The death of NATO

Now in its 60th year, NATO no longer provides a healthy basis for the trans-Atlantic security relationship

This article was published in Europe’s World – Autumn 2008.

NATO is dying; it’s the common condition, of course, of all living things from the moment of birth. And as NATO approaches its 60th birthday next spring, there seems no immediate urgency about writing its obituary; 60-year-olds may reasonably look forward to another decade, perhaps two or even three, of active and productive life. Nonetheless, amidst the celebrations, it is time for some discreet reflection on the fact that ‘the old man will not always be with us’.

Human institutions, like human beings, can collapse with surprising speed once it becomes apparent they have outlived their usefulness. The dramatic dissolution of the Soviet Union stands as a reminder of what can happen to organisations when doubts take hold as to whether they still serve any real interests other than those of their own apparatchiks – and how suddenly such doubts can grow when they attempt to convert themselves into something they are not.

NATO has already shown itself remarkably tenacious of life. By rights it should have disappeared when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Warsaw Pact evaporated and its job was done. You cannot, after all, clap with one hand. But then came the Balkans crises of the 1990s, culminating in the realisation that only US military power could put a stop to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. And then came 9/11, making the ‘”out of area or out of business” choice seem a no-brainer. So NATO remains in business, and in Afghanistan.

These repeated demonstrations of resilience should not, however, blind us to the awkward fact that NATO no longer provides a healthy basis for the trans– Atlantic security relationship. As long as NATO’s raison d’être was to keep the Russians out and Americans in, NATO’s internal dynamic of US leadership and European followership was both inevitable and appropriate. This unbalanced relationship still has its advantages for both parties. Americans may find their (old) European allies less biddable than before – but they can at least count on the absence of any serious alternative prospectuses for what NATO should become, or what it should do. Europeans can continue to avoid taking real responsibility for their own security, and to invoke the catechism of “NATO, the corner-stone of our security” as a substitute for serious strategic thought.

But each now finds the behaviour of the other ever easier to resent. Americans find their patience increasingly tried by Europeans who are so free with their advice and criticism yet so reluctant to shoulder the risks and costs of their common security. Americans have also learned from the Kosovo experience of ‘war by committee’ to distrust NATO as a place to run operations; and now Afghanistan highlights the organisation’s limitations as a mechanism for generating force contributions. As to the Europeans, they are increasingly unhappy about the pressure to participate in different episodes of a US-led ‘global war on terror’ which they see as dangerous and misconceived, and at finding themselves implicated in policies that seem designed to antagonise their more difficult neighbours like Russia and the Islamic world.

And both Europe and America are all the more disappointed in one another because the time-honoured liturgy of alliance solidarity – ‘ties that bind’ and shared values – only obscures what very different peoples Europeans and Americans are, and what very different geostrategic positions they now find themselves in.

There is a lot more to this than just saying the one lot are from Mars and other from Venus, and that the American strategic focus has now shifted from the Euro-Atlantic area to pretty much everywhere else. Perhaps the most important difference is that Americans still feel that, if the worst comes to the worst, they have a ‘drawbridge option’.

Since 9/11, extraordinary resources have been poured into the effort to ensure that the US is proofed against further acts of terrorism – whilst many billions more have been devoted to countering America’s other main perceived vulnerability, to missile attack. Americans are fundamentally confident in their own abilities to solve any problem they truly set their minds to – so they know that energy security, for example, will be achievable as and when necessary thanks to technology, and those ‘amber waves of grain’.

More, they know their own country to be fundamentally righteous and blessed (‘God shed his grace on thee’), and endowed with a constitution which ensures that American actions and policies, with occasional exceptions that only prove the rule, are good not just for America but for mankind at large. They believe in God, and are not afraid to distinguish good from evil, with democracies, Israel first and foremost, automatically falling into the former category. They have an ill-suppressed tendency to view Europeans as moral degenerates.

By contrast, Europeans are constantly reminded as they walk down the streets of their own cities that they have no possibility of separating themselves from the rest of the world. They have no drawbridge option; their security can lie only in trying to manage the multifarious risks and threats they feel exposed to, never in excluding them. Their confidence is of a more world-weary kind; they know themselves to be wise and experienced – the Athens that the new Rome fails to appreciate. Europeans pride themselves on rationality and realism, and believe that religion should be kept out of public affairs. Valuing human rights more than democracy, they cannot understand how Americans can be so blind to the injustices done to the Palestinians, or how this has fuelled militant Islamic jihadism. They have an ill-suppressed tendency to view Americans as naive and un-selfcritical zealots.

No wonder that both so regularly find the other living down to their expectations. For Europeans, President George W. Bush has from this perspective been an almost reassuring figure. But as American security expert Kori Schake has pointed out (“The US elections and Europe: The coming crisis of high expectations”: Centre for European Reform, November 2007), it would be a mistake to assume that the upcoming change of Administration will necessarily ensure a new transatlantic harmony. And it is also time to recognise that a US-dominated military alliance is no longer an adequate forum for addressing the very real differences in world view that will have to be managed in the years ahead. It is a set-up that is not conducive to balanced strategic dialogue, but to bad behaviour on both sides: the repeated setting of loyalty tests by the Americans, and competition amongst disparate Europeans either to be teacher’s pet or leader of the awkward squad. And when both sides recognise that military power can never be more than one part of the solution to 21st century problems, and sometimes not even that, then NATO’s role and its purview is simply, and irremediably, too narrow.

So is it time to be thinking, if not of euthanasia, then at least of booking the old man into a retirement home? Regrettably not, given the organisation’s increasingly unsatisfactory role. For NATO is what we have – and Europeans are making characteristically snail-like progress in developing the necessary alternative structures on which to rest the transatlantic security relationship. The prospects of a more coherent European foreign policy, and a more substantial European defence, are once again in the balance. The Lisbon treaty, after skidding on the Irish ‘No’, is now stuck with two wheels hanging over the ravine. And how much Europeans really care remains to be seen; for many, the phrase ‘European power’ feels like an oxymoron. The Franco-British couple could jointly galvanise the others, just as they did with their 1998 St Malo initiative; but the British now seem bent on assuming a role of strategic irrelevance.

So what’s to be done? None of the ideas for another dose of NATO rejuvenation looks like the answer. All the talk of an improved NATO-EU partnership is mainly wasted breath. The problem is not about institutional relationships, except in the important but narrow case of the current blocks on operational coordination between the two organisations, where Turkey and Cyprus remain bent on pursuing their bilateral feud without regard to the real risks to the personnel of their allies and partners deployed in Afghanistan and Kosovo. The real problem is about relations between Americans and Europeans, 21 of whom belong to both organisations. Talk of ‘intensified strategic dialogue in Brussels’ in practice boils down to the chilling spectre of interminable joint committee meetings at which one nation’s ambassador to NATO explains his government’s position to a compatriot diplomat who is accredited to the EU, and vice-versa.

Nor does the answer lie in the development of an EU ‘caucus’ within NATO. St Malo was in effect a recognition that the 1990s concept of a ‘European Defence Identity’ within NATO was unviable – and since then expansion of the alliance and the proliferation of NATO ‘partners’ has made the idea of a special collective role for EU members all the more improbable. And a double layer of decision-taking would only cause an already ponderous organisation to seize-up. The recent proposal for a tripartite directorate through which the US, NATO and the EU could jointly coordinate the policies of the Euro-Atlantic partners (“Towards a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World”, by General Klaus Naumann and others: Noaber Foundation, 2007) deserves full marks for ingenuity, but has achieved no traction.

Which leaves nothing more dramatic to be done than to focus on upgrading the EU-US strategic dialogue. The annual summits need to be made more substantial, and shifted from their focus on transatlantic, ‘bilateral’ issues to pay more attention to aligning EU and US policies and actions in the wider world. The US President should keep an eye on the calendar of the European Council, which brings the EU presidents and prime ministers together four times a year, and solicit the occasional invitation. The US mission to the EU should be up-gunned, and the EU representation in Washington turned into a proper embassy as will of course happen, if and when the External Action Service provided for in the Lisbon treaty comes into being. The more seriously the Americans show that they are willing to take the EU collectively, the more seriously the Europeans will take themselves.

Winston Churchill once remarked that you could always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after having tried all the alternatives. In the same way, the Europeans will increasingly find themselves having to speak with one voice and act as one body in the wider world, if only because a globalised world will not allow them the luxury of doing anything else. As Charles de Gaulle forecast, “It is not any European statesman who will unite Europe. Europe will be united by the Chinese”. This is not merely a European interest but an American one as well – for only collectively can Europeans be effective contributors to global security, or achieve a robust transatlantic security partnership.

As NATO enters its twilight years, the US should encourage the European Union to grow into its global responsibilities. For, despite all their differences and mutual dissatisfactions, Europeans and Americans know that each are the best friends the others are likely to have for as far ahead as anyone can see.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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