NATO: Spectator or Team Player
December 4, 2002 -- As east European celebrations subside after NATO's November Prague summit, where the alliance agreed to grow from 19 to 26 members, Europe's inaction and failure to modernize its forces contrast with U.S. efforts to transform NATO to meet tomorrow's threats.
Washington remains committed to Europe, but the trans-Atlantic partnership is not a happy one. Europe is not united enough to be left alone. While peace in Europe does not necessarily mean peace for the United States, war in Europe means war for the U.S.
Prospective membership in NATO, the European Union, and other Western institutions inspires nations to shed historic disputes with neighbors, as well as lethargic economic and political systems. The political advantages in extending NATO's borders outweigh the seven east European invitees' evident lack of military capabilities.
NATO's formal decision-making process, requiring unanimity, was a burden during the 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. Target lists had to be approved by 19 alliance members, many of which had little understanding of how to use military airpower, especially Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, which had joined NATO just weeks before the campaign began.
As a result of the unanimity requirement, NATO's collective forces will only be as ready and willing as the alliance's most hesitant member. With Germany leading the opposition against an Iraq campaign, the alliance will be absent when the campaign begins, just as it was during the operations in Afghanistan and during the Gulf War.
Because of post-Cold War NATO's inability to transform itself into a war-fighting alliance with global reach, NATO will be a bystander in wars outside Europe in the future. NATO will remain Europe's pre-eminent security institution, but, without a change in Europe's priorities and its level of defense spending, the alliance will basically serve as a provider of forces for coalition operations led by the U.S.
Article V, the collective security guarantee of the NATO Treaty, was invoked for the first time after the attacks of September 11, on the initiative of European allies. It was a noble and appreciated gesture, but what did Europe have to offer? Washington's desire to strike back -- first in Afghanistan and soon in Iraq -- could not be delayed through diverting U.S. aircraft to pick up European forces incapable of getting themselves to the battlefield. Even Britain had to lease and borrow airlift to get into the theater of operations in Afghanistan.
When NATO's Reaction Force of 20,000 troops becomes operational in 2004, it will depend on the strategic airlift and select capabilities of the United States, which strongly backed the establishment of the force. European hesitancy and lack of consensus in the heat of battle will limit NATO operations to policing missions within Europe and to peacekeeping on Europe's periphery, with risks of decisive combat operations kept below battalion level. The European Union's flirting with its own defense institutions, such as the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), is unlikely to overcome a chronic lack of military capabilities and vetoes from EU members such as Ireland.
The aggressive, confident, and corporate-minded Bush administration, together with an America still outraged by the September 11 attacks, will remain focused on eliminating future threats to the security of both the U.S. and it allies. Washington's resolve and its level of defense spending will contrast sharply with the slow consensus-building approach of Europe's socialist leaders. Comfortable under a security umbrella provided by the United States, Europe, proportionally, continues to spend less than half of what the U.S. spends on defense.
Bush and his team are committed to winning the war against terrorism. Accommodating slower allies is important, but a lesser priority. The result is that Europeans are accusing the U.S. of unilateralism.
At the last NATO summit, in Washington in 1999, leaders pledged to improve military capabilities and to prepare for defending against weapons of mass destruction and asymmetric threats. Similar pronouncements were made at the Prague summit, and they will no doubt be on the agenda at the next alliance summit in May 2004, when the seven invitees will become formal members.
After 2004, NATO will have 60 percent more members than it had during the Gulf War. It is difficult to envision a larger alliance commanding fluid combat operations without first revising its structure and focus.
There is talk of NATO involvement in Afghanistan, which now hosts a peacekeeping operation, but what about Iraq? Is the alliance to be a spectator with regard to the next large war that involves mostly Americans and some Europeans? Against the backdrop of military actions since the end of the Cold War, the alliance will not have a commanding role to play. The U.S. cannot and will not risk being defeated on the battlefields in Iraq and elsewhere because of endless debates in Europe.
Bush's order to his commanders is to decisively prevent future acts of September 11-type catastrophic terrorism, not to react to them. It is not his preference to act unilaterally. Domestically, as governor and as president, Bush has been a team builder and a team player. Internationally, Bush seeks partners that can run as fast and carry as much weight as Washington does.
The United States has gone to Prague and elsewhere looking for partners that would take on their share of global responsibilities. Partnerships with the U.S. team require hard commitments and results, not well-crafted meeting communiqués or empty promises.
Operational requirements of the U.S., NATO, and Europe will have to be balanced with the interests of the alliance's member states. In 1998, the revision of the alliance's command structure favored the interests of individual member countries. In this round of revisions, the balance needs to be in favor of the collective interests of NATO. A leaner and meaner command structure and its ability to project power globally will help protect the interests of both Europe and the United States. Europe is not likely to agree, as this will not be a high priority for many alliance members.
The goal of NATO during the Cold War, according to a common adage, was "to keep Germany down, Russia out, and the U.S. in." For NATO to be relevant now, the European pillar within the alliance must be a more equal partner for Washington. If European countries modernize their forces and commit to deploying them beyond their comfort zone in Europe, the U.S. will approach the alliance in a less unilateral way and will be more likely to allow allies to take leading roles within coalition operations.
Critics that question the future need for NATO fail to comprehend its enduring contributions to regional and global security. At no time in history has Europe enjoyed such unity, freedom, and prosperity. The European Union and the Western economic institutions founded at Bretton Woods have provided for a vibrant European and world economy. NATO has provided the security that allowed this to happen.
If NATO's future is to encompass a global role and if Europe is to become a more equal partner for the U.S. in policing the world, Europe must be a team player. No spectators, please.
Steve Williams is a former U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer and Combat Arms Officer. He was the Pentagon's expert on the eastern Mediterranean and a policy advisor and operational planner with the Office of the Secretary of Defense (2000-2002) and Joint Chiefs of Staff (1998-2000).