Widen NATO Role for Sake of Alliance

When George W. Bush meets his counterparts in Europe, the focus will be on what he says about issues on the trans-Atlantic security agenda: missile defense, the U.S. commitment to the Balkans, Europe’s efforts to unify diplomatically and militarily and the future of NATO enlargement.

All are important and warrant serious debate, but they beg the core question that will soon haunt the future of U.S.-European relations: A decade after the end of the Cold War, what is the rationale for a security alliance like NATO? Why do we still need a trans-Atlantic military relationship?

The answers were easy during the Cold War. They got harder after the Soviet Union, NATO’s reason for being, collapsed in December 1991.

George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton dealt with it by saying we had to do for Europe’s East what we had done for its West—to create a Europe whole and free. We did this by enlarging NATO to 19 members and (finally) stopping genocide in the Balkans.

As Bosnia and Kosovo showed, there remained a vital security mission in Europe, one in which NATO power and U.S. influence proved uniquely essential. If not NATO, who would have dealt with the conflicts in the Balkans? And if not for its success there, NATO’s existence would have been much more seriously challenged.

NATO will continue to keep the peace in the Balkans and, if Secretary of State Colin Powell is to be believed, the United States will continue to play the leading role in the alliance. The Balkan missions still require tough diplomatic work and maintenance, but if they continue on their present course, they will cease to be a powerful rationale for the alliance.

For perhaps the first time in modern history, there is no obvious threat to European security from Europe. So how can we justify the commitment of military resources that democratic publics find acceptable if the United States and Europe are not in danger of being attacked?

There are threats, but this requires doing something that many on both sides of the Atlantic are reluctant to do: look elsewhere. Indeed, the real point of the alliance in the 21st century is what we can do together outside of Europe.

That is why the United States pushed its allies before NATO’s 50th anniversary summit in 1999 to agree to a role for NATO beyond Europe. The Europeans refused.

Again, at the recent NATO foreign ministers meeting in Budapest, the Europeans would not sign on to the U.S. definition of the threats facing us today.

Clearly, the main complication for the Europeans is missile defense. The United States and Europe cannot agree publicly on a common definition of a threat – not from within Europe, but from states like Iraq, Iran and North Korea – because they do not agree on what to do about it.

If the Bush administration expects the Europeans to come around on defense, then it must show that it truly believes in the other “Ds”—diplomacy to wean such regimes away from developing missile systems and denial to prevent such technologies from falling into the wrong hands.

Missile defense then becomes the “D” of last resort, when diplomacy, denial and deterrence have failed and missiles are on their way. But the Europeans must acknowledge that the threat is real, and they must be willing to see NATO as a primary instrument for combating problems like proliferation and terrorism.

If we don’t realize that NATO’s past successes have re-opened basic questions about the purpose of trans-Atlantic relations, we run the risk of losing an alliance that is still our best hope to preserve what we have and to protect against common threats.