The NATO/WTO Women's Meetings with the NATO Foreign Ministers

In early December, 1988, women peace activists, researchers, and Members of Parliament from twelve NATO countries met in Brussels with their counterparts from six Warsaw Treaty Organization countries.

By Ann Crosby

THE MEETING WAS ORGANIZED by Women for a Meaningful Summit (International) and NATO Alerts Network. The purpose was to plan to query the NATO Foreign Ministers during the Foreign Ministers Conference, then in progress. Earlier, in March, a similar group of women from NATO and WTO countries had met with the WTO Foreign Ministers in Bulgaria. Both sets of meetings were designed to open new communication channels between the East and the West, to cultivate increased dialogue.

In Bulgaria, the questions formed the basis for an extended dialogue between the women and the seven Foreign Ministers, including Shevardnadze from the Soviet Union. In Brussels, by contrast, it was impossible to arrange a group encounter and, instead, individual meetings were held with thirteen of the NATO Foreign Ministers and/or their permanent representatives. The same questions were asked at each of the meetings and, given the diversity of answer, some of us were led to think that it might be more difficult to coordinate a NATO perspective than an East/West one.

The questions covered three main areas of concern. First, the NATO Ministers were asked if there was consensus that the East, and particularly the Soviet Union, was no longer interested in invading the West, and if so, how was this consensus reflected in NATO's military doctrine? Second, the Ministers were asked for their views on comprehensive security and what they saw to be the obstacles to this program. In addition, they were asked if they could foresee the establishment of permanent negotiating links between the two Treaty Organizations. Third, the subject of both conventional and nuclear modernization was broached in terms of its ethics and economics. The ethical concern was that modernization was undoing the good of the INF Treaty. Economically, the concern was expressed that the parliaments of NATO countries had not been apprised of the real costs of modernization given, especially, the U.S.'s new cost-sharing plans.

Because the Ministers could not say that they were against peace, security, peace institutions, and grass roots initiatives, agreement in principle with these generalities was a given. However, agreement ended there. For instance, both Britain and Turkey stated that they perceived the WTO countries to be a threat to their security. The Netherlands, on the other hand, said that they did not feel threatened, while Spain said it was harder to negotiate with the U.S. than with the USSR.

With respect to comprehensive security, the European consensus was that, since the document outlining this program would not be completed at the Converence on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) until March or April of 1989, comment would be reserved until its publication. However, several European countries indicated that they would not proceed with modernization programs until they could review the comprehensive security document. In addition, all countries agreed that links could not, and should not, be forged between the NATO and Warsaw Treaty Organizations themselves, that channels of communication between the East and the West were best realized through other existing links, such as the CSCE. Since we were asking the NATO Ministers to imaginatively construct their own obsolescence, this response was not surprising.

AS FAR AS THE QUESTION on the modernization of weapons systems was concerned, the answers invariably contained some number-crunching statistics on quality versus quantity, with Britain, the United States, and Canada holding to WTO superiority as the NATO justification for modernization. Turkey said that the process of modernization was in place and therefore it couldn't be stopped. Norway agreed that the process was in place, but suggested that there was discord between the process and present reality. Greece was against modernization in all its forms,, while Italy was against nuclear modernization.

THE U.S./CANADIAN RESPONSES TO the questions were virtually identical and, in fact, Rozanne Ridgeway, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and Permanent Representative to NATO, spoke of Canada and the U.S. as though they were one country. Gordon Smith, Canada's Permanent Representative to NATO, was less rhetorically obnoxious than Rozanne Ridgeway, but his position in terms of U.S. NATO policy was "me too."

We met with Ridgeway the day after Gorbachev had delivered his speech to the United Nations, in which he committed the WTO to a defensive (not offensive) security position, and announced substantial, unilateral cutbacks in troops and conventional arms. Ridgeway's view was that Gorbachev had done no more than was expected to him and if the world was waiting for a response in kind from the United States, they would have to wait a long time. As to modernization, she stated that it was necessary because of WTO conventional arms superiority, and anyway, she said, "… neither side wants its 'boys' out fighting with pitchforks." None of us had realized that pitchforks were an option, but we all agreed later that, if armed conflict could not be abolished, perhaps pitchforks were the way to go.

Throughout the meeting, we were treated to a number of mini-lectures. We were told that history has taught that the weak get trammelled and, therefore, survival is only guaranteed by strength. Comprehensive security, which she said she did not understand, was therefore a no-no, a "candy-floss" notion, in her words. At this point, she began to refer to us as "mothers" and suggested that once we had done our homework and understood the international system a little better, we would come to accept the U.S. position. Amongst those who were being thus matronized (as opposed to patronized, since Ridgeway is a female) were two women with doctorates in special areas of international relations or international law, four women doing graduate studies in international relations, a member of the Oxford Research Group, three Members of Parliament, and Margarita Papandreou, who has worked extensively in coordinating international communication between the East and the West.

At the end of three days of meetings in which we had drawn up the questions, met with thirteen NATO Foreign Ministers and/or their representatives, coordinated their responses, conducted a press conference at the International Press Centre in Brussels, and attended two dinners and two cocktail receptions, we were exhausted. Cynicism thrives on exhaustion, and a touch of cynicism may be healthy in assessing the value of these types of meetings. In agreeing to meet with groups such as ours, the NATO and WTO countries indicate that they are, at least, cognizant of a diversity of views in public opinion. However, cognizance is as far as it goes for the hard-line NATO states. The Ministers agreed to meet us, but they did not listen, partly because we are women, partly because they perceive all peace activists to be politically naive, but mostly because they believe their own actions and policies to be beyond reproach. As far as the NATO states that are themselves searching for alternatives to the archaic security systems of the East/West alliances are concerned, such meetings symbolize a degree of public support for the positions of these countries and are, therefore, of value.

WHAT WAS MOST IMPORTANT, HOWEVER, was the exchange of ideas between the women from the NATO countries and those from the Warsaw Pact countries. There were two mis-assumptions between the two groups that made for interesting dialogue. The Eastern women tended to assume that our dissatisfaction with NATO policies meant that we preferred Gorbachev's position. This was true of the choice between existing alternatives, but it was short-sighted in presuming that we accepted the Eastern political and economic system as it existed. For our part, we assumed that because we were working with women from the East on a joint effort to address the NATO Foreign Ministers, we were working from a common basis of peace activism. This was not entirely true either for, with only two exceptions, the women from the East were well-established party members. They had vested interests in their countries' policies, as opposed to an interest in searching for alternatives to supersede the policies of both the East and the West.

The three days of discussions did not resolve these mis-assumptions, but they did bring them to light. This 'light'will mean little if it goes no further. And this is a problem - particularly in North America. Meetings between women's organizations of both blocs have gone on for several years, and the Canadian press (including radio talk shows, such as Morningside and Sunday Morning) have been told about them beforehand and afterwards, but chooses to ignore them. This is not true for the European press, both East and West.

The problem is not only that peace initiatives are ignored. The Canadian press tends to discuss NATO in terms of whether or not we should remain a part of it, without giving us adequate information about the alternatives that are well-established in the European community. For example, we know very little here about the Comprehensive Security document being drafted by the CSCE. Nor is the problem simply the press coverage. Our one ostensibly innovative political party, the NDP, did not even discuss its common security platform during the past election. Thus our own alternatives are not well known. By contrast, a prominently-displayed publication in the European Parliament featured an article on the NDP Common Security program.

Canada is, in fact, if not in domestic rhetoric, one of the hard-line NATO states. Given the negligence of the press in reporting European governmental alternatives to East/West security dilemmas, one can only conclude that events such as women's meetings with the NATO Foreign Ministers have little value, as far as Canada is concerned. That is sad.

Ann Crosby, a member of Voice of Women, is a graduate student in sociology and peace studies at McMaster.

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1989

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1989, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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