Last Alliance Standing? NATO after 9/11

John R. Schmidt

(De ingenomen standpunten zijn niet die van Vrede vzw.)

When NATO leaders meet at the Riga summit in late November 2006, they will confront a far different security landscape than the one faced by the founding fathers of the alliance. Those leaders established NATO in 1949 to defend Western Europe against the clear and present danger posed by Soviet military power. The United States, as the most powerful member of the alliance by far, came to dominate the transatlantic relationship, both politically and militarily. Despite some bumps along the road, notable among them French withdrawal from the integrated military structure and the U.S.-Soviet Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty controversy, NATO managed to maintain its cohesion and solidarity through the darkest days of the Cold War. Yet, when the Soviet Union unexpectedly collapsed, NATO did not follow its old nemesis into the ash heap of history. The instability generated in central and eastern Europe by the Soviet collapse reminded European allies of the importance of maintaining the transatlantic alliance as a hedge against an uncertain future. The United States, for its part, had no desire to abandon the primary instrument through which it exercised influence in Europe, which remained vital to its long-term security interests.

NATO endured, but the disappearance of the Soviet threat had another important consequence. It gave the European allies, most of whom were also members of the European Union, the political freedom to accelerate their goal of pursuing ever-closer European integration through the EU. As part of this process, the EU began to construct a distinctive security and defense personality of its own, a development that raised growing concerns in Washington that the EU might one day emerge as a competitor to NATO. This has generated still-unresolved frictions between NATO and the EU as well as between the United States and its European allies over the respective roles of the two organizations.

Although opposing an independent EU defense identity, the United States has continued to seek new roles and missions for NATO, especially after the September 11 attacks, which raised serious questions about the relevance of the organization. These questions were stimulated not only by diminishing European military capabilities following the end of the Cold War but also by the United States’ growing reluctance, for this and other reasons, to use NATO for serious combat operations. When NATO leaders meet in Riga, against a strategic backdrop very different from that of 1949, how they and their successors answer these questions and manage the frictions generated by NATO-EU competition will determine the future of the transatlantic alliance.