Rethinking US-Europe Relations Is the EU Better for Obama than NATO?

Barack Obama has to rethink the trans-Atlantic partnership in light of shifting power relations and new global security threats. Washington's preferred Atlantic institution, NATO, is already overburdened. The EU has a stronger track record than you might think and it could be best suited for the job.

By Paul Hockenos

A bakery in the German city of Baden-Baden is already selling an "Obama torte" in the run-up to the NATO summit here in April. Should NATO still be the first address for trans-Atlantic cooperation?

A bakery in the German city of Baden-Baden is already selling an "Obama torte" in the run-up to the NATO summit here in April. Should NATO still be the first address for trans-Atlantic cooperation?

The best and brightest of the US foreign policy community reflexively designate the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as the institution for trans-Atlantic cooperation. These scholars, diplomats, and politicians -- from both parties -- are America's Atlanticists. Unlike the neoconservatives, they think in multilateral terms, value the Europeans as long-standing allies, and believe in international law. Barack Obama is certainly no exception. Yet the Atlanticists err by clinging so stubbornly to NATO for so many diverse purposes. As much as it has struggled to reinvent itself since the days of the East-West conflict, NATO remains a US-dominated military alliance with a Cold War mindset. Not only is NATO ill-equipped to confront the plurality of new challenges in the post-Cold War (and now post-American) world order, it has become counterproductive to the task it was originally created to do -- namely to guarantee security in Europe.

The new American administration would be well served to rethink the United States' relationship to Europe: It should move toward a strategic partnership of equals with the European Union and entertain the possibility of new fora to address global security threats. In the long-term, a close, respectful working relationship with the European Union would enhance America's own security and enable it to engage much more effectively in a multipolar world.

America's long-standing preference for NATO as the trans-Atlantic institution of choice has several explanations. For one, it arguably had -- at least until Afghanistan -- a record of success. It helped the West win the Cold War without firing a shot. NATO's job, as British secretary-general Lord Ismay famously put it in 1967, was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." But rather than close up shop with "mission accomplished" in the early 1990s, the 1949-founded pact sought a new purpose. Because the Europeans lacked the military hardware necessary to wage war against the Serb nationalists, NATO led the humanitarian interventions in Bosnia in 1995 and the armed campaign against Milosevic's Serbia in 1999. That same year, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland became the first former-Warsaw pact countries to join NATO, over Russia's stiff objections. In the years to follow, the Baltic states and Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania also joined. Although the United States and Great Britain circumvented NATO to topple the Taliban government in late 2001, two years later NATO took its operations outside of Europe for the first time in the form of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Today the NATO-led force includes 50,000 troops from 40 countries, including all 27 of the NATO allies.

Given the East-West stalemate, during the postwar decades it was possible for NATO allies to work together in the name of collective defense, despite the many differences of opinion within the pact. Leaving aside the question of the nature of the Soviet threat (archives in Moscow turned up no plans for an invasion), the United States and the Western Europeans concurred that the Soviet Union was the enemy. Although the United States set the agenda and the Europeans were effectively junior partners, the principle of collective decision-making was formally respected.

Moreover, in the aftermath of the Cold War there were no obvious alternatives to keep the United States and Europe close once American troops withdrew and the nuclear umbrella became irrelevant. Creating something new was beyond the imagination of Washington's foreign policy makers at the time. Lastly, because it was and would remain primarily a military organization, NATO was one institution that the United States, with its nuclear arsenal and vast military superiority, would be certain to continue to dominate.

Yet by transforming the alliance into an agency for addressing international crises of all kinds, NATO's advocates have only called greater attention to its inadequacy for the 21st century. NATO's new "comprehensive approach" to security endows it with a catch-all mandate that changes as new threats or missions arise and has grown to include responsibilities that go far beyond the exercise of military force. But while its mandate has changed, its tools and thinking have lagged behind. There is no better example than NATO's flagship mission in Afghanistan, where the alliance is confronted with civilian, policing, and humanitarian duties that it cannot possibly carry out. Most of the European NATO member states in Afghanistan argue that stability is only going to be achieved through a strategy that combines education, rule of law programs, economic aid, and infrastructure projects. They underscore that the purpose of the international mission is to facilitate a hand over to the Afghans and to create conditions for reconstruction. Germany and Spain point out, for example, that Afghan poppy production -- and Afghanistan's bumper crops -- cannot be checked by bombing campaigns, and that air strikes on poor Afghan farmers could well backfire, costing the force even more good will. But "counter-narcotics" is yet another category that has been added to NATO's to-do list. There is growing consensus that the Afghanistan mission is make-or-break for NATO and that, at the moment, the latter cannot be ruled out.

The war in Afghanistan is only the most egregious example of NATO's dilemma. Whether it is cyberwar, peacekeeping, international terrorism, or energy security, NATO is invoked by Atlanticists as the go-to institution, overburdening it with new responsibilities. In late January, NATO's secretary general even proposed an alliance presence in the Arctic as global warming melts the northern ice cap and major powers scramble to lay claim to its energy resources. Others see NATO patrolling Gaza's borders in a new Israel-Palestine peace deal.

As the Dutch political scientist Peter van Ham argues, "NATO's instruments have become blunt and outdated in the light of today's non-traditional security challenges and techniques." Yet, he notes, contrary to expectations its portfolio has only expanded: "Whereas not too long ago the main question was how the European Union could use NATO's military tools ... the debate is now how should NATO draw upon the resources of the European Union, the United Nations, the World Bank, as well as non-governmental organizations." But this has not caused US foreign policy makers to consider new fora or mechanisms to address the new threats. Nor have the Europeans been enterprising or ingenuous with new ideas. For them this is the path of least resistance: by putting these complex challenges in NATO's hands, they appear to have addressed the problems without actually doing so.

It is questionable whether this new NATO is still a trans-Atlantic institution worthy of the label. Despite its multilateral structure, NATO has become a clearing house for US-led "coalitions of the willing," which alliance members -- and non-members -- can join on a case-by-case basis. For all intents and purposes, it is a group of like-minded democracies that Washington can call upon á la carte. The Europeans bear none of the roles and responsibilities of even junior partners as they did in the past, but rather serve as occasional helpers, as was the case in the invasion and pacification of Afghanistan. The more nations there are in the alliance, the larger the possible constellation for these pick-up coalitions. This is one reason the Americans above all push for NATO's expansion. And since the mandate of the umbrella organization is no longer restricted to Europe or collective security, it is not surprising that there is talk of opening up membership to the likes of Israel, Australia, and Japan. Those that opt not to be on board for a given mission are simply left behind.

As van Ham argues: "NATO offers the United States the useful stamp of multilateral legitimacy without really imposing too many limits on America's foreign policy." Even when the major European countries participate in a NATO mission, this new kind of coalition is devoid of the unity and coherence that the old NATO had. Indeed, on the ground in Afghanistan differences within the coalition are so great that US, German, and Dutch units pursue different strategies in their respective sectors. This is a far cry for the all-for-one and one-for-all ethos that originally united the Atlantic Alliance.


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