Last Alliance Standing? NATO after 9/11

NATO spent the first decade of the post–Cold War era deeply engaged in addressing the destabilizing consequences of the Soviet collapse. The alliance
used the lure of NATO membership to motivate newly freed but highly insecure former Communist nations to institute wide-ranging democratic and economic reforms. By 2002, 10 new members had been invited to join. Meanwhile, after a fitful start and with the United States as the driving force, NATO became directly involved in ending the Yugoslav civil war, undertaking offensive military operations for the first time in its history to bring the war in Bosnia to an end and, several years later, to end the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo. These military actions were followed by the first-ever NATO peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and then in Kosovo. By any account, NATO enlargement and its actions in the Balkans were tremendous successes. The one sour note was internal bickering over the management of the Serbian bombing campaign in 1999, which raised concerns in Washington about whether NATO was an effective vehicle for conducting offensive military operations.

The Serbian bombing campaign also brought into sharp relief the growing disparity between U.S. and European military power. Freed from the threat of a Soviet invasion, most European allies had drastically reduced their defense
spending to the point where the United States was the only ally capable of engaging in full-spectrum, high-intensity military operations. This led to talk of NATO becoming a two-tiered military alliance, in which the United States would engage in serious war fighting and the Europeans would handle the subsequent peacekeeping. Throughout the 1990s, NATO also began to show its transatlantic political fault lines. The disappearance of the Soviet threat gave European allies greater political space to accelerate European integration in pursuit of an “ever closer” EU. Although EU development had focused originally on building closer political and economic ties among its member states, at the end of the Cold War the EU began to turn its gaze outward. With France as the chief driver, the EU began to develop a security and defense personality of its own.

Technically, the EU had established its own Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) at Maastricht in 1992. It had already launched its first diplomatic initiatives the previous year, which focused on the breakup of Yugoslavia and subsequent war in Bosnia. Sustained efforts throughout the decade to construct a distinctive security and defense identity resulted in a decision at the European Council meeting in Cologne in June 1999 to replace the existing,
semi-independent Western European Union (WEU) with the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) as the defense arm of the CFSP.

The United States, as the traditional leader of NATO, was conflicted by these developments. On one hand, the United States strongly supported European
integration, which it regarded as critical to long-term stability on the continent. Washington also had surprisingly little quarrel in principle with nascent efforts by the EU to play an ambitious diplomatic role on the world stage. It was certainly prepared to disagree with the consequences of this role, as it did during the early stages of the war in Bosnia, when it criticized the EU for adopting a too even-handed approach to the warring parties and seized the diplomatic lead. The real concern was over the aim and scope of the ESDP as adopted by the EU at Cologne, which in calling for development of a “capacity for autonomous action backed by credible military capabilities and appropriate decision making bodies” seemed to portend an EU security posture independent of and potentially in competition with NATO.

The European allies were amply aware of U.S. concerns but, in the absence of any meaningful military threat to their security, allowed themselves to be driven by the logic of their own ambitions for EU integration. They did not see how they could pursue an ever-closer political and economic union and the trappings of supranational statehood implied in such a union or pursue diplomatic initiatives reflecting a common foreign policy without also developing a security and defense identity of their own. For its own part and despite its concern, Washington eventually acquiesced in the establishment
of the ESDP because EU-member NATO allies strongly wanted it and because officials believed that the ESDP could induce European allies to assume a greater share of the defense burden within the alliance. The price for Washington’s acquiescence, however, was that the ESDP honor U.S. redlines by remaining firmly anchored within NATO. Politically, this meant that EU-member allies would need to continue to participate in NATO as individuals rather than as members of a supranational bloc. Militarily, it meant the EU should avoid developing duplicative mechanisms, such as a planning staff and military headquarters independent from NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE).

The ESDP structure that eventually emerged satisfied minimum EU ambitions while appearing to avoid the most serious U.S. redlines. On a political level, EU members of NATO made no serious attempt to establish an EU bloc within NATO; militarily, in late 2002, NATO and the EU finalized agreement on Berlin Plus, by which NATO agreed to make its planning and common assets available to the EU. Although at the 1999 Cologne European Council meeting the EU had already foreseen the possibility of mounting military operations on its own without recourse to NATO, the United States hoped that Berlin Plus would become the default setting for EU-led operations, thereby giving the United States an effective droit de regard over them. Indeed, the United States interpreted Berlin Plus as requiring the EU to give NATO the right of first refusal even in cases where it did not intend to use NATO assets. Although the French and others disagreed with this interpretation, the EU appeared to be moving in this direction when it declared its ambition, also in late 2002, to take over the Stabilization Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina (SFOR) peacekeeping operation from NATO, an ambitious transition that could only be accomplished using NATO assets under Berlin Plus. The ink was barely dry on this announcement, however, when two events occurred that raised U.S. hackles and ended up delaying the SFOR handover for two full years.

The first was a seemingly gratuitous EU decision that spring, without consultation at NATO, to put an EU flag on a small French peacekeeping operation in the Congo. The second was a joint proposal by France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg to establish a European military headquarters independent of SHAPE. Both events occurred just as the United States was undertaking its invasion of Iraq, and the headquarters proposal in particular may have been driven by this event. Although the EU rejected the headquarters idea and the United States eventually gave way on the Bosnia transfer, U.S. suspicions about EU ambitions were fully aroused. The EU subsequently carried out another small peacekeeping mission in the Congo, this time in response to a UN request. But, its heavy investment in Bosnia, finally launched in late 2004, and the concomitant engagement of key members in the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and in Kosovo Force (KFOR) have caused it to shy away from taking on new military commitments, under Berlin Plus or otherwise. Nevertheless. the EU has continued to build up ESDP institutions and capabilities, in some ways edging the ESDP closer to U.S. redlines.

Notable among these was the establishment last year of a Civil-Military Cell and related Operations Center, the former to do strategic planning and the latter to serve as a skeletal military headquarters—basically a mini-SHAPE in waiting—that could be stood up to manage EU military operations undertaken
without recourse to Berlin Plus.

As reflected in the name of the new planning cell, the EU has also taken on something of a specialized postconflict “rule of law” vocation, focusing on small-scale stabilization and reconstruction missions in various crisis spots around the globe. A 2004 EU decision to develop small, battalion-size “Battlegroups” for rapid deployment to trouble spots also reflects an EU emphasis on small-scale peacekeeping or peace-enforcement missions similar to the two Congo operations, to include support for rule of law missions in precarious security environments. Today, the basic dynamic within the EU regarding future development of the ESDP finds France and its like-minded allies with the grandest ESDP ambitions, in pursuit of greater EU prestige and autonomy from NATO, while the United Kingdom and some newer EU members such as Poland are much more minimalist, concerned with maintaining close transatlantic ties and preserving NATO equities. This is a shifting mosaic, as episodic changes in European governments influence the overall mix, such as the recent German election of Angela Merkel, who has moved Berlin closer to the NATO camp.