Thinking Beyond NATO

Thinking Beyond NATO

The Iraq conflict ignited transatlantic tensions smoldering since the end of the Cold War.


The Iraq conflict ignited transatlantic tensions smoldering since the end of the Cold War. Although politicians in both Europe and America profess to regret the obvious split within the once-sturdy Atlantic Alliance, the United States and its people clearly perceive their security needs very differently than do most of Europe's governments and its populations. nato is not the solution to this split; it is the heart of the problem. The continuing existence of this Cold War relic stands in the way of the necessary evolution of European integration to include full responsibility for Continental security. In the 21st century, Europe can neither become a responsible power center nor a competent partner for the United States so long as Europeans remain dependent on a non-European power for their security-or even for the appearance of their security.

The core dynamic of the European Union is integration and the sharing of former national prerogatives. This dynamic has progressed quite far in many areas but remains inert in defense policy because nato has remained the primary security instrument for most eu members. The Alliance, however, is not a mechanism of European defense integration, nor has it ever been. nato is a mechanism to integrate American power into Europe. Yet its very success has inhibited significant military integration within Europe. Despite a number of showcase combined units, like the Danish-German-Polish Corps or the Baltic Peacekeeping Battalion, there is no aspect of public policy in Europe today as rigidly organized within national parameters as defense.

The consequence is grotesque: a European defense establishment in which the whole is significantly less than the sum of its parts. Many of the parts are excellent, with Europe fielding high quality units and capabilities that, in some cases (such as paramilitary units), are superior to those of the United States. Yet, except for Britain and France (and increasingly even for them), the lack of scale, the fragmentation and duplication, and the sheer waste of resources within European defense establishments vitiate what could be the world's second-strongest concentration of military power. That Europe fields two million personnel in uniform is not an achievement but the heart of the problem. Half the number-even one-quarter-properly led, equipped and trained in modern operational skills, would produce a whole much greater than the disparate national parts deployed today.

The problem is not really one of money, and the United States has done ill service by so often measuring "burden-sharing" in financial rather than operational terms. True, most European countries spend far less of their national income on defense than does the United States, but this is a doubly false comparison. First, the aggregate of European defense spending is vast and dwarfs the resources available to any power center on earth other than the United States. Without spending another euro, Europe has a combined military budget beyond the dreams of Russian, Chinese, Indian or other military planners. Second, America spends defense money in ways Europe need not, as Europe has no pretensions to be a global military power with the attendant-and costly-instruments of global force projection.

The problem in Europe is that the bulk of defense spending has little to do with defense, but is allocated to create direct and indirect employment and to retain a pattern of redundant, if ineffective, "balanced" national force structures. To spend more money in this context would produce little in the way of additional usable capability. The obvious answer is greater integration of European defense efforts and forces. The leading edge of this process today is integration of Europe's defense industries, where there has already been considerable progress under the force of necessity from reduced acquisition budgets, as in the creation of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space multinational conglomerate.

There is nothing novel about multilingual and cross-border defense cooperation in Europe. If European units can cooperate within nato, they have the talent to do so within a European rubric. The challenge lies in outgrowing the heavy hand of American tutelage and learning to do things without always asking for American guidance. That this can be done was shown in the Balkans where Italian- and Belgian-led operations in Albania and Eastern Slavonia performed as well as, if not better than, U.S.-led missions, while the non-U.S. peacekeeping districts in Bosnia and Kosovo are well-run without Americans. The necessary next step is to expand this experience to a broader European context.

To any citizen of Europe, the basic stake is huge. European integration cannot attain maturity without full responsibility for Europe's defense. Much of the public skepticism within Europe about the developing pace of integration stems precisely from a widely-held understanding that a United Europe is a sham so long as it remains subordinate to the United States in the most fundamental area of public policy. It is therefore wrong to wait until other major integration issues are resolved. The building of a union does not proceed in neat and distinct stages, but in a synergism of parallel developments in many fields. Security policy cannot be placed into a desk drawer while a European constitution is on the table. Indeed, the creation of a common European security system to replace nato-and incorporating much that nato has built over the years-will go a long way toward persuading its citizens that "Europe" is a genuine concept worthy of their support and participation.

European capabilities already far exceed European self-confidence. Europe will remain inferior to the United States in power projection and logistics, but that would only be important if Europe were to emulate America's global role. Europe played that game once and lacks the will to repeat it; nor would the Continent's weak demographics support it. Nonetheless, a "Europuissance" able to maintain continental stability, participate successfully in peacekeeping operations and project power into regions proximate to Europe is well within Europe's grasp. None of these duties requires the global air and sea lift, the bombardment capabilities or the scale of America's military establishment. What they do require is European self-confidence and a willingness to proceed without looking always over the shoulder for instructions from Washington.

Many Europeans admit they want to maintain nato so that the Americans will pay a large share of Europe's security costs. This is a classic problem of welfare dependency-the mentality of the dole. Few refuse a subsidy, even when they recognize they would be more independent and productive without it. Free money has a narcotic effect on governments, especially finance ministers, but narcotic dependency is widely recognized to be unhealthy, producing lethargy and leading to gradual deterioration of the organism. The reality stands in sharp contrast. Europe has a larger population than America, a total economy of comparable size, a modern industrial and technological base often very competitive with America's (and certainly beyond those of any other part of the world), and a vast wealth of relevant military and political experience. The notion that, somehow, Europe is "not ready" for security independence is nonsense.

There is no need to bemoan the passing of nato. Alliances are not pyramids, but pragmatic undertakings, like business partnerships. It is almost a truism of history that alliances die after achieving victory. The Atlantic Alliance was a remarkable success among military pacts. Not only did it maintain cohesion longer than most alliances, but it fulfilled its most optimistic agenda in full-with minimal violence or destruction. But all human activities have their term, and the supreme wisdom in public policy is knowing when not to press a policy too far.


E. Wayne Merry is a former State Department and Pentagon senior official and currently a Senior Associate at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, dc.