other nations were not offering the U.S. a “blank cheque”.

Clearly the NATO partners have been urging the U.S. not to take any action until it has clear evidence of who perpetrated the terrorist outrage. In the UK parliament’s emergency session, Blair commended the US for not striking first and thinking afterwards and Straw said to CNN: ”It’s in everybody’s interests if targeted military action is targeted on the right suspects.”

No allies are likely to oppose a US strikeback against known terrorists. Where differences may emerge among potential allies is over the treatment of countries suspected of harbouring the terrorists.

Blair was firm on that point. Such countries, he said, had to cease protecting the enemies of democracy or be treated as enemies themselves. But others have their worries about the identification of individual states as harbourers, fearing that that is a route to another Gulf War.

Many countries share the U.S. aim of building a worldwide coalition against terrorism. Even a former enemy like Russia shares such an ambition, not least because it is looking for sympathy over its experience in Chechnya.

But the wider worry among the allies is that more of the Islamic world could become radicalised by punitive action from the US, either on its own or in conjunction with NATO. Some of them fear that that might breed more terrorism in the future rather than less. The best motto, they believe, is that suggested by Henry Kissinger of “cool, relentless pursuit” of the terrorist networks.

In the end, the brave assurances of solidarity may amount to no more in many instances than the provision of bases and facilities for the U.S. to mount its own operations, with the aid of one or two of the more stalwart traditional allies like the UK. That is the real value of the NATO declaration of support.

But military experts say that in most cases political backing is just as important, if not more so, than the provision of troops. Andrew Brookes, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told CNN that if there were troops from too many nations involved they would merely get in each others’ way.

“You don’t need a massive military force to do what they’re talking about doing but you do need a massive political will in the way of international support, legal underpinnings, media support and basing.

''All the infrastructure things depend upon political cohesion. In the old days you had a massive force and went in. Now you need a small force but a very big mass of political support behind it.”

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