When NATO chose Belgrade as the location for this week's meeting of its member states' foreign ministers it no doubt had in mind the symbolism inherent in the first NATO gathering to take place in a former Warsaw Pact country.

Unfortunately, however, the meeting has not shown the unity of purpose that enabled NATO to play a key role in the ending of Soviet Union hegemony in Eastern Europe. The issue that left most European NATO members France and Germany especially at odds with the United States was President Bush's missile defence project.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell was left in no doubt that many NATO countries have serious worries about the harm that this project could do to relations with major powers such as China and Russia in return for defence against minor states like Afghanistan, Iraq and North Korea. In particular the proposal of the US to abrogate the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty is regarded with anxiety.

Mr Powell loyally pressed the argument that there exists a threat to the West from these rogue states and that it would be irresponsible for the United States “as a nation with the capability to do something about such a threat not to do something.” At the same time he must have been aware, as were all those at the Belgrade meeting, that last week's switch of power to the Democrats in the US Senate almost certainly means that the missile defence project in all its aspects, including its technical feasibility, will come under much greater scrutiny than hitherto within the United States itself and that therefore there is no need for NATO members to make hard and fast decisions at this time.

Ray Fleming

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