Reorienting Transatlantic Defense

Reorienting Transatlantic Defense

Mini Teaser: 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.

by Author(s): Doug BereuterJohn Lis

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.

The decision by NATO to take command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is helping to stabilize the region around Kabul, is an example of NATO's growing second mission: peace enforcement operations. NATO first assumed this role in 1995, when the first military action in NATO history was carried out, not to defend a member state but to guarantee the Dayton Peace Accords that halted the civil war in Bosnia. Since then, NATO has also undertaken peace enforcement missions in Kosovo and in Macedonia. These missions demonstrated that NATO is the only international organization with the experience, organization, military capabilities and robust rules of engagement needed to compel adversaries to accept, or at least conform to, a peace agreement.

NATO's third mission--its partnerships with non-member nations in Europe and the former Soviet Union-has enabled the Alliance to bring ten new members into the fold. The decade-old Partnership for Peace (PfP) program facilitated political and military cooperation with the nations of central and eastern Europe and Eurasia and helped former Soviet-bloc countries begin needed political and military reforms. By holding out the promise of eventual membership, PfP kept NATO's door open and assisted aspirant nations in meeting the criteria for membership. Now, with most central and eastern European candidate countries having joined NATO, the geographic focus of PfP must move to Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia. At the same time, its functional emphasis will shift in part from preparing countries for NATO membership to engaging with countries that may never join the Alliance but which may become key security partners. The success of PfP in extending a zone of security to the east also needs to be replicated to the south, as recent events have underscored the importance of the non-European countries of the Mediterranean as well as those of the Persian Gulf to the security of NATO members. Therefore, the Alliance should enhance and expand its Mediterranean Dialogue. It currently brings seven nations--Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia--together with the NATO nations to discuss regional security issues such as civil emergency planning, crisis management, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.

Capabilities, Capabilities, Capabilities

WHILE NATO remains committed to collective defense, many of its members have been slow to develop the forces needed to carry out the pledges that they have made to defend one another. Former NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson often said: "When I took up my post as Secretary General, I said that I had three priorities: capabilities, capabilities, capabilities." Soon afterward, he noted that this became a mantra "which all of you will have heard--and some of you, in government, may have politely ignored."

In order to fulfill their responsibility for carrying out collective defense, NATO members must continue to transform their forces to address today's threats. No longer does NATO need heavy armored units with large numbers of conscripts arrayed in fixed sectors along the inter-German border. What is required today is a number of highly mobile professional units that can deploy quickly where they are needed in order to apply effective force to accomplish their mission. Allied countries have no shortage of military personnel, but NATO does lack units that can actually be used for the missions the Alliance now needs to conduct.

In November 2003 Robertson used his final address to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly to cite the need "to increase substantially the usability of European armed forces." Robertson noted that the 18 allies outside of the United States have 1.4 million active duty troops, plus another 1 million reserves. He said,

Yet with only 55,000 soldiers currently deployed on multinational missions, most of your countries plead that they are overstretched and can do no more. That is quite simply unacceptable.

The first step toward increasing the usability of European forces has been the creation of the NATO Response Force (NRF). This force has two tasks. First, the NRF is a vehicle to enable European and Canadian allies to join with the United States in developing forces that can rapidly deploy wherever they are needed and apply decisive power in combat or in less demanding missions. Second, the NRF can be an effective means to drive force transformation throughout the Alliance. Before national units are chosen to take part in the NRF, they will have to meet the tough standards of this elite NATO force. Then, when they train with other NRF units, they will be exposed to cutting-edge capabilities and procedures that they will take home and share with their nation's armed forces, serving as a catalyst for change.

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