EU vs. NATO: An Illusory Struggle

The past year has seen Europe's leaders do a good bit of soul-searching over the future of European defense.

The past year has seen Europe's leaders do a good bit of soul-searching over the future of European defense. Initially refracted through the lens of Iraq, the debate has evolved into the larger question of whether the European Union should develop military capabilities independent of NATO. The EU, which may soon be committed by law to a common defense policy, tends to see such autonomy as an essential component of a nascent European identity. The United States, on the other hand, fears that such independence would cause deterioration in the durable transatlantic alliance that NATO has so long represented.

Yet for all the volume of the dispute, the question of whether the EU should put forward its own defense is not the right one. And as with so many fallacies, this one springs from false premises about the nature of the problem.

The first false premise is the belief that the EU and NATO are somehow competitors in the business of providing defense. They are not. Although NATO has guaranteed Europe's security for the past half century, the two are qualitatively different entities. The EU is a supranational organization that creates, implements and enforces substantive policies for its members, including (if its current and future member states so decide) a common defense policy. NATO, in contrast, is an intergovernmental organization that provides a procedural mechanism for its members to form alliances and take collective foreign policy action where their individual interests intersect.

EU and NATO capabilities can of course overlap in a functional sense. Technically speaking, both the EU and NATO have their own troops, their own facilities, and their own procedures. Yet, at bottom, NATO is nothing more than an instrument (albeit a highly effective one) of the individual nation-states that make it up. Unlike the EU, NATO does not have interests separate from of those of the nation-states which it comprises. Unlike the EU, NATO cannot take action against the wishes of its members. And unlike the EU, NATO does not have its own sovereignty; it is merely a vehicle for the sovereignty of its member nation-states.

The second false premise, which goes to the heart of the fallacy, is the notion that the EU is itself the executor of its member states' defense policies. It is not. Although its countries are currently considering whether to adopt a Union constitution that would establish a common defense policy, it is doubtful that such a policy could ever be meaningfully sustained. As the debate over Iraq has shown, the foreign policy preferences of the EU's 25 current and future member states are too numerous, too divergent and too strongly felt for unified positions to consistently emerge.

The EU's difficulty in developing a common defense policy is easily explained. In both theory and practice, defense policy (and foreign policy more broadly) is still almost exclusively the province of the nation-state. It is nation-states that have interests, nation-states that act diplomatically and nation-states that fight wars, even if they do so under the auspices of multilateral organizations such as NATO or the United Nations. Thus, while the United States is right to be concerned, the object of its concern should not be NATO's survival, or the EU's bravado, but the ambivalence of individual European countries.

Until its member states relinquish the sovereignty necessary to create a truly common defense, the question of how the EU ought to act relative to NATO is grievously premature. Indeed, the real question for the future of European defense is not whether an EU defense policy will prevail over that of NATO, but whether it will prevail over that of its own member states.

If the EU succeeds in harmonizing its member states' defense policies, then it is the EU that should represent its member states in NATO. If the EU fails to do so (which is far more likely), then its member states should continue to represent themselves. However the EU resolves its family feud, NATO's job description - to let allies pool their efforts in waging war and making peace - should remain the same.


The author practices international litigation and arbitration at the Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson.