After Prague: NATO's Future

November 27, 2002

After Prague: NATO's Future

This is the last, best chance for NATO reform.

This is the last, best chance for NATO reform. The United States and its European allies find themselves like an old, married couple in a dysfunctional relationship. No one is going to shout over perceived inequities anymore; both sides are in danger of simply ignoring one another. That is certainly what happened after September 11 when the American response to Europe's invoking article 5 was "thanks but no thanks." For America, it simply wasn't worth the bother of going through the alliance's sclerotic decision-making channels in order to receive the very limited practical military help the alliance as a whole could offer. This reality chilled the blood of many who prize the transatlantic link. Such a dysfunctional reality spurred the administration into action in setting the agenda at Prague.

The robust enlargement at the Prague Summit takes in new eastern European members eager to participate in what must amount to NATO's future--if it is to have one--coalitions of the willing operating out-of-area. Here, the key word is "willing." The new members, so recently burdened with the nightmare of both Soviet and fascist domination, are understandably eager to prove themselves to the United States and the alliance as a whole. With the honorable exception of the British, one finds that the farther east one goes in Europe, the more pro-American the people become. Therefore, the decision to endorse robust enlargement makes strategic sense for the United States. Secondly, the new NATO rapid reaction force, able to deploy 20,000 multinational troops within 7 days for warfighting anywhere, is an effort to get the Europeans to at least marginally keep up with the American revolution in military affairs which is presently occurring.

There are two problems with the present NATO arrangement. Despite its market size being roughly the equivalent of the United States, the Europeans spend around half of what America does on defense, and this is an abomination that cannot be corrected in the near term, given Europe's moribund economic situation. However, the second problem can still be addressed. Even though their expenditures are half that of the United States, the allies have only around 20 percent of the capabilities enjoyed by the American military. So, even if the Europeans cannot spend more, they do need to spend more smartly, in order to make their forces more flexible, more sustainable, more expeditionary and more deployable. The rapid reaction force is a last effort to involve the allies in capabilities sharing, to allow the alliance to be at least marginally interoperable. If such an effort, a very modest and achievable goal, is not met, its time to strike the tents and acknowledge that the marriage is at last over.


John C. Hulsman is a Research Fellow in European Affairs at the Heritage Foundation's Davis Institute (