If these trend lines are clear, the prospects for the future are not. U.S. ambitions for NATO clearly conflict with French ambitions for the EU. Furthermore, even though most EU NATO members find themselves caught in the middle, the current zero-sum nature of NATO-EU relations seems to portend continuing turmoil on the road ahead, to the detriment of both organizations and of transatlantic relations more generally. At the end of the day, the answer to how far Washington can take the alliance may depend as much on U.S. preferences as it does on how far the French and other NATO allies are prepared to have it go. Similarly, for the EU, the availability of resources, not just ambition, will have a profound effect on what kind of security and defense role the EU can play in the future.
In considering the art of the possible, NATO and the EU are fundamentally different kinds of organizations. NATO is a defense alliance whereas the EU has the trappings of a supranational state. As part of a defense alliance, NATO members agree to defend each other in case of an attack, while EU members pledge to surrender various aspects of their national sovereignty across the full spectrum of governance, involving foreign and domestic issues. The EU’s establishment of security and defense structures under the ESDP that putatively duplicate NATO structures is best seen as part of this broader process. In the realm of foreign affairs, the EU mandate extends well beyond that of NATO. The EU has given CSFP High Representative Javier Solana much more authority to pursue diplomatic initiatives on behalf of the EU than NATO has ever bestowed on a secretary general. The EU also routinely employs special representatives to act diplomatically on behalf of the organization, most prominently in Bosnia, where the EU high representative plays a critical role in national politics, something NATO has never done. Despite the recent rejection of the EU Constitution in two member states, which indefinitely stalled the latest attempt at further formal integration, it is reasonable to expect that the EU will continue to play an active, perhaps increasingly active, diplomatic role in world affairs.
It is difficult to envision NATO taking on this kind of a role, at least to anywhere near the same extent. This is not simply a matter of French opposition but of U.S. preference. Expanding the range of political issues to be discussed at NATO, as de Hoop Scheffer has proposed, is one thing. Undertaking diplomatic initiatives under a NATO flag is quite another. This would require the United States to subordinate its diplomatic freedom of action to political oversight by NATO, something it has never been willing to do, given the constraints this would place on U.S. flexibility, particularly on critical international issues such as the Middle East. Should the United States decide to pursue selected diplomatic initiatives through NATO nonetheless, prospects for success would be uncertain at best. Sympathetic EU members of NATO might be persuaded to go along, depending on the issue, while others might welcome the opportunity to constrain what they perceive to be unilateralist U.S. tendencies. Merkel’s speech at Wehrkunde, for example, has a hint of the latter. The French and their allies, however, would probably reject the notion out of hand, motivated by what they would consider to be a direct threat to EU foreign policy prerogatives. The French are happy enough to work with the United States but seek to do so in the UN Security Council, the Group of Eight, or U.S.-EU forums, where their own influence can be maximized relative to the United States.
Limited EU military prospects
The same fate could also await any U.S. effort to encourage NATO to play a leading role in addressing security issues that are not primarily military in nature, such as terrorism or energy security. After the September 11 attacks, a working proposal was developed within the U.S. government to establish a counterterrorism cell at NATO to help track terrorists and coordinate arrests. This proposal never made it to NATO, owing to a long-standing preference for using traditional, primarily bilateral channels in some quarters of the U.S. government. The proposal would almost certainly have encountered opposition from European allies as well, partially because of the same concerns but also because the French and others would have perceived such a function as falling outside the essentially military mandate of NATO. The fate of other proposals, such as the recent suggestion that NATO discuss energy security, is likely to depend on the degree of the ambition. The EU is already active on many of these issues, and in the face of almost certain French opposition, the burden of proof would fall on the United States to demonstrate that meaningful NATO involvement would add significant value rather than duplicate ongoing efforts elsewhere.
With respect to military capabilities and operations, the traditional lifeblood of NATO, the dynamics are reversed. EU ambitions are constrained by the very factors that have contributed to making NATO a two-tiered alliance. European allies do not have the military wherewithal to undertake anything more than select small-scale, over-the-horizon peacekeeping and peace-enforcement
operations. For larger-scale operations, as the one in Bosnia, they are dependent on geographical proximity and, at least for the time being, NATO planning and operational assets. This relative weakness is one key reason why the EU has gravitated toward more civilian-oriented rule of law operations, where they have been able to develop modest capabilities and are relatively stronger. Given U.S. concern over EU ambitions, ironically only one factor is likely to lead to significant improvement in European military capabilities for the foreseeable future: U.S. persuasion of European allies to expend the resources necessary to make the NRF a success. In a further touch of irony, this helps to explain why the French are such strong supporters of the NRF: producing those very same capabilities would make greater European military autonomy possible.
U.S. ambitions for NATO are also bound up in the fate of the NRF, whose role will depend on how and even whether the United States chooses to use it. Thanks to substantial U.S. expeditionary military capabilities, NATO possesses
a capacity to mount and sustain substantial peacekeeping operations around the globe that the EU can never hope to match. Developing partnerships
with key non-NATO Western allies, as the United States is proposing, will only further enhance this capacity. For lack of an alternative, it is virtually
certain that NATO will remain the first choice for major peacekeeping operations, as it was in the Balkans and Afghanistan. Furthermore, NATO could police an eventual Middle East settlement, as a number of pundits and congressional leaders have already proposed, although the recent war in Lebanon seems to suggest otherwise. The key question here is how far European allies will be willing to follow the U.S. lead in taking on difficult and dangerous missions. The NATO ISAF operation in Afghanistan is providing a genuine test of their proclivities, but their recent failure to come up with 2,500 additional troops requested by NATO military authorities suggests they may be failing at the high end even here.
Major combat operations and coalitions of the willing
The situation is considerably more complicated with respect to major combat operations. Here, the question is not simply whether the NRF will become a viable expeditionary force or even whether the United States is prepared to ferry European allies to the battlefield. The real question is whether the United States would choose to fight a major conflict on the scale of an Afghanistan
or an Iraq under a NATO flag. Recent history suggests not. The Serbian bombing campaign demonstrated the problems of political micromanagement
and alliance bickering inherent in working in a NATO context. It is no accident that, in preparing for Operation Enduring Freedom, the United States did not give any thought to acting through NATO, despite the fact that the alliance had just invoked the Article 5 mutual defense clause for the first time in its history. The United States is able to exercise much more control and freedom of action over major combat operations by working through coalitions of the willing than within the heavily bureaucratized NATO alliance structure.
The United States could choose, however, to work through NATO, either as a general policy or in specific cases where the advantages of operating under a NATO flag seem to outweigh the negatives. An example of the latter might be situations in which NATO cover is deemed desirable to give putative legal legitimacy to operations that cannot achieve UN sanction due to Russian or Chinese opposition, as was the case in the Serbian bombing campaign. Although EU members of NATO, France included, would probably welcome a U.S. decision to use NATO for major combat operations, the suspicion that the NRF will never be used in this way may be one reason why most European allies are not prepared to bite the bullet to devote resources to it. Yet, even if NATO faces an uncertain future as a vehicle for conducting major combat operations, it still has an important role to play militarily, not only as a mechanism for mounting high-end peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations but through its emphasis on interoperability and the habits of working, planning, and exercising together at SHAPE and in the field that it inculcates in its members and partners. These habits have proven to be of vital importance in producing the successful coalitions of the willing that have characterized major U.S. combat operations since the Persian Gulf War.