Ivo H. Daalder and
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO
Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

May 29, 2002

In his May 20 op-ed, “The Alliance Is Doomed,” Jeffery Gedmin quotes European Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy as saying that the best way to get applause in the European Parliament is to stand up and denounce America. In Washington these days, the best way to get applause—or space on a major op-ed page—is to denounce Europe and its apparently inexplicable refusal to follow the U.S. lead in the war on terrorism and everything associated with it.

For many in Washington today, NATO’s days are numbered, and the reason is European fecklessness, parochialism and unwillingness to spend more money on defense. One senior White House official recently referred to the Europeans as our “fair-weather friends,” reflecting the conclusion reached by Gedmin as well that the old Alliance may no longer be useful and it is time to start thinking about new ones. Senior Pentagon official Douglas Feith was recently quoted as joking that his NATO motto is “Keep the myth alive!”

NATO skeptics make a number of good points. American and European perspectives on global strategy are diverging. Europeans seem more focused on their internal conflicts than on the global ones taking place around them, and they are often too reluctant to use or threaten force when major interests are at stake. EU member states do not spend enough, or not wisely enough, on defense.

But to argue that Europeans alone are to blame for the uncertain state of the Atlantic Alliance, or that such an alliance is no longer needed, is both wrong and dangerous.

As much as we may like to disparage their efforts, the Europeans are actually doing more to contribute to global security, even on the military side, than most Americans choose to acknowledge. In Afghanistan today, there are about as many European and Canadian troops as American. Europeans are not only keeping the peace in Kabul but also fighting alongside U.S. forces to eliminate al Qaeda and Taliban resistance. French aircraft are flying bombing missions, British soldiers are leading dangerous expeditions in the mountains, and other European special forces are supporting cave-hunting efforts. As in so many other regions, Europe has taken the lead in financing and directing the necessary reconstruction and humanitarian assistance effort.

The talk of the transatlantic capabilities gap and disparagement of European armed forces wrongly assumes that Europeans have little to contribute militarily, and therefore there is no point to the Alliance. Europe does lag well behind the United States in key technologies and it needs to address that gap. But it would be absurd to believe Europeans have nothing to contribute so long as they are spending “only” $150 billion per year on defense.

The Pentagon’s rejection of NATO allies’ offers of military support in the early stages of the Afghan campaign was based in large part on the supposed “lesson” of Kosovo that “war by committee” is too difficult. But as Gen. Wesley Clark, who led NATO to victory, has recounted, if Kosovo was a war by committee, the committee was the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, not European military and political leaders in Brussels.

Nor should Americans blithely assume that their war-fighting strategies are superior to European ones. In Kosovo, the United States insisted on fighting an air war from 15,000 feet against the Serb command and control infrastructure in Belgrade. The Europeans were more interested in going after the Serb forces actually doing the killing in Kosovo by targeting their tanks, artillery, and other combat capabilities directly. In contrast to Washington, many in Europe were willing to get mud on their boots.

While Afghanistan is rightly hailed as a military-technical American triumph, there is a growing consensus that troops should have been on the ground earlier and in greater numbers—in part to help prevent senior al Qaeda members from escaping the Tora Bora region. Might it not have been better to accept the European troops on offer rather than rely on untrustworthy warlords?

While many of Europe’s critics depict NATO as the fictional town in “High Noon” where no one wanted to be part of the sheriff’s posse, the reality is more that the sheriff stands alone because he has alienated many of those most eager to be part of the posse. There is a price to pay when you reject agreements on global warming, un-sign treaties on international war crimes, impose protectionist tariffs on steel, subsidize farm goods, ignore offers of direct military assistance and disparage your oldest and most trustworthy allies.

Changes in world politics inevitably cause turbulence in alliances built on a different foundation. NATO must continue to adapt to these new realities. But if it is to succeed, adaptation must come not just in Europe but also in Washington.