World Politics Review
April 15, 2008
By Alan W. Dowd

The reviews from NATO’s Bucharest summit are all in, and they generally conclude that the United States—and more specifically, President George W. Bush—failed.

For instance, Bloomberg News headlined the summit this way: “NATO Snubs Ukraine, Georgia, Macedonia; Blow to Bush”. The New York Times declared, “NATO Allies Oppose Bush on Georgia and Ukraine”. And The Boston Globe reported, “Allies Reject Bush's Call for NATO Role for Ukraine, Georgia”.

It is true that Bush pressed NATO to issue membership action plans (MAP) to these former Soviet republics, but it is just as true that he wanted other things from Bucharest, some of them arguably more important and more urgent than the timing of Ukraine’s and Georgia’s entry into the bulging alliance.

Topping Washington’s wish list were additional troops for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) and a strong endorsement of the burgeoning international missile defense system (IMD).

Upon further review of the summit’s various communiqués and declarations, Washington left Bucharest with both of those wishes granted, which invites an intriguing question: Isn’t it possible that Bush took a page from American politics and grabbed for the whole loaf in order to get half-a-loaf? After all, Negotiating 101 reminds us that it is far better to ask for everything and get something less than everything than to ask for a little and get something less than a little.

On the issue of troop pledges and deployments, it’s important to keep in mind the atmospherics heading into Bucharest. Canada had promised to withdraw its forces, which are in the thick of the fighting in southern Afghanistan, if other NATO members didn’t come up with a thousand more troops to help. And U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates had been pressing—begging—his counterparts to send more forces for months. 

In other words, it was no small matter for France to commit 1,000 additional troops, Britain 800 more, and Poland another 400. ISAF still needs more, but these 2,200 extra troops actually translate into 4,700 troops because they ensure that Canada will keep its contingent of 2,500 in Afghanistan.

The decision by these allies to step up to the plate ensured that Bucharest would be “a successful conference,” as Bush concluded, adding, “It is a strong statement that NATO understands the threats, understands the challenges, and is willing to rise to them.”

Underscoring that conclusion, the allies vowed “to provide our military commanders the tools they need for success by filling remaining ISAF shortfalls, including forces, training teams and enablers.”

Moreover, they promised—in writing—“to provide maximum possible flexibility of use of our forces by the ISAF Commander.” This was a not-so-veiled reference to NATO’s unwieldy and unhelpful system of so-called “caveats,” which allow members with military forces in Afghanistan to opt out of certain missions.

To be sure, these are just words. As ISAF Commander Dan McNeill bluntly tells Der Spiegel, “If you ask this soldier, he needs more than promises. He needs action to make the force in Afghanistan more resourceful than it is right now.” But these words are a hopeful sign that changes are coming—finally.  

On IMD, NATO agreed with Washington’s line that “missile proliferation poses an increasing threat to Allies’ forces, territory and populations” and that “missile defense forms part of a broader response to counter this threat.” Most significantly, the Bucharest Summit Declaration officially blessed “the substantial contribution to the protection of Allies from long-range ballistic missiles to be provided by the planned deployment of European-based United States missile defense assets.”

Invoking the “the indivisibility of Allied security as well as NATO solidarity,” the declaration sent a strong message to its more wobbly members and to Moscow that IMD is non-negotiable. In fact, by calling on Moscow “to take advantage of United States missile defense cooperation proposals,” the declaration made it clear to the Russians that there is no daylight between Europe and Washington, at least not on this issue.

Finally, it seems unlikely that Bush expected Germany and France to do a last-minute about-face and approve membership bids for Ukraine and Georgia, especially given his political instincts. For all his faults, Bush has always been a good politician, which is to say, he is adept at reading a situation. Hence, he knew the strong resistance from Germany and France; he knew Ukraine’s government wanted in but its people are divided; and he knew Moscow casts a long shadow over the future of these former Soviet republics.

So Bush pushed hard and was able to play good cop in his meetings with Georgian and Ukrainian leaders. And perhaps it was because he pushed so hard—and so vocally and publicly—that the alliance announced in Bucharest that “these countries will become members of NATO.” It’s simply a matter of when, not if. As Sergei Ryabkov, a Russian foreign ministry official, grudgingly puts it, “It’s fixed that these two countries will become members of NATO.”

If all this was a failure, then we should hope that next year’s NATO summit—coinciding with its 60th anniversary—is equally unsuccessful.