Reassurance or re-engagement

by October 17, 2010

In Friday’s Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, Polish columnist Jędrzej Bielecki provides a useful overview of the latest chapter in the European debate about the future of NATO and its relations with Russia. An analysis and recommendations paper written by a top-tier group of experts convened by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and chaired by former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright — a paper meant to lay the foundations of a new “strategic concept” to be adopted by the alliance in November — had recommended “pragmatic collaboration” with Russia across a range of shared interests including missile defence. Writes Bielecki:

Rasmussen’s proposal has highlighted the existence of three factions within NATO… First comes the European core countries (Germany, France and their southern European allies), then the Atlanticists (the UK and the Benelux countries among others), and finally there is a faction made up of more recent NATO members in Central Europe. For the first of these factions, associating Russia with European defence policy should now be a priority. The second wants the main emphasis to be on close relations with the United States and the fight against terrorism, while the third is convinced that Russia remains a major threat — which is why they want reassurances that they will be protected in the event of possible conventional or cyber attacks from the East.

Eminently reasonable-sounding, “pragmatic collaboration” is thus a contentious idea. But as a recent paper co-written by Tomas Valasek, director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform and one of the civilian advisors to the NATO Group of Experts, points out, “reassurance” of Central Europe and engagement with Russia have never been mutually exclusive concepts:

A similar situation occurred in the 1960s, when the allies disagreed over whether defence or détente should be the priority. In the end NATO combined what appeared to be contradictory elements into a grand ‘dual-track’ strategy that served the alliance well and helped set the stage for the fall of the Iron Curtain two decades later. Today, NATO is divided over whether reassurance or [a repaired relationship with Russia] should take priority. Again, it is a false dilemma: it should have a dual track strategy that accomplishes both.

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Jędrzej Bielecki