NATO Ten Years from Now

Monday, April 30, 2001

Born in 1949 as the Cold War began, NATO was a war-fighting, defensive alliance that kept the peace in Europe until the war broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s. NATO had become a force for peacekeeping and conciliation after the breakup of the Warsaw Pact in 1989 but then was drawn into a war against Yugoslavia.

The 78-day air war over Serbia and Kosovo and the occupation of Kosovo by NATO forces created a new NATO, perhaps one with a new interventionist strategy for the future. It had bombed Yugoslavia, a sovereign state, for mistreating citizens in one of its own provinces, Kosovo. The change in NATO’s behavior will have vast consequences for the United States and its NATO allies.

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been looking for a reason for its continued existence. The humanitarian intervention in Kosovo may become that raison d´être. Although international law says that external aggression should be met with resistance, no such right exists to intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation. The implications for the future are stark. What will NATO do against Russia, China, and India if internal conflicts develop in those nations?

The European Union, with its 350 million people and advanced economy, can certainly spend more on defense and less on welfare.

The conduct of the Kosovo war also divided NATO, weakened U.S. control over the alliance, and stimulated the European Union (EU) to develop an independent European Security and Defense Identity (ESDI) with its own rapid-reaction force and military-industrial complex. This could weaken U.S. resolve to stay in NATO and act as Europe’s defensive shield. All this is in stark contrast to the first 50 years of NATO, when it was a successful military alliance dominated by the United States. This essay looks into the future to see what NATO might become in the twenty-first century.

Welcoming a Stronger Europe

The next decade will see further growth of NATO. Today NATO has 19 members, and Partnership for Peace has 43 countries in its training program for future NATO membership. In 1999 Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO; Slovenia, Romania, and Austria are likely to be the next members early in the twenty-first century; and the Balkan and Baltic states are clamoring for admission. An expanding NATO will thus be opened to many more new members in an effort to build a broad European security system.

Not only will NATO expand, but so will the EU. And a larger EU will help produce more effective security and defense cooperation in Europe. If the Baltic states can qualify for the EU, they may not need to be in NATO. Already the ESDI is developing and, as a pillar of the EU, can strengthen NATO but not replace it as the most important and effective security organization in Europe.

The United States should welcome all this, not resist it. Peacekeeping, conflict resolution, nation building, and cooperation among nations in Europe should be more Europe’s concern than the United States’ in the future. A stronger EU should help the former Warsaw Pact states develop economically and stabilize politically. A strong EU will mean a stronger NATO, with plenty of resources to form rapid-reaction forces and with a larger (and less expensive) manpower pool for peacekeeping and nation-building forces in the troubled parts of the Balkans and elsewhere, even in the Commonwealth of Independent States. The United States, however, should insist on more sharing of NATO’s tasks and responsibilities with the Europeans and not always act as the leader of NATO or the sole source of high-tech warfare equipment. We need Europe and Europe needs us, and world peace is best served by a cooperating Atlantic alliance system with fair sharing of military expenses and a lesser leadership role in Europe for the United States.

It is not clear that, lacking forceful U.S. leadership, NATO would have the will or the decision-making coherence to meet all threats inside or outside Europe. It is clear that NATO may still be needed for some time.

The EU, therefore, should be encouraged to take on more of NATO’s responsibilities and to work with the ESDI for a Europe-wide defense system backed up by NATO. Let the EU, the proposed Anglo-French "Euro force," the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and ESDI handle most of the peacekeeping and conflict resolution functions of NATO in Europe. Activities outside Europe should also be shared if the EU wants to participate.

The Task Ahead

Cooperation with Russia will be one of the most important future tasks of NATO—and the ESDI and OSCE. Institutions such as the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, and groups such as the UN, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Council of Europe, can also help integrate, stabilize, and develop Russia.

Complicating matters, the Russian military has been taking a hard line against NATO since the air war against Yugoslavia. The land and air war in the breakaway region of Chechnya has led the military to call for an all-out victory against the rebels and, ominously, to warn Russian politicians to keep out of the way. The example of NATO bombing Yugoslavia may have paradoxically encouraged the Russians to launch a brutal air and land war against the Chechens, and world opinion appears unable to force the Russians to stop.

The Kosovo war divided NATO, weakened U.S. control over the alliance, and stimulated the European Union to develop its own rapid-reaction force and military-industrial complex.

The coming years will see continued threats in Europe and on its borders, especially Kosovo-type incidents. A commitment to defend all the countries of Europe, whether members of NATO or not, will be necessary to ensure peace throughout Europe. Other key issues facing NATO in the near and long-term future are vast: barely controlled immigration from poor countries to the West; terrorism; the threat of biological, chemical, or nuclear warfare; and instability in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf.

It is not clear that, lacking forceful U.S. leadership, which some European leaders are challenging, NATO will have the will or the decision-making coherence to meet all threats inside or outside Europe. It is uncertain whether the EU can quickly fashion a consensus to act or to select effective strategies to meet all the threats to its security. It is clear that NATO may still be needed for some time.

Grumblings within the Alliance

Europeans in recent years have been complaining about U.S. unilateralism and arrogant leadership. The French, at least since Charles de Gaulle in the early 1960s, have argued that France and other European powers should not be so dependent on the United States and should have their own independent strategic defenses. Many European leaders claim that the Americans will not accept Europe as an equal partner.

The war over Kosovo led the Europeans to look to a more independent defense and foreign policy. French president Jacques Chirac, at an international conference in November 1999, claimed that the world is not as safe with only one superpower as in a multipolar world in which Europe, not the United States, dominates. The United States, Chirac charged, too often acts unilaterally and is drifting into isolationism.

The French, Germans, and British are concerned that the United States wants to amend the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Moscow and to build an antimissile defense system. NATO allies believe this could destabilize the global balance of forces. In rejecting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the United States further angered its European allies.

Many European leaders have thus called for an independent and common foreign and defense policy for Europe. Some claim, erroneously, that the Americans don’t want a multilateral defense system for Europe. Yet despite dominating the high-tech air war over Yugoslavia, the American military does want the Europeans to bear a bigger share of future expenses for the defense of Europe and peacekeeping efforts there.

So How Committed Are We?

American global responsibilities have required the United States to reduce its commitments to NATO (only 100,000 American troops remain in Europe). But NATO need not be weakened by the shift in responsibilities from the Americans to the Europeans. The United States can rightly expect its allies to commit more to their national defense and to NATO than they do at present. The EU, with its 350 million people and advanced economy, can certainly spend more on defense and less on welfare.

What is the extent of the U.S. commitment to NATO? As we have seen, the U.S. role in NATO is being challenged by the EU, the ESDI, and, within NATO, by France, Germany, Greece, and Italy. The United States will have to do more consulting with the Europeans to overcome these differences. The Europeans seem committed to NATO now and for the foreseeable future, but leaders of the EU want to play a more independent role in foreign affairs and defense matters. The Americans will also have to help the Europeans develop stronger air power, more high-tech weapons, and more powerful military forces for use inside and outside of Europe. As this shift happens, the United States can and should reduce its commitment.

For all these reasons, leadership of NATO should pass from the Americans to the Europeans early in the twenty-first century. Germany is a logical choice to take over from the United States. Fears of Germany are no longer justified. Deutsche mark nationalism has replaced German militarism for the last 50 years (and now the euro has replaced the deutsche mark). Germany is tied irrevocably to the West by the EU, the euro, and NATO. It has the vision of a greater Europe that neither France nor Britain has.

All this depends not only on U.S. attitudes but on Europe’s leadership and capabilities. Will Germany’s neighbors accept German leadership of the European defense and security pillar? The United States needs and wants a strong, stable Europe. By sharing decision making and technology, and by doling out duties and responsibilities, the United States could safely reduce its NATO commitments and leave Europe to the Europeans, allowing us to focus on other areas of the world that are important to our national interests.

Germany is a logical choice to take over the leadership of NATO from the United States. It has the vision of a greater Europe that is possessed by neither France nor Britain.

However, the United States will have to resist strong internal forces of isolationism and unilateralism. The United States cannot, and should not, go it alone. We should not play the role of policeman to the world. Nor should we withdraw to our continental borders and let the world go to hell. The United States has national interests in Europe and elsewhere, and it is on these interests that we should concentrate.

In any case, the usable power of the United States remains limited and the world a risky place. We should still intervene abroad—but only where vital U.S. interests are directly threatened. When foreign statesmen describe themselves as enemies of the United States, they should be taken at their word and the United States should take suitable counteraction. But the United States cannot eradicate evil regimes or impose its own institutions on the world at large. Such a foreign policy would make excessive demands even on the United States, for all its strength. Moreover, such a foreign policy would never gain essential domestic backing. Like it or not, the world continues to be made up of sovereign states. Between them they command a great degree of trust. American politicians cannot afford to ride roughshod over such loyalties. Indeed scholar-politicians as distinguished and varied in outlook as Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger, and George F. Kennan have all shown that it is either perilous or impossible for the United States to base its foreign policy on morality alone. It is beyond the power of the United States and the inclination of its people to enforce democracy from the pulpit. We should intervene but only in coalition with the UN or regional groups such as NATO; we need to cooperate with others to keep the peace.

The Pentagon has not yet come to grips with America’s role as imperial policeman and peacekeeper in places like Bosnia, Iraq, and Kosovo. Extended deployments, low pay, and old stupidities of the military staff have hurt retention and recruitment rates in our armed forces. Morale is poor and there are shortages of advanced munitions. Part of the problem has been budget cuts, but most of the trouble comes from trying to play world policeman and failing to face up to the new conditions posed by the end of the Cold War. The military needs to adapt itself to its new geopolitical position since the implosion of the other superpower, the Soviet Union. New strategies for the next war need to be developed because the armed forces will have to adapt to this new world with smaller, rapid-response units and fewer aircraft carriers. The next war will require fewer big tanks and more high-tech ammunition and unmanned planes and weapons.

In any case, NATO will remain our major instrument for conflict resolution and war-fighting initiatives in Europe. For the last 50 years, NATO has been the most successful military alliance in the history of the world. Let’s hope it will remain so well into the twenty-first century.

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