Last Alliance Standing? NATO after 9/11

Viewed through the prism of NATO-EU competition, the supposed rivalry is arguably more apparent than real. Politically, the two organizations have fundamentally different mandates that overlap only in the area of security and defense policy. Freed from their Cold War dependence on the United States, the Europeans have used the EU to become a global diplomatic actor, and the United States has become increasingly comfortable in dealing with them in this way. Whether or not the EU affords NATO the right of first refusal in military operations or establishes a mini-SHAPE of its own, it cannot begin to compete with NATO precisely because its capabilities do not match those of the United States. The competition, such as it is, is over relatively small-scale operations and will remain so.

That said, the psychology of the competition continues to generate friction between NATO and the EU, within each organization, and between the United States and Europe. Successfully addressing the problem will require both sides to keep the relatively modest dimensions of the competition in perspective. On a practical level, most European allies would probably welcome establishing a dedicated NATO-EU mechanism charged with exchanging operational
information and resolving possible conflicts. Turkish antagonism toward Cyprus is currently impeding this, but key allies might support setting up an informal consultation mechanism to address the problem. The same is true with respect to considering proposals for NATO involvement on nonmilitary
security issues, where the EU is already an established player.

Of course, when all is said and done, the future of the NATO alliance itself is of most concern to the United States. The glue that holds the alliance together today is unquestionably weaker than it was during the Cold War. As Iraq clearly demonstrated, European allies are more willing to oppose the United States on issues of critical importance to the United States than ever before. Yet, the cohesion remains, as the events following the attacks of September 11 clearly showed and as Afghanistan is demonstrating, however fitfully, even today. Although France and its supporters may habitually seek to keep U.S. ambitions for NATO under restraint, the U.S. tendency to use NATO on an a la carte basis, as in its preference for coalitions of the willing, has undercut those very same ambitions. If the United States were to make clear that NATO was its default setting for all major military operations, combat included, European allies might be more prepared to spend money on the NRF or invest in the organization more generally. As noted above, the United States has very good reasons not to use NATO as its default option, but it must then live with the consequences.

The real problem is that the United States does not really know what it wants from NATO. It continues to perceive the alliance through what is essentially a Cold War prism, as the key mechanism through which the United States attempts to project influence in Europe. The successes of the NATO enlargement process, which addressed genuine security concerns among newly freed former Communist states, and of NATO involvement in the Balkans have only helped to sustain this perception. Current U.S. efforts to give NATO a more global reach also reflect the same perception of NATO preeminence, with the alliance moving out from its European core to embrace the wider world. It is undeniably a grand vision, but it is also clearly at odds with reality. The notion of giving pride of place to a military alliance made sense during the Cold War, but it does not make sense today when the most critical threats are more varied and diffuse. NATO is of limited use as a diplomatic actor, which is why the United States has never really used it in this capacity. Other vehicles and partners are preferred for U.S. diplomatic activity, the EU increasingly among them, and this is unlikely to change. Even in the military sphere, NATO is no longer the primary instrument of choice and has at best only a circumscribed, if still important, role to play.

The United States must avoid reflexive glamorization of the alliance and recognize NATO not for what it once was, but for what it has actually become:
a highly useful but no longer preeminent element of the U.S. foreign policy arsenal. Quixotic visions of dramatic new NATO roles and missions are not in the U.S. interest, bear little relationship to actual NATO competencies, and have no chance of succeeding in the real world. Rather than see the EU as a rival to NATO, the United States should take a more relaxed attitude toward
the ESDP and concomitant European efforts to establish modest duplicative mechanisms.

These efforts are best understood not as a challenge to NATO per se, although the French may perceive them as such, but as a logical consequence of a much broader, long-term European process of pooling individual member resources into the construction of a supranational state. Although the consequences of this process for security and defense policy may not be ideal from the perspective of the United States, European military weakness will continue to ensure that they do not threaten core NATO competencies.

Instead of posturing from a distance, the United States should systematically work through these issues with key EU members of NATO, seeking to ease the current frictions in NATO-EU relations and establish reliable mechanisms, formal or otherwise, to ensure adequate transparency and coordination for the future. The effort itself will help to ease European suspicions that the United States regards their EU proclivities as somehow at odds with their commitment to NATO and hopefully make cooperation much easier. As for NATO itself, despite the limitations that flow from time, circumstance, and choice, NATO will continue to have significant value for the United States and its European allies. On a practical level, it is likely to remain the primary vehicle for mounting important high-end peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations. It also remains the one place where U.S., European, and partner militaries can systematically learn to work and operate together. On a political or even psychological level, the historical legacy of the alliance continues to exercise a hold over its members, old and new, sustaining a reservoir of goodwill and sense of shared destiny. Beyond this, NATO remains a palpable hedge against a still uncertain future, as even the French are prepared to acknowledge. Although NATO remains an alliance that still counts for more than the sum of its parts, it is not now and will almost certainly never again be the NATO of its founding fathers.

John R. Schmidt is the senior analyst for Europe in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the Department of State. A career U.S. Foreign Service Officer, he has served as director of the NATO office at the State Department and as director for NATO affairs at the National Security Council. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the State Department.

Bron: The Washington Quarterly, winter 2006-2007