Reforging the Atlantic Alliance

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

September 1, 2002

Less than 24 hours after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, America’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) came together to invoke the Alliance’s Article 5 defense guarantee—this “attack on one” was considered an “attack on all.” When it came time to implement that guarantee, however—in the form of the military campaign in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom—NATO was not used. The Americans decided not to ask for a NATO operation for military, political and strategic reasons: only the United States had the right sort of equipment to project military force half way around the world, and Washington did not want political interference from 18 allies in the campaign.

In the wake of these developments—and steadily mounting disagreement and even rancor about a long list of political and strategic issues—some observers have begun to question whether NATO has any enduring role at all. Charles Krauthammer bluntly asserts that “NATO is dead”; it may still have a marginal role to play as an incubator for Russia’s integration into Europe and the West, but as a military alliance it is a “hollow shell.”

Jeffrey Gedmin, director of the Aspen Institute Berlin, once a bastion of Atlanticism, believes that U.S. and European views of security are now so different that “the old Alliance holds little promise of figuring prominently in U.S. global strategic thinking.”

Robert Kagan urges his readers “to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world.”

He does not explicitly envisage, let alone call for, NATO’s demise, but his views on the growing Euro-American divergence about the use of force—as well as the fact that NATO is hardly mentioned in a 25-page journal article about transatlantic security issues—leaves little doubt about how he sees the future of the Alliance. Even The Economist, a strong proponent of transatlantic security cooperation, wonders whether NATO will survive, concluding “it is harder than it used to be to imagine NATO, as it is, advancing far into the 21st century.”

NATO-skeptics make serious points; there are good reasons to be concerned about the future of the Alliance—especially if nothing is done to revitalize and adapt it to current circumstances. The Afghanistan campaign revealed significant gaps between the war-fighting capabilities of the United States and its allies, most of whom did not have the stealth, all-weather and communications technologies to enable them to take part in the early stages of the operation. The quick success of that operation also reinforced the already strong perception in some quarters in Washington—especially in the Pentagon—that it is easier to fight alone than with allies who have little to offer militarily and who might hamper efficient decision-making. Moreover, the U.S. decision in the wake of the terrorist attacks to increase its defense budget by some $48 billion for 2003—an increase that is larger than any single European country’s entire annual defense budget—will only widen the capabilities gap. If the war on terrorism leads the United States to undertake military operations in other distant theaters—such as Iraq—and if the Europeans are unwilling or unable to come along, NATO’s centrality will be further reduced. Add to all this the gradually diminishing NATO role in the Balkans (a role that arguably saved NATO from obsolescence in the 1990s), the emergence of a European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) whose long-term relationship with NATO is uncertain, and a big enlargement of NATO’s membership that risks diluting its coherence, and it is not difficult to see why many wonder whether NATO’s first actual military missions—in Bosnia and Kosovo—will turn out to have been its last.

Four Reasons to Save NATO

Yet to conclude that NATO no longer has any important roles to play, just because it was not used in a mission for which it was not designed in the first place, would be a mistake. While NATO’s roles in the 21st century will be very different from those relevant at the Alliance’s founding in 1949, the United States has a strong national interest in preserving and adapting NATO. This is true for four main reasons.

First, NATO remains the primary vehicle for keeping the United States engaged in European security affairs. Perhaps it will turn out to be the case that the wars of the 21st century will be fought without Europeans and far away from Europe. In that case, America’s European engagement over the past sixty years could be deemed a job well done and the transatlantic security partnership would no longer be necessary. But after a century that saw two world wars start in Europe and end in horrendous conflict in the Balkans (which, like the world wars, required American intervention to stop), it would seem more prudent for the United States to remain engaged until the continent’s future—including that of Russia, Ukraine and eastern Europe—is more clear.

A second enduring role for NATO is to contribute to the continent’s integration and stabilization process through enlargement. The incentive of NATO membership has been a powerful force in getting candidates throughout central and eastern Europe to undertake political, economic and military reforms that they would not otherwise have made. Since the enlargement process began in the mid-1990s, NATO aspirants have: resolved border disputes; changed electoral laws to ensure minority rights; discarded old and dangerous weaponry; reduced arms sales to unstable regions; cracked down on anti-Semitism; accelerated privatization; streamlined bloated military-industrial complexes; and promoted the transformation of civil societies. In all of this the desire to meet NATO standards and join the Alliance of democracies was a central motivating factor. Building peace through the development of stable, cooperative allies bears little resemblance to Cold War deterrence, but it represents just as great a contribution to European security.

The enlargement process is now even starting to bear fruit in terms of NATO’s relationship with Russia, which under President Vladimir Putin has stopped actively opposing NATO enlargement and is now seeking instead to cooperate with the Alliance. Far from being a factor of division in Europe (as not only its opponents but even some of its supporters reasonably feared it might be), NATO enlargement is making major contributions toward the integration of all European states into the Western security community.

Similarly, through the Partnership for Peace (PfP), the Alliance has promoted military cooperation with partners as far away as Central Asia. These newly independent states—mostly still autocracies—have a long way to go before they would be welcome in an alliance built on democratic values. But the military-military ties, political contacts, institutional links and promise of better relations with the West promoted by the Partnership for Peace are among the West’s most promising tools for having a positive impact on the region. Building on their PfP relationships, several of America’s Central Asian partners ended up making essential contributions to the campaign in Afghanistan.

A third important role for NATO is ensuring peace in the Balkans, where the Alliance deploys 51,000 troops. Their presence is essential to preventing the region from reverting to the horrible conflicts of the 1990s. Even though the number of troops is gradually being reduced—to around 45,000 by mid-2003—and there is talk of the Europeans under the ESDP eventually taking over the entire mission, NATO’s role will be indispensable for at least the next several years. No other organization can effectively plan and coordinate the diverse military forces from all the contributing countries, including the American military presence.

Finally but perhaps most importantly, NATO remains an essential peacetime preparation organization, a “tool box” of interoperable military capabilities that can be drawn upon by allies or groups of allies when needed. It is true that European member-states do not spend enough, and that they spend badly, with many redundancies among national European militaries and too high a proportion of immobile ground forces. Taken all together, the European members of NATO will spend only around $150 billion on defense in 2003, compared with some $380 billion for the United States. But $150 billion is not an insignificant amount of money, even by Pentagon standards. However inefficient they might be, the European members of NATO do have considerable military resources at their disposal, and they are often willing to undertake missions in which the United States does not want to be directly involved. European contributions to NATO’s Bosnia and Kosovo campaigns were indispensable to the success of those operations, and today European NATO members (and Partners) are providing the overwhelming majority of Balkan peacekeeping forces—using NATO doctrines, tactics, procedures and interoperable equipment.

It is also worth noting that NATO can make important military contributions even in operations where the Alliance as such is not involved. This was the case, for example, during the Gulf War and in parts of the operation in and around Afghanistan. NATO was not formally involved in either case, but in both cases Allied forces, bases and cooperation among NATO militaries were critical. In the Afghan campaign, most NATO allies were excluded from the initial operations for understandable reasons, but have become more involved over time. This involvement has included combat and special forces missions undertaken by British, Canadian and German soldiers conducting cave-clearing missions in the Afghan mountains; British and French reconnaissance, air-defense, in-air refueling and combat aircraft missions; the deployment of a French carrier-led naval task force alongside American ships patrolling the Indian Ocean; “backfilling” by NATO nations of U.S. military missions in the Balkans and even in the United States (where NATO Airborne Warning and Control Systems were deployed to protect American airspace); and the use of European NATO bases for staging operations during the Afghan campaign.

All of these tasks were facilitated by the existence of common NATO operational doctrines (for example, so that French reconnaissance officers know what kinds of information U.S. pilots need), agreed equipment standards (so that Turkish refueling nozzles fit into U.S. planes), routine multinational exercises (so that allied forces are in the habit of working together and know what problems to expect), and interoperable secure communications (so that various nations’ forces can share real-time intelligence and data during an operation). When it came time to organize an international security force for Afghanistan to provide stability once victory was won, European NATO allies provided the vast majority of the forces (first under British, now Turkish, command). By summer 2002 nearly half of the 13,000 foreign troops there came from NATO allies other than the United States. In the long run, NATO itself may prove to be the best option for the maintenance of a long-term, Western-led security force in Afghanistan.

In short, while the war on terrorism does indeed suggest that NATO is no longer the central warfighting institution it was during the Cold War, it would be shortsighted to conclude that its mission is over. As a military machine designed to protect Alliance borders from an external ground attack, the Alliance may indeed be “dead” or dying; that is the benign consequence of its success. But as a community of democracies with common values and interests, and a community that is determined to maintain the political relationships and military tools to protect those interests, it is most certainly worth preserving. Surely, if it may be granted that the United States is wise to seek allies, there is no imaginable substitute for the capacities, military and otherwise, that America’s NATO allies can provide.

Five Tasks

Instead of giving up on NATO, the North American and European allies should use the upcoming summit in Prague to adapt the Alliance to the most important security challenges of the day. Just as previous developments—the Soviet deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the end of the Cold War and the conflicts in the Balkans—have obliged the Alliance to adapt, September 11 and the conflict that has followed it require NATO leaders to think boldly and creatively about how to ensure that the Alliance continues to serve European and American security and political interests. How should NATO adapt at Prague and afterwards? How can the United States best use the Alliance to promote its own interests? Five tasks stand forth.

First, Alliance leaders need to make clear that new threats such as international terrorism are a central concern to NATO member-states and their populations. When the Prague summit takes place in late November, the American public is not going to be focused on NATO enlargement, ESDP or the Balkans, however important those issues remain. They will be wondering whether NATO contributes to the most important security challenge the United States faces, and NATO leaders will have to give them “yes” for an answer.

Already in its 1991 Strategic Concept, NATO recognized that “Alliance security must also take account of the global context” and that “Alliance security interests can be affected by other risks of a wider nature, including proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, disruption of the flow of vital resources and actions of terrorism and sabotage.”

NATO repeated the point in its 1999 Strategic Concept, this time moving “acts of terrorism” to the top of the list of “other risks.” At Prague, Alliance leaders will need to make vividly clear that NATO is about more than the traditional defense of its borders. This is not to say that any act of terrorism or threat to energy supplies must be treated as an Article 5 contingency for which all Allies are obliged to contribute troops. It does mean, however, that all allies recognize that their common interests and values can be threatened by global developments, a point made dramatically clear by the attacks on Washington and New York. Even if invocations of Article 5 will no longer necessarily mean a formal NATO operation under NATO command, the concept that “an armed attack” from anywhere abroad must trigger solidarity among the member states is an important principle that should be reinforced.

Second, NATO needs to put real substance behind this political commitment by developing its political and organizational capacity to deal with global security threats, including the specific issue of terrorism. European allies who worry about giving the Alliance too great a “global” role have long resisted such new missions. European leaders have been very reluctant to put their countries in a position whereby their soldiers could be dragged off by the United States to fight beyond Europe’s borders, particularly since there has traditionally been a good deal of transatlantic disagreement over out-of-area issues. Ironically, today the resistance to expanding NATO’s potential mission comes more from the United States, where many in the present administration fear being constrained politically by allies whom they believe have little to contribute militarily.

The United States, however, has every interest in having European allies better prepared to join it on potential global missions. While it is hard to see NATO countries agreeing to use the Alliance for such anti-terrorist matters as law enforcement, immigration, financial control, and domestic intelligence anytime soon, the Alliance should begin immediately to adapt its military structures to contribute more effectively to the war on terrorism. NATO should significantly reform and streamline its command structures to remove redundant and wasteful headquarters, replacing them with a leaner and more efficient structure based on military functions rather than geographical orientation. It should develop a new Force Projection Command specifically responsible for planning out-of-area operations, and increase the number and capability of its rapid reaction forces so that NATO member-states can project forces to distant parts of the world on short notice. Allies should share more information about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (wmd) and ballistic missiles, and develop emergency civil defense and consequence management teams that could assist allies subjected to biological, chemical or nuclear weapons attack. NATO should also coordinate the development of joint theater missile defense systems that could protect allies in Europe (including, possibly, Russia) that face a growing ballistic missile and wmd threat.

Finally on this score, NATO should commit itself to a program to coordinate and train various member-state special forces, whose role in the anti-terrorism campaign will be critical. During the Cold War, few could have imagined the need for American and European special forces to travel out-of-area to execute coordinated attacks, but that is now a very real requirement. While NATO was not used for the military response to an attack on the United States, it is unfortunately not difficult to imagine a major terrorist attack on a European city for which a NATO response would be appropriate. The very preparation of new missions for NATO—even if the Alliance is never called upon to conduct them—would be a major contribution in the effort to get European allies and their militaries focused on the new security challenges of the day, most of which are beyond Europe’s borders. Such preparation might also buy at least a measure of deterrence against such attacks.

A third and related necessity is for NATO’s European allies to accelerate the process of adapting their military capabilities for the most likely new types of missions. At NATO’s April 1999 summit, the Allies adopted a Defense Capabilities Initiative (DCI) designed to improve allied forces’ deployability, mobility, sustainability, survivability and effectiveness.

The DCI process identified 58 areas in which the Allies were asked to make concrete improvements in their forces to fill specific capabilities gaps. But the DCI process never really had political support and few of its goals have been fulfilled. At Prague, European NATO members should reduce this long list to five or six critical categories—to include secure communications, air- and sea-lift capabilities, electronic warfare, precision-guided munitions, defense against weapons of mass destruction, and in-flight refueling—and make real commitments to fulfilling their goals. Not only do the Europeans need to make serious improvements in capabilities if they want to join effectively with the United States in the anti-terrorism campaign, the EU decision process needs to be better integrated with NATO’s. If it isn’t, current problems with interoperability will only get worse. A division of labor among the Allies, whereby the Americans concentrate mainly on high-end military operations and most Europeans do only peacekeeping and reconstruction, is to a certain extent inevitable and may even have certain advantages. But it should not be allowed to go too far. Dividing military roles in such a stark way would undermine political solidarity within the Alliance and contribute to the growing gap between Americans and Europeans over how and when to use force in the first place. It is a recipe for undermining the political solidarity and sense of shared risk that has been at the core of the Alliance since 1949.

Fourth, NATO should continue the process of enlargement, as a means of developing strong allies capable of contributing to common goals and of consolidating the integration of central and eastern Europe. Barring the unexpected, it now seems clear that the Alliance will take in five to seven new members at Prague: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia and possibly Bulgaria and Romania as well. Some argue that such a large number of new allies will dilute the Alliance and render it unusable in the future. There is not, however, a fundamental difference between an Alliance at 19 and an Alliance at 24 or 26—NATO never was an alliance of equals and always depended on American leadership in the past, as it will in the future. Moreover, to the degree that NATO is being transformed from a defensive warfighting organization into a force-providing and coalition-facilitating organization, the dilution issue largely goes away.

It is in any case a myth that it is impossible to conduct effective military operations with a large number of countries—the “war by committee” charge leveled against the Kosovo campaign. As General Wesley Clark has argued, if there was a war by committee in Kosovo, the committee was within the Clinton Administration and Joint Chiefs of Staff, not among the NATO allies. Only those few allies actually making a major military contribution—primarily Britain and France—demanded a significant voice in the conduct of the operation. This was not an unreasonable demand, and it was arguably worth the trade-off. If NATO leaders are worried about taking in member-states whose long-term political stability or democratic credentials might be uncertain, they should consider mechanisms that would allow for the temporary suspension of an ally. But it would be a mistake to discard the principle that the Alliance has enunciated for years, that the NATO door is open to all European democracies committed to the Alliance’s common values and security interests.

Finally, the Prague summit should be used to promote greater cooperation between NATO and Russia. Significant progress has already been made in this regard, as demonstrated by the May 2002 agreement to set up a new NATO-Russia Council, which will give Russia the opportunity to interact with NATO allies as an equal partner on a range of issues—though without the ability to veto NATO decisions. It is true, as critics of the new relationship with Russia argue, that Russia had the opportunity to cooperate with NATO already through the Permanent Joint Council, created in 1997, and chose not to do so. But the fact is that Russia under Putin has taken a very different approach; the new forum offers an excellent opportunity to advance cooperation in unprecedented ways without sacrificing NATO’s ability, when necessary, to act without Russian agreement. Areas for possible joint action could include counter-terrorism, non-proliferation, peacekeeping and crisis management, missile defense cooperation, air defense, civil defense cooperation, collaborative armaments programs and joint work on restructuring Russia’s outmoded armed forces and early-warning systems. In the wake of the tragedies of September 11, the prospect that Russia could feel that it is part of the West—rather than threatened by it—is an opportunity that should not be squandered. That NATO can be a vehicle for that opportunity is perhaps the most vivid illustration possible of its continuing utility as an alliance.

NATO is not dead, nor is it doomed. But it needs to adjust to new realities if it is to serve useful purposes on both sides of the Atlantic. Disagreements among allies are natural; in the case of NATO, certainly, they are nothing new. But allies we remain. The challenge of adjusting the Alliance after the Cold War was already considerable before last September 11; since then it has become both more complex and more urgent. The Prague summit is an opportunity for the Alliance to make that adjustment; it is an opportunity that should not be lost.