Four ways Europeans can help refocus NATO

The EU and its member states have a vital role to play in reforming NATO – cooperation rather than competition will be key to making this a success

Four US soldiers salute the NATO flag as it’s raised
Image by Ian Houlding

As the nature of global security shifts; as China rises; and with Joe Biden in the White House, it is time for Europeans to consider how they can best play their part in modernising NATO.

The first thing Europeans can do is to seek to retain American support for the alliance by making clear they recognise, and will respond to, today’s shifting strategic priorities. We are now back to a situation in which, from the United States’ standpoint, its alliance with Europe gives it a comparative advantage in global power competition. But even the most Atlanticist US president will ask Europe to sustain its part of a transatlantic bargain fit for the present, not for the past. Since America’s priorities are domestic renewal and competition with China, such a bargain has the following contours: NATO, with American support, will focus mainly on Europe and collective defence; at the same time, Europeans will support Washington in containing China, in diplomatic and economic terms. Therefore, when faced with US-China “extreme competition”, to use Biden’s formulation, Europe will not be able to remain neutral without paying a high price on the transatlantic front.

To make this bargain functional, a more political NATO, and a more globally wise NATO, must emerge – and both dimensions require a stronger NATO-EU link. This is because some of the solutions to shared security challenges – especially as far as hybrid threats are concerned – will come from EU member state decisions coordinated at the EU level.

Therefore, how to deal with China is becoming a key variable in transatlantic relations. However, while this is extremely important in strategic terms, it is less so in purely military terms: Washington is not asking Europeans to support it militarily in Asia. Some individual European allies are offering their (limited) help, but NATO as a whole is bound to remain a regional defence alliance. As a consequence – and this is the second priority – the challenge for NATO is how to adopt a globally wise perspective while preserving its core mission. If it does not adopt such a global perspective, NATO could be side-lined, with a growing gap between European and US security perceptions.

A more global NATO, while not engaging militarily in the Asia-Pacific region, will have to confront the implications of China’s rise for Euro-Atlantic security. That means, for instance, reducing European vulnerabilities in value chains in strategic sectors, monitoring strategic foreign investments, preserving technology edge, countering cyber attacks, and building up the resilience of democratic societies. This widening of the very concept of security necessarily involves the EU, with its economic leverage, more than it ever did in the past. Thus, by definition, improving the coherence between NATO and the EU is becoming a key factor for transatlantic security.

Thirdly, European NATO allies will have to take on more defence responsibilities in Europe and especially around Europe, given the United States’ partial reassessment of its own direct role in the Mediterranean and in the Balkans.

To make the bargain with the US functional, a more political and globally wise NATO must emerge

Under this new arrangement, NATO would lead on the eastern front, with the EU’s support, while the EU would increase its projection in the Mediterranean. In pursuing this, the EU will still need, for the time being, to keep its operational deployment selective, as its capabilities remain underdeveloped. Here, it will need to resolve tensions between Turkey, Cyprus, and Greece, which currently prevent effective NATO-EU coordination on the southern flank.

Beyond this strictly geographical definition of its core interests, the EU should already be willing and able to develop a common cyber strategy and an industrial policy designed to serve these goals.But EU member states remain divided on foreign policy and security and are hamstrung by capabilities shortfalls.

European capabilities are currently insufficient to undertake autonomous missions that would serve EU interests. But their capabilities are also insufficient to fulfil the contribution to NATO that all allies are already committed to making This is not healthy for the future of NATO.

It may be time to change the debate: In Washington’s view, the only way to address Europe’s defence shortfall is  for European nations to spend more. However, this focus on spending levels – embodied by the 2014 NATO members’ commitment to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence – simply has not worked. European defence today remains anaemic despite noticeable increases in spending.

More integration at the EU level would help. To deal with duplication, for instance, EU member states need to agree integrated plans from risk assessment to procurement all the way to operational planning. This means that any form of integration is better than no integration – including EU integration, which is not by itself a threat to NATO cohesion.

A possible step forward would be to focus EU efforts on areas where the EU already has a critical role, such as countering disinformation, resilience, and crisis management. Member states should also seek to reinforce capabilities that already exist, such as maritime capabilities and “enabling technologies” with dual-use potential – which link back to hybrid and cyber threats.

The fourth and final point is that a successful NATO-EU relationship requires more clarity about what the EU means by its search for “strategic autonomy”. This started out as a debate on how to reinforce the European ability to act alone when needed, and by the awareness of the potential costs and risks connected to dependency on others. But this conceptual shift is not translating into more ambitious EU security policies and better capabilities – it is the very combination of policy ambitions and capabilities that would be a game-changer. No amount of declaratory policy can replace military and other operational capabilities. An important incentive to conceive strategic autonomy came from the declining trust in the US security guarantee. With Biden in the White House, the opposite risk could emerge today: from over-ambition to complacency.

The only way out of this predicament is to recognise that, outside NATO, European defence is not credible. Asymmetry in defence will remain a structural feature of the transatlantic relationship, but, to preserve a working alliance, the European contribution to NATO must consistently grow. This very shift – implying a sizeable increase in the European contribution to the alliance, combined with EU-led missions in neighbouring regions – will also gradually allow the EU to become a more credible defence and security actor in the future.

In short, it will be much easier to build a stronger EU dimension in security through cooperation with NATO rather than in competition with it. Such an approach has a strong chance of winning the support of member states as they consider the way ahead, and would help in solidifying trust between the two organisations.

This article is based on the speech given at the conference “NATO 2021 – Rebuilding the consensus for a new era”, organised by the NATO Defense College Foundation in Rome on 9-10 June 2021

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


Senior Advisor Europe, the Aspen Institute

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