Accessibility links

Breaking News

East European Perspectives: December 4, 2002

4 December 2002, Volume 4, Number 24

After Prague

American Views of the New NATO

By Stephen F. Szabo

The recently concluded NATO summit has been described by many as "historic" because it was successful in transforming the alliance from one that at its inception was shaped to deal with the Cold War of the Soviet threat and a divided Europe. In Prague, NATO went a long way toward ending the Cold War division of Europe and addressing the new threats of the post-11 September 2001 world. However, the summit left many questions unanswered about NATO's viability and future role.

The Bush Administration and NATO Before Prague
The approach to the Prague summit by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush seemed to mark a revaluation of the alliance after a year in which it seemed to devalue its military and even political significance. Even before 11 September, the civilian leadership in the Pentagon had regarded NATO less as an important military alliance and more as a pool from which to shape ad hoc "coalitions of the willing." As Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz put it at the annual Wehrkunde meeting in Munich at the beginning of the administration's term of office, "The mission will determine the coalition and not the coalition the mission. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the Bush administration decided to fight its war on terrorism in Afghanistan largely on its own. It did this for at least two reasons. One was the desire for maximum tactical flexibility and freedom of action. The lesson it seemed to have learned from the war in Kosova was "no more wars by committee." Second, it also did not see much that the European allies could bring to the war in terms of military capabilities.

The war on terror also accelerated a reorientation of American security policy to non-European regions of the world. Already at the beginning of its term, the administration had identified China as a major emerging strategic challenge, while also being concerned with North Korea, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made his desire to pull American forces out of the Balkans clear within the first few months he was in office. The new war on terrorism radically shifted the American military focus to Central and South Asia, as well as the Persian Gulf.

In the year leading up to Prague, three schools of thought about NATO had emerged in Washington. One was the extreme unilateralist one of the neoconservatives, most vocally represented by Richard Perle, who heads the Defense Review Board. This group is strongly anti-European and believes that the U.S. is only slowed down by Europe and should largely go it alone. A second school, which was represented by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, saw NATO's role as largely a European one, essentially that of finishing the unfinished business of the Cold War. This meant enlarging NATO and creating a good relationship with Russia. Finally, there was a more globalist school, represented by Senator Richard Lugar, the new (incoming?) chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who believes that NATO had to deal with the global challenges to security. As he put it, "Out of area or out of business."

As the war on terrorism deepened, the White House took a more unilateralist approach, symbolized by President Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech in January 2002. This led to a view both in the U.S. and in Europe that the administration had written off NATO and would work with Britain and any allies who could provide military support as well as developing a new relationship with Russia and other states, especially in Central and South Asia, that could help fight Al-Qaeda.

Yet a change occurred in September of this year when Bush gave his speech to the United Nations outlining a more multilateral approach. This was followed by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's proposal to the meeting of NATO defense ministers in Warsaw on the setting up of a NATO Rapid Reaction Force. This was a significant step, as it indicated a willingness to try to develop a serious military force that would work alongside American forces. It was also coupled with some innovative ideas for increasing European defense capabilities without requiring major spending increases. This approach centers on the idea of "niche" contributions as a way of better combining European capabilities. It was also a rejection of the neoconservative view of Europe as weak, pacifist, and prone to appeasement. However all of this was linked to a new national security strategy, which emphasized preemption and American superiority over any potential "peer competitor."

The groundwork, therefore, had been laid in both the United Nations and in NATO, for a shift back toward a more multilateral American approach. Yet the other message was also clear: Either take these proposals seriously and enhance your capabilities, or we will move without you.

The decision of the 19 NATO member states to expand to 26 within two years by inviting seven nations to join the alliance was the most important decision taken in Prague. It was important because it was a major step toward ending the artificial division of Europe, which resulted from World War II and the Cold War. The president had already outlined this goal in his speech to the faculty and students of Warsaw University on 15 June 2001. The enlargement also includes three nations that had been part of the Soviet Union. The Warsaw Pact, which formally dissolved itself in 1991, has now, in large part, joined NATO. The fact that it was done with little serious objections from Russia is also another important sign that these divisions are ending. Yalta is finally dead.

Yet the recent enlargement brings with it serious questions about what kind of organization NATO will be in the future. Just looking around the conference room in Prague where the meeting was held conveys the breadth of the membership of the alliance, but also the threat of dilution and incoherence. NATO may become the victim of its own success if it would be transformed from a collective defense alliance to a collective security organization, an OSCE with guns.

This enlargement, unlike the first post-Cold War enlargement of 1997, raises serious questions about the governance of the alliance. Going from 16 to 19 is one thing, but going from 19 to 26 is not only quantitatively different, but qualitatively as well (Goldgeier, 2002). U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd has described the greatest challenge facing NATO after Prague as, "reconciling an expanding membership with the ability of the organization to act cohesively and expeditiously" (Dodd, 2002). He has recommended the creation of an executive council modeled on the UN Security Council as an institutional response to this need. This brings back memories of the proposal of French President Charles DeGaulle in the late 1950s for a Directorate to lead the alliance. That proposal was rejected by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower because it did not include West Germany and because it would have alienated the smaller member states. However, NATO has always had an inner circle, be it the Quad (the U.S., Britain, Germany, and France, an informal group which met to hammer out common positions on key alliance issues) or the Contact Group (Britain, France, Germany, the U.S., and Italy, which met during the Bosnia crisis to coordinate policy) which has taken the lead, and this is even more likely to be the case after enlargement. The member states that would be included in this new Directorate would be determined by the extent of their military and political contribution to alliance's strategy.

Beyond the issue of coherence and the challenges enlargement creates for effective leadership and governance (a problem similar to the one facing the EU as it enlarges), there are larger questions about the criteria for membership and the purpose of NATO. Most of the new members bring very little in the way of military capabilities while those who have more in this respect, Bulgaria and Romania, raise questions in terms of democratic and economic criteria. This mixture of political and geostrategic criteria clearly muddles the alliance's mission, although it seems to reinforce the administration's preference for geopolitical realism.

The enlargement has, as a result, triggered off a discussion in the U.S. over the need to have a means of expelling members that do not live up to membership criteria once they have joined. There is widespread disappointment over the political and military performance of two of the 1997-admitted states, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and there are worries that once Romania and Slovakia are in, they might backtrack on their commitments to the democratic criteria.

Questions remain about further rounds of enlargement. NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson stated in Prague that this would not be the final round, and Macedonia, Croatia, and Albania have been mentioned as possible future members. There was also an unwelcome guest in Prague, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, and his presence added weight to the previously-questioned issue of Ukraine's future role in the alliance and Europe.

NATO's New Mission
While enlargement was historic, Washington's focus was clearly more on counterterrorism and on a possible war in Iraq. There has been a clear divergence between the Bush administration's threat-perception and strategy to deal with terrorism, on one hand, and that of most European members of NATO on the other hand. The trauma of 11 September continues to be the focal point for American security policy and most Americans regard the world as a dangerous place in which the U.S. has become the primary target.

The Europeans share the view that terrorism is a major threat, but for a number of reasons are not as likely to place it at the center of their security policies as the U.S. does. The attacks took place in the U.S. and not in Europe, and Europeans have had more experience with both domestic and international terrorism than the U.S. The greater presence of Islam in Europe has created concerns that a war on terrorism could become a "clash of civilizations," which could spill over into terrorism within Europe itself. Europeans are also more used to living with vulnerability than Americans, and tend to take a longer term and more political view of terrorism and its causes, while Americans tend to see terrorism as a security and police problem that must be dealt with forcefully and immediately.

The Bush administration and a good part of the American public tend to see the new terrorism as fundamentally different from the terrorism which Europeans have dealt with because of the nexus of terrorism with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) combined with the rise of transnational terrorist organizations. As Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, has said, "the threats to peace come not from strong states within Europe, but from unstable failed states and terrorist organizations far from Europe's borders" (Burns, 2002, p. 6).

In short, the U.S. and most of its key European NATO allies share a threat but do not share the same threat perception. They both agree that terrorism poses a threat, but the American view is a more expansive and elastic one, with a greater emphasis on the use of the military instrument. The Europeans see the threat, but place it in a larger historical and political context, and see it as just one of a number of threats and priorities, and not as THE major threat.

In terms of strategy, the U.S. administration believes that time is not on its side, that preemptive actions are required, and that not only nonstate, but also state actors are part of the threat if they have the potential of possessing WMD. While it understands that the longer-term strategy will include "nation building" and development programs, it places great immediate emphasis on the military instruments of state power and has, as a consequence, adopted a strategy that places a premium on independent action and shifting ad hoc coalitions. Given the capabilities gap and the overwhelming military superiority of the U.S., the administration prefers to conduct its military operations as independently as possible.

Given all these factors, the administration has not initially seen NATO as central to its war on terrorism but now seems to be reassessing that view, at least at the margins. Its call for the NATO summit to be not only about enlargement, but also about transformation, reflected a new assessment of the need for a broad coalition in the struggle against international terrorism. NATO, the U.S. administration believes, will no longer be relevant if it does not deal with the threat most Americans see as most real. In a time of globalization of finance, the movement of people, goods, and images, how can security remain a regional issue for a regional alliance?

European NATO tends to be skeptical about this general strategy and would prefer to remain focused on Europe, in part because of the project of European construction, which is now at a crucial stage with EU enlargement and institutional reform. It is not surprising that they see NATO's role as completing the unfinished business of the Cold War, including ending the division of Europe through enlargement, creating a new partnership with Russia and Ukraine, and stabilizing the Balkans.

In Prague, the European members of NATO played down their concerns and endorsed the creation of a NATO Rapid Reaction Force as a means of creating a new counterterrorism role for the alliance. Most did this less out of conviction than from a sense of resignation that without such a commitment the U.S. would simply move ahead with those that are willing to join it.

The Capabilities Gap
The Bush administration tried a creative new approach on closing the capabilities gap into NATO's new mission. It decided to take a realist perspective on the political willingness and economic capability of its European allies to substantially increase defense spending. The problem is partially about the level of defense spending -- but only partially so. NATO, including the U.S., spends about $500 billion annually on defense while the global total expenditure on defense is $835 billion (confirm: does that mean the rest of the world spends $335 billion on defense?). The European members of NATO spend about 40 percent of what the U.S. spends. NATO Europe spends as much on defense (about $160 billion) as Russia, China, and Japan combined. Britain, France, and Germany rank fifth, sixth, and seventh, respectively, in total defense spending in the world. While no one else is in the same league with the Americans, these are substantial forces nonetheless (IISS, 2002, p. 248).

The problem is that the Europeans get much less capability for their expenditures than do the Americans. European nations spend far greater proportions of their defense budgets on personnel costs than America does, and spend only about one-fourth of their budgets on research and development. Much of the problem is due to duplication and fragmentation of defense spending, as defense continues to be a nationally-managed policy. The solution to this problem is clearly more European- and NATO-wide coordination and consolidation of spending and production. A European "armaments agency" and an inclusion of defense within a single market would be important steps in this direction. There is no reason, for example, to have four different types of fighter aircraft in EU Europe, or 15 separate armies, navies and air forces.

A key in trying to reconcile resources, ambitions, and capabilities is the concept of "comparative advantage." In the old NATO, each nation was expected to contribute proportionately to alliance defense. Under the new approach, each nation will contribute what it does best, thus dividing the labor (Tyler, 2002).

NATO has taken this principle to Prague, embodying it in the idea of "niche contributions." Major gaps exist in air transport, command, communications, and computers, as well as reconnaissance and precision-guided weapons. For example, the U.S. has 250 heavy transport planes, while its European allies have a total of 11. In Prague, Germany was asked to take the lead in the area of air transport and to consider leasing C-17s for the remainder of this decade until the proposed new transport, the Airbus A 400 M, comes on line. Other nations have been assigned the lead in other key areas.

The Prague Capability Commitment is far more focused and realistic than the laundry list Defense Capability Initiative of the 1999 Washington summit. It offers the Europeans a way to enhance their capabilities in key areas at a minimal increase in costs. It was offered by the Bush administration as a way of partially bridging the capabilities gap, at least enough to allow the alliance to continue to operate together in a militarily meaningful way.

The New Role of Germany
While the summit endorsed a statement on Iraq, both France and Germany blocked a stronger resolution, which would have supported the use of force. The continued reservations of Germany to play any role in a possible war on Iraq also offered a glimpse into what the new NATO might look like. Germany has played a central role in the alliance strategy since it entered NATO in 1955, and especially after the withdrawal of France from the integrated military command in 1966. It was an indispensable partner to the United States in all major alliance policies and strategies, including the adoption of the strategy of flexible response, the creation of the Nuclear Planning Group, the acceptance of the Harmel Report's modification of strategy to add the detente component to that of defense, the deployment of Intermediate Nuclear Forces missiles in the 1980s, the enlargement of NATO in the 1990s, and the shaping of the new relationship with Russia. It has now decided to oppose a major American policy initiative, although it has softened its opposition with the agreement to take command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan as well as its support of the Rapid Reaction Force. In addition, Germany is falling further behind not only the U.S., but also the U.K. and France, in the military field. As the capabilities gap widens, so too will the influence gap.

This estrangement has created new opportunities not only for France to play a mediating role between the positions of Washington and Berlin, but has also given a chance for some of the new members, most clearly Poland and Romania, to now play a close supporting role for the U.S. in this new era. Whether NATO can really be effective if its main Central European member is marginalized on the sidelines is a key question. If Germany decides to shift closer to the French view on NATO and the U.S., this would also have substantial implications for the future of the U.S. role in Europe as well as for the prospects of a more independent European defense.

The Future
After the euphoria of Prague, reality will quickly settle in. Washington will watch closely to see if its European allies take the Capabilities Initiative and the Rapid Reaction Force seriously and begin to do something to narrow the capabilities gap and thus reduce the marginalization of NATO. Many questions concerning the Rapid Reaction force will have to be answered, including who will authorize its deployment and the national composition of its forces.

Expectations about NATO's role in counterterrorism will also have to be realistic. NATO has played a useful, if not central, role in dealing with the new threat of terrorism and it will continue to have a limited role. NATO, however should be careful about promising too much or trying to do too much in this regard. Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy. It is a multidimensional problem, which requires a multidimensional approach; other institutions, which coordinate finance, police, intelligence and customs, are more likely to be better suited for a larger role. Thus in countering terrorism, the UN and the G-8 may be more central than NATO.

This does not mean that the alliance cannot do more in this area. In Prague, it accepted that its mission now extends beyond Europe and that terrorism is a major focus for the future. It should center on the gaps in the intelligence system and the targeting and decision-making process, as well as on mobility and stand off capabilities. Specifics include:

* Enhancement of mobile, special operations forces;

* Improvement of C4ISR (command, control, communications and computing, and surveillance and reconnaissance);

* Developing a mix of manned aircraft and unmanned systems (Predator), and precision-guided weapons;

* Commit to minimum defense-spending levels required of new members (2 percent of GDP);

* Development of a common threat assessment and better sharing of intelligence through the strengthening of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Center;

* The development of theater missile defense systems (for more, see Gordon, 2002).

NATO should, however, not lose its focus on European security, as much still needs to be done with the business of finishing the remains of the Cold War. It should also be very wary of further expansion as it may already have become too large. The alliance should instead work through the Partnership for Peace program and other means to strengthen cooperation with nonmember states.

Most importantly, it is to be hoped that the U.S. administration's return to a more alliance-oriented approach is more than just tactical. If it continues with the sort of rhetoric and policies it pursued over the last two years, NATO will be severely damaged. These and other measures will only make sense if the United States is willing to be serious about an alliance approach to the broad complex of issues associated with terrorism.

General Brent Scowcroft, former President George Bush's national security adviser, has proposed that the U.S. give NATO the "right of first refusal" before acting. This may not be politically possible in the current climate in Washington, but it underscores the kind of thinking needed from Washington if NATO and the trans-Atlantic alliance are to remain viable.

(The author is professor of European Studies at the Johns Hopkins University-SAIS, Washington D.C.)


Burns, R.N., 2002, "Launching NATO's Transformation in Prague," Manfred Woerner Memorial Lecture, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Berlin, 30 October.

Dodd, C.J., "NATO: The More the Murkier," in "The Washington Post," 27 November.

Goldgeier, J., 2002, "Not When, But Who," in "NATO Review "(Spring),

Gordon, P., 2002, "Reforging the Atlantic Alliance," in "The National Interest," (Fall), pp. 91-97.

International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), 2002, The Military Balance 2002-2003 (London: Oxford University Press).

Tyler, P.E., 2002, "A New Life for NATO? But It's Sidelined for Now," in "The New York Times," 20 November.

Wallander, C.A., 2002, "NATO's Price: Shape Up or Ship Out," in "Foreign Affairs," (November-December), pp. 2-8.