On the Record

New Thinking on Transatlantic Security: Terrorism, NATO, and Beyond

Peter W. Singer

NOTE: Remarks delivered at the 2002 BMW Herbert Quandt Stiftung Workshop on “Transatlantic Challenges,” Nov. 26, 2002, Munich Germany

Too often discussions of the future of NATO focus on the bureaucratic minutia of the institution itself, rather overall context in which it must exist. The result is that they reach great level of details, but unlinked to the world that shape the institution.

Instead, any consideration of transatlantic security policy must take into account three critical dynamics that are presently changing how Americans and Europeans view the world. With these transformations in outlook, our preferences are shifting in differing directions and the utility of longstanding institutions are called into question. Given these forces, NATO stands at a critical juncture.

For the sake of preserving our close transatlantic relations, it is important that Americans and Europeans be frank about how our world is changing and our outlooks along with it. Only then, can we maintain our long friendship and continue to work together towards our many common goals and values.

The “Imperial Power” of the U.S.

America is often accused of “imperialism” in very strident terms. Indeed, just last night I walked through a protest march in Munich making that same claim. Thus, it is perhaps a bit shocking for an American to step forward and admit that, yes, the United States is indeed becoming more imperialist. In looking at the meaning of the term “imperialism,” the conscious extension of power towards greater amounts of influence over the political or economic life of other areas, I do believe this is an evolution that we are seeing in some of American foreign policy thinking.

In order to explain the underpinnings to this shift in philosophy, a few realities of power status have to be raised. Judging by raw data of measures of strength alone, the U.S. no longer is a superpower, but has become something more, a hyperpower.

Around 300,000 US troops are presently deployed in over 140 nations. Indeed, the spark of the 9-11 attacks is that they led to a further expansion of U.S. military presence to new places like Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and now maybe Iraq.

The U.S.’ annual military budget equals the defence spending of the next 14 highest countries—combined; and it is important to remember that these mostly are our allies. Of all the likely state adversaries (Russia, China and Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Sudan, Syria and Libya—to be very broad), they only have a combined military budget less than one-third of the US total.

Likewise, American weapons systems are at least a generation of technology ahead of our allies and around two generations ahead of any likely state adversaries. Moreover, this gap is only growing, a cause of great consternation for those worried about our forces interoperability. Indeed, when an unmanned U.S. Predator aircraft launched its own missile to destroy a car carrying suspected terrorists in Yemen this month, our NATO allies could only marvel at this advanced form of warfare. The strike not only sent a message to al Qaida thet the U.S reach is global, but also was a chilling warning to NATO’s members to shape up or face irrelevance.

The same dominance of raw power holds on the economic side. Even after the burst of the Internet bubble, the US has about around 30% of world product. It also holds superiority in an array of technological fields critical to the “new economy,” such as information technology, telecommunications, and biotechnology.

Finally, it is almost needless to note the sway that the U.S. power has over global popular and consumer culture, from McDonalds to Coke. English is the primary language of discourse in global business, entertainment, and on the Internet. Hollywood drives the global industry of movies and TV, American groups and record labels dominate world pop music, and nine of the world’s 12 biggest media groups are American. Thus, when people criticize a growing global culture of consumerism, they are talking about a world that is sounding and appearing more and more American.

The result is that when looking at just the raw data, this hyperpower is historic. The U.S. lead is unchallenged by past cases of global powers such as Hapsburg empire of Charles the V or the Victorian English. As Paul Kennedy, author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers notes, “Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing. I have returned to all of the statistics over the past 500 years…and no other nation comes close.”

While these figures do make me proud as an American, I do not raise them to brag. For my feeling also runs a bit to the opposite: our sheer dominance is also somewhat worrisome, in that in many ways we have not yet come to terms with what to do with this hyperpower.

What is starting to occur, though, is what I believe to be an important attitude shift in the way that the U.S. sees the world and its role in it. The terrorist attacks of 9-11 brought a massive shock to the American system, driving home two important realizations:

1) America is just as vulnerable to terrorism as any other state, perhaps even more so, and that this vulnerability is linked to a responsibility to play a role in the world. The result is that, for the first time in the country’s history, one can fairly say that the once-dominant strand of isolationism in the American psyche is dead.

2) But there has also been an important realization of our strength, as never before. With the amazingly quick turnover of Afghanistan, Americans are gradually coming to terms with our overwhelming power. And with this comes broader aspirations, as one may witness in the rather swift shift to Iraq.

The essence of this transformation is that America is starting to think and operate like an empire, not in terms of seeking territorial gains in the form of colonies or anything so traditional, but rather seeking to use its power to set the world stage on our own terms. This is something that’s always been lurking in the background, such as in certain Cold War policies, but what is new is that this imperial impulse is coming out in the open.

Presently, there are two primary competing visions of America’s role in the world that dominate among the foreign policy establishment in the United States. The origins of both lie within the younger generation of thinkers of the Republican Party (as opposed to the internationalists of the Bush Sr. and Dole).By comparison, as a presently wounded and divided party, the Democratic Party is essentially bereft of a competitive and unified foreign policy vision.

The first vision is the concept of a Wilsonian empire. The speeches of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz perhaps best exemplify this viewpoint. Indeed, we are seeing a resurgent reformist ambition in our foreign policy that sees our power as a means and justification to go out and change the world. The stated goal is not simply to recreate the world in our image but in the image of an international order based on democracy, freedom, and self-determination. These values are thus described as not essentially American, but simply inherently human. They do, however, draw their footing from the visions of the American founding fathers and the institutions to solidify them are often described in inherently American terms.

However, there is a second competing imperial outlook that is gaining sway, particularly within senior parts of the Administration and the Pentagon. It is the view of a unilateral imperialism, based not on values but our power. In this “neo-conservative” worldview, best expressed in the writings of Kenneth Adelman and Richard Perle, the U.S. must be free to pursue its interests without hindrance. If any other authority attempts to limit it, it will simply bypass it. Or as I like to call it, this is the “Don’t mess with Texas” understanding of foreign policy.

While many think this was a reaction to the terrorist attacks, it is not. Indeed, the start of this foreign policy had already occurred on such issues as Kyoto and the International Criminal Court, where the U.S. sought not to build up and positively shape international institutions, but rather to stymie them and tear them down. In words of John Lewis Gaddis, this is the side of the U.S. when it acts “like a sullen, pouting, oblivious, and over-muscled teenager.”

Echoes of both of these visions filled the Bush administration’s latest national security strategy, it being unclear which camp truly has the President’s heart. Similarly, while the President did go to the U.N. to seek international clearance to go after Iraq, he did so with the clear and public statement that the U.S. would act regardless of the U.N.’s vote.

The interesting thing, though, is that while both views are strongly different, one being based on values and one based on power, they still manage to coalesce around certain points. For example, the two forces agree on the need to finally resolve the situation with Iraq and change the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Wilsonians cite the need for action because Saddam is the worst kind of dictator, who terrorizes his own people and the region writ large. Their underlying motive is a belief in the positive externalities that would ensue if he were toppled and a democracy put in his place. A change in Iraq and the creation of a democracy square in the heart of the Arab world, they believe, would be the shock necessary to reshape the region, help end terrorism, and resolve generations of conflict. In short, it is a highly optimistic view of the imperial application of American values joined with our hyperpower.

The neoconservatives take a more straightforward view. They see action on Iraq as a necessity by the simple fact that Saddam is a tin-pot dictator, with the potential of gaining dangerous weapons that could turn him into a serious threat. Moreover, he is a dictator who has had the temerity to stand up to the U.S. for far too long. The need for immediate action thus lies in the symbolism of the act itself. The very act of thumping down Saddam, they believe, would send a resonating message to every other would-be opponent of the U.S. that a new world order has finally arrived, one in which you “don’t mess” with the U.S. While this vision claims to be more realistic than the norm of American foreign policy, it is equally optimistic in its hopes for the application of hyperpower, removed from American values.

Obviously, both visions present great gains for the U.S. if they are true in their assessments, but also risk great backlash. The second, in particular, risks quickly depleting longstanding reservoirs of goodwill and support towards the U.S. from allies. But in the end, both are earnest in their attempt to respond to a central problem of U.S. policy for the coming decades. Because we are number one in terms of raw power, whatever we do, or do not do, will anger some party in the world. Thus, we will also likely remain “target number one.”

A World At War and World at Peace

This leads into the next dynamic shaping transatlantic security, our diverging outlooks towards the world. To put it very bluntly, the United States considers itself at war, while Europe does not.

This dynamic carries over in both the way we describe the threats we face and the means we use to respond. One only has to look at the resonance that the phrase “war on terrorism” has in the U.S. versus the way the phrase is viewed among European leaders and peoples. Likewise, the general U.S. concept of how to defeat terrorism has focused on the hard tools of the military and increased security and intelligence, while Europeans have tended to want to look at the motivating causes.

The added complication of this differing view is that both sides have differing evaluations of the other side’s seriousness. Europeans often do not believe that American concern with terrorism is as real as Americans portray it to be, instead believing that the U.S. are putting on an overstated show, in order to extend its power and get its way on certain issues. Americans, in turn, tend to think Europeans are downplaying the threat at their own risk and slipping back into an overtly pacifist approach, in order to limit U.S. options.

Europeans should not to underestimate the seriousness of the American view and Americans should not ignore the stark differences in our outlooks. As recent surveys show, both the US public and elites consistently see the world as a far more dangerous place than European public and opinion-makers. This carries over on nearly every measure of threat rating: concern with world terrorism, concern with Iraq, concern with Middle East, concern with China, concern with Islamic fundamentalism, etc. Indeed, the only issues in which Europeans think the world is worse off are on the “soft” security issues, such as the environment, which is equally telling.

This starker American view is not going to alter any time soon. The reasons behind this are because of the lingering shock of the 9-11 attacks, the continuation of other attacks and plots directed against Americans on a near weekly basis, and the political manipulation of the “war on terrorism” for reasons of electoral politics.

In turn, while it is clearly important to take a long-term approach towards resolving the underlying causes of both terrorism and support for it in many parts of the Islamic World, the threats to Europe should not be underestimated. Indeed, one of the important aspects of the recent audio tape purporting to be from Osama bin Laden was not just that it revealed he is likely alive, but also the direct mention by al Qaida that it considers Europe to be a legitimate target, indicating something terrible may be in the offing.

While the two sides may not resolve this divergence in viewpoint in the near-term, one thing is certain, its importance must be accounted for in transatlantic relations. This disagreement places incredible burdens and tensions on NATO. Simply put, it is hard to maintain a close military alliance when one party sees itself at war and the other partner does not.

Europe Looks To Europe

The final complicating factor for transatlantic security is not just a changed American focus, but a changed European one as well. While America is becoming more imperial in its application of power and influence, Europe is becoming more “post-modern” and looking more inward.

It goes without saying that Europe in the midst of a massive and unprecedented social experiment in the form of the European Union. The institutionalization of the EU and the accompanying tearing down of state borders is an all-consuming task. It is a fair assessment that bringing in new members and integrating them into a European structure will occupy European political and societal focus for at least the next generation.

This Europeanization also has a number of other important implications. Europe is entering the era of what Robert Cooper described as the post-modern state. Protected for the last 50 years, Europe has essentially been able to turn away from the use of force. With the EU’s institutionalization, the power of organizations and rules are seen as what should govern relationships.

The U.S. though sees itself as not having that privilege and probably not wanting it either, given its both hyperpower and perceived role in the world (including as a protector of the European continent for the last 50 years). In particular, where Europe champions international law, the U.S. is suspicious, seeing it, perhaps rightly, as a means that some will use to limit its range of choices. The added effect of this is that the things American strategists want out of NATO are in direct opposition to public sentiment in a post-modern Europe. Indeed, surveys reveal that 75% of Europeans want to cut defense spending or leave it the same, and roughly 50% think that the alliance is best structured where the U.S. carries out the warfighting and the Europeans stick to peacekeeping.

Likewise, the institutions we care about and think about are changing. Europeans are more concerned about the fate of NATO than Americans, and while the EU is at the center of every European’s political views, Americans hear little about it and care even less.

A quick and dirty survey of newspapers attention to these institutions perhaps illustrates this best. In the week leading up to the NATO summit in Prague (November 17-23), the word “NATO” was mentioned in the London Times, 26 times and the word “European Union” was mentioned 59 times. In Frankfurter Allgemeine, “NATO” was mentioned 22 times, and “EU” 53 times. In Le Monde, “NATO” was mentioned 19 times and the “EU” was mentioned 101 times. In the closest large paper to my hometown, The Atlanta Constitution, the difference was glaring. “NATO” was mentioned just 5 times, and the “EU” 2 times.

An Institution Adrift

The irony of NATO is that is an alliance in search of a purpose, at a time when its biggest member cares less about it, and isn’t quite sure what it gets out of it. Moreover, a growing number of NATO’s members see it mainly as a status club, but one that with each of their joining becomes even less exclusive.

In many ways, the clamor to join the NATO alliance that we saw at Prague is simply because the new members view it as a stepping stone to EU membership. In turn, the requirements that NATO has set for its new members are primarily political reforms. Thus, the enlargement goal of the NATO military alliance has been more about the consolidation of democracy and free markets in Europe than on military utility.

This is a worthy goal, but it is a massive shift that raises all sorts of questions of the fundamental utility of NATO. The outcome of the momentous changes of the last decade is that NATO has become an entity that is nearly unrecognizable to its founders. Both its goals (a defensive alliance vs. consolidation of democracy), primary means (military deployment at the Fulda gap, vs. inducing internal political reforms through membership offers), and even enemy (the Warsaw Pact vs. terrorists—if the alliance can agree) are all different.

Bearing in mind the three dynamics outlined earlier, the overall outcome is that for many American strategists, NATO is losing its appeal. It has become an organization that offers declining advantages in terms of additional strength and tools to use against American foes, while placing potential limits on the US’s options of when and where to use force. This all came together at Prague, when we saw the fairly odd occurrence of the American president arriving at a meeting of America?s most valued military alliance and describing its future possibilities in terms of just “a coalition of the willing.”

This leads to the fundamental questions of the shape NATO must take in the future. My own hope is that we are able to keep NATO around. It offers much and, indeed, the very fact that it places certain limits on the U.S. ambitions is not always a bad thing, particularly in light of a growing American imperial view towards policymaking. From the American perspective, having European partners along for the ride not only gains us valuable and needed skills and forces that we would not otherwise have, but it also adds the legitimacy that multilateral action offers. Perhaps most importantly, though, having to consult with NATO partners on the use of force, compels our own leaders to stop and think about the best means and timing to use force and the way in which we describe the case for doing so. With its differing outlook, the European influence on the U.S. through the institution of NATO may be best at forcing the U.S. to place its actions within the language of international law. This further adds to the legitimacy and receptivity to when and where the U.S. uses force.

But for us to reach this point, NATO also has to enact a personality shift of sorts. NATO’s task for the near future is to make itself relevant again, in order to ensure its survival in the long-term. NATO has to recognize the need to transform itself from an organization formed to meet the threat from the Warsaw Pact to one that can deal with global terrorists, who operate not only from rogue and failed states outside of Europe and the U.S. but also within. The road is wide open for NATO to be the organizational means, a valued military partnership, in pursuit of this task.

The recent role taken by NATO in Afghanistan in support of the ISAF peacekeeping mission and the announcement of the 20,000-strong Rapid Response Force are good first starts, but there are still other areas to fill. One option is for NATO to also enter into the homeland security field, in order to maximize our combined resources. For example, there is great benefit for NATO to begin work as the coordinating body in the catastrophic response sector. It could help bring unity to the presently disparate and rather limited programs on both sides of the Atlantic on how we might respond to a potential use of weapons of mass destruction by terrorists. While there has been some operational cooperation in our responses to the use of weapons of mass destruction on the battlefield, such as the recent German deployment to Kuwait of specialized Fox WMD detection vehicles, there is no reason other than institutional lethargy that same is not occurring for how we would respond to the use of these terrible weapons within our cities.

Moreover, NATO does not have to limit itself to traditionally military functions. Similar cooperation can happen on the obvious areas of better intelligence sharing, as well as on such “new security” functions as border control. This could include leveraging NATO’s experience in bolstering border security in the Balkans and Central Asia to help Partnership for Peace states better control the flow of terrorists, weapons, and illicit trade. NATO can also help provide the centrus for similar cooperation among American and European civilian security agencies, involving the sharing of investment, learning, and burdens in disaster preparedness and response.

In essence, the concept is one of NATO expansion, just in functional rather than geographic terms. The general idea is to take advantage of the pre-existing and proven institutional capacity of NATO, to help us to effectively make a joint investment in our security now, rather than waiting for the crisis to come along later.

The key test, though, in whatever NATO does is twofold:

1) Whether Europe has the political will to actually support NATO the way it requires it, and

2) Whether America has the maturity and patience to work with others and compromise on some things.

This will require a clear follow though on the commitments that all the NATO members made in Prague. At NATO?s last summit in Washington in 1999, the European members agreed to upgrade their militaries. But the goals they set remain unfulfilled more than two years later. This is not just a matter of the European governments spending more on defense. Spending wisely is just as vital. So, while NATO members are required to devote 2% of their economic output to defense (which many do not anyway), this money will continue to be wasted if Europe continues to maintain antique conscripted armies that cannot fight alongside modern U.S. forces.

In turn, America must have the political maturity to stop and listen to our partners. This is why the continuance of transatlantic dialogues are so important, so that we continue to get a better feel for each other’s points of view. This also links back to the previous point, on how the European members of NATO can help themselves and the policies they would like to see the U.S. adopt. If Europeans want to shape the policy output, they have to be there on the input side as well. A strong and active NATO provides evidence of the value of multi-lateralism. It thus offers critical support to those in the U.S. who want to keep America within the path laid out by international law. That is, when NATO members provide critical resources that America needs and wants, then their voices will be more strongly heard in policy debates. When they offer little, they will be little heard.

In conclusion, whether NATO thrives in the future will depend on the political will for a strong transatlantic partnership, both in Washington and in Europe. The three dynamics outlined at the start of this article make it quite difficult. Yet, the surprises of history make should offer some hope. Our shared alliance is one that not only deterred Soviet aggression for half a century, but also helped consolidate a Europe that can finally be described as peaceful and free. If we continue to nurture it, who knows what else it might be able to accomplish?