Reorienting Transatlantic Defense

NATO is neither obsolete nor a threat to a common European defense force. Rather, it is the centerpiece of Euro-Atlantic foreign policy and a catalyst for European defense reform.

THE FUTURE of NATO has been a subject of intense debate, including in the two most recent issues of The National Interest. In the Winter 2003/04 issue, E. Wayne Merry unveiled a picture of an Atlantic Alliance that is casting about in search of a mission, having outlived its usefulness with the demise of its original adversary. Indeed, he argued that NATO continues to keep Europe in a state of dependence, frustrating the rise of a European Union that can act as an equal partner to the United States. Yet even some of NATO's defenders--such as John Hulsman, writing in the Spring 2004 issue--view NATO primarily as a useful toolbox from which the United States can draw as it undertakes military adventures far from Europe's shores, cherry-picking allies on a case-by-case basis.1

Yet these visions of the alliance are at odds with the view of those who work on transatlantic security policy on a daily basis. The reality is that NATO is not a Cold War institution in search of a mission to keep itself alive, but remains an indispensable tool for the democracies of the Euro-Atlantic region to ensure their security against common threats.

For a few heady years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it appeared that the long-held dream of a Europe at peace had become a reality. The newly freed nations of central and eastern Europe aligned themselves definitively with the West, and even Russia developed a peaceful, non-adversarial relationship with its former rivals. Today, there is no risk of an invasion of western Europe, and it is tempting to conclude that a united Europe is now secure. However, the terrorist bombings in Madrid on March 11 horribly demonstrated the error of that belief. Europe still faces threats to its territory and to its citizens from international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, states that sponsor terrorism and proliferate WMD, and the conjunction of these challenges: the horrifying prospect of these states providing WMD to terrorist groups. These are the same threats confronting North America, and the defense of our two continents remains indivisible.

NATO's Three Ongoing Missions

WHEN THINKING about NATO's primary purpose, many commentators fall into a geographic trap. Because NATO was founded to defend against the Soviet threat that was directed at Western Europe, it follows for some that NATO exists for the defense of this specific geographic area.

Instead, it is more useful to view NATO in functional terms, with three main and currently ongoing missions. First and foremost, the Alliance enables its members to provide collectively for the defense of their states against external threats, a role it has played for 55 years. Its second mission consists of peace-enforcement operations. The Alliance assumed this function nine years ago, when it became clear that only NATO (and not the United Nations, the OSCE or any other international organization) could actually enforce the peace agreement ending the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina. The third mission is political: maintaining and enhancing the partnerships that NATO has developed since the end of the Cold War with non-members in Europe and Eurasia. These partnerships have promoted cooperation and permitted the Alliance to enlarge the Euro-Atlantic zone of stability beyond the core of its member-states.

No one would ever have predicted that NATO's first collective-defense mission--more than five decades after the Alliance was created and ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union--would be in response to an attack on the United States. But it is important to remember that collective defense applies not only to the European allies, but to the United States and Canada as well. After the September 11 attacks, the North Atlantic Council, comprised of representatives of the then-19 member countries, proclaimed that if those attacks were "directed from abroad", they would be covered by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, NATO's collective defense guarantee. The Council declared:

The commitment to collective self-defense embodied in the Washington Treaty was first entered into in circumstances very different from those that exist now, but it remains no less valid and no less essential today, in a world subject to the scourge of international terrorism.

The Alliance itself sent AWACS aircraft to patrol the skies over the United States, and several countries sent special operations forces to Afghanistan to fight alongside U.S. troops in Operation Enduring Freedom. Since September 11, AI-Qaeda and its affiliates have again struck against NATO members in Istanbul and Madrid, as well as targeting the citizens of NATO states elsewhere in the world. The Soviet threat may have vanished, but not NATO's reason for existence. Recognizing this fact, NATO's Strategic Concept notes that

Alliance security interests can be affected by other risks of a wider nature, including acts of terrorism, sabotage and organized crime, and by the disruption of the flow of vital resources.

One cannot predict where NATO will need to act in the future, which is all the more reason to ensure that it is able to operate wherever needed. The War on Terror is a multi-faceted struggle, but ongoing operations in Afghanistan show that there is an important military component.

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