NATO AND THE TRANSATLANTIC DIVIDE
Fifty four years ago, in April 1949, President Truman signed the North Atlantic Treaty, launching NATO--the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In his signing message, he said that the allies were dedicated to achieving unity on the great principles of human freedom and justice, and at the same time, to permit in other respects the greatest diversity of which the human mind is capable. That dedication summarizes well the challenges NATO faces today, accommodating diversity while achieving unity. Until now NATO has successfully met a number of challenges but those it faces today are no doubt the greatest. Those challenges--arbitrarily they can be divided into six points of challenge--arise out of the transition from the Cold War, September 11 and its aftermath, the emergence of the European Union, the evolution of the Transatlantic relationship, the changing strategic plan of the US military, and the realities of the world economy. This paper looks at how these six points of challenge might shape the future of NATO.
I. The Transition from the Cold War
In the years that followed its creation, NATO grew from its original membership of six Western European nations to include the Federal Republic of Germany, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey, eventually reaching its present membership of 19 nations, soon to be twenty-six. NATO weathered a number of crises during those years: the seizure of the Suez canal, the withdrawal of French military forces, the 1961 Soviet threat to Berlin, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the deployment of American Pershing nuclear-tipped missiles in Europe in the 1980s. Yet NATO never had to invoke the mutual defense obligations of its members under Article V of the Treaty during the Cold War.
The end of the Cold War in 1989--the end of the Soviet threat--marked the first of two watershed events of the NATO-era. NATO faced the challenge of finding a new mission, a raison d’etre. It began to grapple with two issues: enlargement of its membership and out of area operation. Enlargement, because it involved the Central and Eastern European countries--former Warsaw pact members--raised sensitive issues concerning NATO’s objectives and the relationship between Russia and the West. To transition toward a non-confrontational relationship, NATO formed the Partnership for Peace and the NATO-Russia Council, a non-military working arrangement with Russia which helped eventually to overcome Russian objections to NATO membership of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary in1999. The out of area issue became moot when NATO intervened in the Balkan wars in 1995. NATO members had never reached consensus on a definition of NATO’s area of operation. Nevertheless, NATO entered the war in Bosnia in 1995. It intervened after having dithered on the sidelines until the Srebenica massacre. Russia, because of its historic association with fellow Slavs in Serbia, was expected to veto any Security Council resolution. NATO therefore became the only game in town. For the first time, it invoked Article V of the Treaty and moved multinational forces into Bosnia to stabilize the country. Over 12,000 troops remain there today. In April 1999, after unsuccessful efforts to negotiate an end to ethnic cleansing, NATO launched the air war in Kosovo. It ended 77 days later when Serbia withdrew, leaving NATO (along with the United Nations) in charge of Kosovo where it remains today with a multinational stabilization force of some 20,000 troops.
However, the long term mission of NATO remained, and remains undefined. The location of its headquarters is emblematic of the unsettled state of its future. It is located in a collection of non-descript, formerly industrial buildings on the outskirts of Brussels, taken over by NATO in 1966 as a temporary headquarters when President DeGaulle withdrew his forces from NATO and evicted it from its Fontainebleau headquarters. Ambitious plans for a permanent headquarters, a gleaming high-rise building, remain on the drawing board.
II. September 11 and the Prague Summit
Then came September 11, 2001, the second watershed event. It galvanized NATO. Within days, the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s governing body, invoked Article V. When President Bush launched the war on terrorism, NATO offered support. NATO AWACS patrolled over the United States and German troops were later airlifted to Kabul to serve in the Afghan International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). But the United States rejected a formal role for NATO in the war in Afghanistan. And over the next year, tensions grew between the US and Europe, aggravated by the US’s increasingly unilateralist policies, such as its rejection of the Kyoto protocol, of the test ban treaty, and of the International Criminal Court, its deployment of a missile defense system, its imposition of steel import quotas, and by Europe’s restrictions on genetically modified foods, and, eventually, by the war in Iraq.
As for the US-NATO relationship, the critical issue became the US commitment to the war on terror. The Balkan wars, in which US forces bore the brunt of the offensive operations, had brought into sharp focus a huge capability gap between US forces and those of the European countries. As US defense expenditures increased by some $50 billion, it sharply criticized the failure of European nations to spend on defense and on modernizing their military forces. When the war on terror came along, the US saw NATO becoming irrelevant unless Europe stepped up to the plate and made meaningful commitments to enhance its military capabilities.
Faced with what many saw as an existential crisis, NATO in November 2002 convened a summit conference in Prague, the Prague summit. President Bush spoke, confirming the US’s continuing commitment to NATO but urging adoption of the summit agenda. That agenda reflected US insistence that the NATO countries become effective partners in the war on terror, specifically by being able to participate in high intensity warfare. The summit agenda became the linchpin for NATO’s future. It has two principal components.
First, admission of new members. NATO agreed to invite seven Eastern European countries, whose membership the US had long advocated, to join: the three Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and four Balkan countries, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Slovakia, bringing its membership to 26. To qualify, each had to commit to adopt major political and military reforms. The political reforms would require each country to commit to civilian control of its military, to respect for minority rights, to adoption of free market economies and democratic institutions, and to reform of their judicial systems to further the rule of law and to root out corruption. Endemic corruption and organized crime--trafficking in drugs, women and weapons, not to mention cigarettes--are rife in the Balkan countries and represent a major sector of their economies. The military reforms will require reduction in size of the military but increase in its capabilities, mobility, interoperability with NATO forces, and availability for niche contributions, such as radiological, biological and chemical defense. This will mean costly and wrenching changes for the former Warsaw pact nations whose forces are stocked with obsolete Russian weapons and trained in Russian tactical doctrine. The new member countries are expected to be able meet these conditions of membership over time, but not without difficulty.
Second, to meet US criticism of their deficiencies, the Western European members committed to reform their militaries to improve their capabilities in specific areas. With the end of the cold war, massive armies became obsolete. The Prague summit calls for the development of lean and mobile forces and of specific capabilities, such as air lift and aerial refueling, precision guided munitions, chemical, biological and radiological defense, intelligence and surveillance, and command and control. The commitment is to lead to the creation of a rapidly deployable, well equipped NATO Response Force (NRF) of 20,000 troops by 2006.
Accomplishment of the Prague Summit agenda is the key to the planned evolution of NATO. In the US view, military reform is critical to NATO’s ability to function as a partner of the US and remain relevant in the war on terror. It may also determine whether NATO as we have known it will survive. The Secretary General, ever optimistic, nevertheless has acknowledged that compliance has hit some bumps in the road. Although the smaller countries have shown themselves capable of making niche contributions, such as deployment of a Czech chemical warfare unit in Kuwait, the major commitments such as for transport aircraft have lagged. (A recent report states, however, that seven western European countries have signed a contract to purchase 180 military transport planes from AirBus Industries for $24B)
There are reasons for pessimism about the success of the Prague Summit commitments. One reason is the structure of defense budgets of Western European nations. The NATO countries’ annual defense budgets aggregate $145 B, less than 2% of GDP, compared to the US budget of $400 B, 3.5% GDP. And their defense budgets are heavily weighted with personnel costs. Those costs amount to some 60%, much of this for retirement benefits, compared to less than 35% for the US. European defense budget support a bloated military–more fat than muscle-- in part because of military labor unions. The Belgian army, for example, employs hundreds of barbers and musicians but lacks the funds to replace aging helicopters or conduct significant research.
A visitor to Europe sees little evidence of political will to make major changes. Economically, European countries are burdened with costly but popular social welfare programs. Politically, the countries, long accustomed to enjoying the protective umbrella of the US, lack its global strategic outlook and an appreciation of global threats. Indeed, some may fear the US more than rogue states. Europeans tend to feel that their history is behind them and that they are not threatened. They find comfort in their enormous achievement of transforming the continent from a site of recurring wars to one of peace and unity. As Robert Kagan has characterized the transatlantic gap, Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus
So September 11 and its aftermath hangs like a dark cloud over NATO’s future.
III. NATO and the European Union
Another reason for pessimism about the prospects for the Prague summit is the uncertainty surrounding NATO’s relationship to the European Union. Over the past ten to fifteen years, the EU has grown from a low profile trade pact into an economic and political powerhouse. It now has 15 members, to increase to 25 by 2007 with the admission of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia, and Cyprus and Malta The membership of the two organizations will then largely overlap, the principal exceptions being Turkey, which is a member of NATO but not among those expected to join the EU by 2007, and of course the US. The EU’s population approaches 400 million and its GDP $8 trillion, rivaling that of the US. Charles Kupchan has predicted that as its economic muscle grows and its institutions acquire more heft, it will become a powerful competitor of the US on the world stage.
The EU’s leadership is ambitious, pushing the envelope as a supra-national organization. It is on the verge of adopting a constitution for Europe and is moving toward a common foreign and defense policy. France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg are discussing plans for an independent military headquarters to field a joint rapid reaction force of some 60,000 troops, the European Defense Force (EDF). Although ostensibly intended to strengthen NATO, it also reflects the aim of some European leaders to achieve greater independence from the US. Britain, the US and some other European countries have warned that nothing should be done to harm NATO. But Western Europe may be intent on flexing its muscles vis a vis the United States, although, given their reluctance to spend money on defense, there may in fact be little muscle to flex. Indeed some see it as a move less motivated by defense policy than by domestic politics. In any event, just how an EDF will relate to the NATO NRF remains a question no one in Europe seems prepared to answer.
That a European Defense Force within the EU is even under consideration, however, bespeaks the EU’s military ambitions. The EU and NATO have negotiated protocols for EU participation in NATO military operations. The EU is participating in Kosovo and has taken over NATO’s peacekeeping role in Macedonia (in deference to Greek sensibilities, referred to as FYROM--Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.). And it recently agreed to send a peace keeping force to Congo independent of NATO, a first for the EU.
These developments raise existential questions about the future of NATO. Will the EU and NATO evolve into competitors or will they fill complimentary roles? Will the EU pursue a policy that will make NATO irrelevant or a mere adjunct of the EU? If the European nations meet their Prague Summit defense commitments, will their contributions go to the NATO NRF or to a EU RDF? Will political decisions by European nations be dominated by their EU commitments or by those to NATO? With the growth of EU power, will the US role in NATO decline and evolve into predominantly bilateral relationships with willing countries? How much will the US be able to, or wish to influence the evolution of the NATO-EU relationship?
While the answers to these questions remain shrouded in the fog of international politics, one thing seems quite clear. Although the EU is not militarily powerful, its institutional presence is pervasive. Little public policy can be enacted or implemented by European states without adhering to the vast body of EU laws and regulations. Compatibility with Europe-wide standards for foods, products, services, and technology is a prerequisite to participating in Europe’s commerce. A common currency binds most member countries and European subsidies are vital links in the countries’ economies. Membership in the EU is therefore the dominant fact in the politics and economics of European countries. When it comes to a choice between the EU and NATO on an issue, one can expect the EU to be the choice.
IV.. The Transatlantic Relationship
Except, that is, for the transatlantic relationship which has been the pole star of European politics and economics. That relationship has, as I have noted, undergone and survived strains over the years. But the runup to the Iraq war and its aftermath have threatened its stability and that of the US-NATO relationship.
The critical event was Turkey’s request in February 2003 for assistance from NATO. Acting under Article IV of the Treaty, Turkey, feeling threatened by Iraq, asked NATO for AWACS aircraft and Patriot anti-aircraft missile batteries. The request was made to the Atlantic Council which acts only on a consensus of all nineteen members. France, taking the position that Turkey did not appear frightened, opposed the request. The request then went to NATO’s defense planning council on which France does not sit–its forces having been withdrawn from NATO–and it agreed to provide the requested assistance.
The impact on NATO’s coherence and effectiveness appears to have been profound. Never before had NATO failed to reach a decision by consensus. The realization that one country could block implementation of the Treaty’s mutual assistance commitment came as a shock to the smaller countries who joined NATO for the sense of security it gave them, mainly because of the presence of the US to which they look as their ultimate guarantor. In the eyes of many, the promise of unity to which NATO had been dedicated was undermined, and the consensus rule jeopardized. Some members of the US Senate have even called for a review of that rule. There is now a question whether in the future NATO will evolve from a powerful alliance acting in unison into a conference of 27 countries, such as the Organization for European Security and Cooperation, whose participation would be as members of ad hoc coalitions of the willing.
Inevitably the answer to this question will be largely determined by US foreign policy and that depends on what the US wants from NATO. As the Administration has stated, it looks to NATO to maintain a peaceful, stable and secure Europe and to support US policies in the war on terror. Yet until now it has not been willing to turn over to NATO particular missions outside of Europe, although NATO may in the future be slated for a larger role in Afghanistan. US policy has been to look to selected countries to participate in specific operations with the US. Rumania and other NATO countries have contributed several hundred troops to the Afghanistan stabilization force; Slovakia and the Czech Republic have sent chemical warfare defense teams to Kuwait, and Poland has been given a leading role in the Iraq occupation. So the US commitment to NATO appears firm but select. In a recent speech, Secretary of State Powell asserted that the tensions between the US and France will not affect America’s commitment to NATO, which he called “the greatest political and military alliance the world has ever seen.” Referring to the admission of new members, he said, “It’s a little hard to close down a club that has a waiting line. The future is going to hold a world that will still have a strong trans-Atlantic community.” Although this was a vote of confidence for NATO, it did not remove the shadow of US-French tensions over the relationship.
V. The United States Military Presence
The future of NATO is, of course, hostage to the evolution of US defense policy. The Iraq war sends an unmistakable signal of changes in US strategic doctrine. More than 110,000 American troops are now based in Europe, nearly all of them in Germany. They are under the command of an American general, Marine General James L. Jones, stationed at SHAPE Headquarters in Mons, a one time Belgian airbase to which SHAPE moved when NATO was evicted from France in 1966. Many of these troops--combat and support forces--have been deployed in Iraq as well as in the Balkans. Whether they will eventually be returned to bases in Germany when no longer needed in Iraq seems doubtful. Under plans currently under consideration in Washington troops for the most part would be stationed in the US and lifted to temporary bases when needed for exercises or for deployment. For this purpose former Warsaw pact bases in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Poland would be recycled. These bases would be located to serve as launching pads for operations in the Middle East and Central and South Asia where troops are more likely to be needed than in Western Europe. An illustration of the type of base contemplated is Camp Bonesteel, located on a windswept plateau in the US Sector of Kosovo. Its prefab barracks, hospital and service facilities accommodate some 7,000 men and women who patrol the area and maintain order as needed. Their tour of duty generally does not exceed six months. Such a shift in troop basing would implement the stratregic transformation of the military into light and mobile combat units.
In a sense the stationing of over 100,000 troops in Germany, at great expense, is a cold war relic. Moreover, they are regarded as a mixed blessing in Germany–an economic asset but an ecological and social liability. However, their withdrawal will send a signal to Western Europe about the value America attaches to the Western alliance, considering also that the new bases would go to countries that supported the US war in Iraq. And because once redeployed, these troops may no longer be subject to NATO command, the alliance would be weakened. The motive for such a change in force structure will likely be viewed by Europeans, rightly or wrongly, with suspicion as retaliation for their lack of support of US military policies.
Redeployment of US troops from Western Europe, albeit mainly symbolic, will undoubtedly contribute to what many observers see as a post-September 11 breakdown of the Western Alliance consensus. It is perhaps not surprising that with the end of the cold war, the pressure that produced unity has evaporated. It was easy to define US policy objectives in Europe during the cold war. It is difficult to do it now. As the US Ambassador to NATO put it, the US wants NATO to serve as a complement to the EU to maintain stability. But US actions may also imply that the US expects European countries to subordinate their policy objectives and conform their decisions to US objectives. According to the US, the biggest task for NATO is to restore the common vision, but the common vision is being defined by the US. In his recent speech in Krakow, President Bush reaffirmed the US commitment to the transatlantic alliance but left no doubt that he expected traditional allies, those who opposed the war in Iraq, to conform to an American vision of a shared future. Some might see this as defining NATO’s role less as a partnership than as an alliance of satellites.
VI. Economic Realities
Still the cultural and political ties that undergird the transatlantic alliance are deep and durable. The US and Europe share core values of democracy, free markets, human rights and the rule of law that set the parameters for US foreign policy. Squabbles may erupt from time to time, as with France and Germany. Disagreements will arise over perceptions of and responses to world problems. And undoubtedly profound philosophical and policy differences will persist between the US and Europe. But over time, both sides of the Atlantic may come to appreciate that there is a role in international affairs for both soft and hard power. Europe’s far greater contributions to foreign aid and humanitarian assistance and its concerns for the environment, for example, matter, just as US security policies matter.
Moreover, whatever the political rhetoric now coming out of Washington and Europe, it is probable that in the long run economics, rather than military strategy or ideology, will define and sustain the transatlantic relationship. Europe is the US’s largest trading partner; the annual flow of trade and investment exceeds $2 trillion. Over half of American foreign direct investments are in Europe, creating an incentive to preserve a hospitable environment. There is a growing convergence of economic and regulatory policies between the US and the EU. And the US needs Europe. Unlike its imperial predecessor, the British Empire, the US is a debtor nation; it depends on foreign investors to fund its budget deficit. Ironically, whether they like it or not, European buyers of Treasuries finance US military operations. Some call it a symbiotic relationship--the US provides security and Europe pays the bills.
The Future of NATO
What then does the future hold for NATO? Some see NATO as a cold war artifact no longer serving a useful purpose. That seriously underrates the value of NATO. For the Europeans, even while living in the shadow of the US’s dominant power, NATO provides stability and security, especially for the new members in Central and Eastern Europe who have not forgotten a history of Russian aggression. For the US, NATO provides a solid foothold in Europe, a permanent bridge to Europe. Albeit burdened with sometimes irksome allies, the US gains by being able to exert political influence in a setting that would otherwise be wholly dominated by the EU.
Even given the gyrations of US foreign policy over time, there is every reason to expect that the US will continue to view membership in a viable NATO as vital to advancing its policy goals in Europe: maintaining security, stability and an advantageous relationship with all of the countries of Europe.
July 2003 William W Schwarzer