The Transatlantic Alliance in the Pacific Century:
Why Revitalizing the US-European Partnership is Key
by Andrea Barbara Baumann and Benoît Gomis
As NATO member countries prepare to meet in Chicago in May their leaders have little time for introspection. A plethora of threats to international security and stability, and a number of narrow windows of opportunity, keep decision-makers’ attention closely focused on current events. A defiant regime in Iran, an untenable one in Syria, a cascade of security incidents with serious strategic implications ahead of the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, fledgling democratic movements in one of the world’s most volatile regions, and the United Nations Security Council once again paralyzed by permanent members’ vetoes – the list of challenges calling for common action is daunting. At the same time, the salience of domestic political and economic agendas in a time of global downturn negatively impacts upon both the political will to act and the capabilities required to do so.
Placing fundamental questions regarding NATO’s raison d’être on the Chicago summit’s brimming agenda may look like an invitation for needless navel-gazing under these circumstances. NATO has survived several existential crises and is sufficiently bureaucratized and institutionally entrenched by now to render any debate about its continued vitality superfluous, many have argued. Yet it is precisely in the midst of changing geopolitical realities and strategic shifts in the international system that the Alliance should reserve some of its attention to tackle a set of basic but crucial questions. Does NATO still have a common mission backed by a shared sense of commitment (termed the ‘transatlantic bargain’ by some)? What does the Alliance do best – and does it have the resources to do so?
NATO member countries should expect to be forced to return to these basic questions time and again by a series of difficult and controversial decisions over how and when to use force in order to achieve political objectives. However, budgetary pressures and strategic rebalancing in the United States and lack of political will and military capabilities in Europe have led to growing concern over the vitality of the transatlantic alliance. While the media has often summarized the issue as one of ‘who is spending how much’, the debate has to go deeper. If NATO member countries fail to come up with new ways to bridge diverging strategic cultures there is a real danger that there may not be much of a genuine transatlantic community left to respond to security threats. The article outlines key pressures on alliance cohesion that contribute to this risk. Given the salience of current concerns, it is unlikely that NATO will have the willpower and time to address these in a holistic manner in Chicago. Hence, a number of priority areas for common action to revitalize transatlantic ties are identified to guide consultations at the summit and beyond.
The Transatlantic Alliance Under Stress: Three Sources of Tension
As leaders convene in Chicago, the so-called Pacific Century – as seen from the perspective of NATO’s most powerful member state – is rapidly unfolding. Rising powers outside the Alliance increasingly shape the nature and scope of international cooperation in the political, economic and security realms. However, the Arab Spring and crises in Libya and Syria in particular have highlighted that rising powers (not only Russia and China but fellow democracies like India, Brazil and South Africa) have little appetite to intervene diplomatically or military to resolve a crisis when their interests are not directly at stake. Given these powers’ reluctant – and in some cases obstructive - stance, NATO remains a crucial forum for deliberation and action in the realm of international security. Yet recent crises also brought lingering concerns over unequal defense spending and capabilities on either side of the Atlantic Ocean into the spotlight. Together, the United States’ strategic reorientation, a mismatch between ambitions and capabilities in Europe and the persistent question of burden sharing within the Alliance have strained the transatlantic relationship considerably.
Geopolitical shifts: The United States turning its back on Europe?
Two pieces are generally recognized to reflect the new strategic doctrine adopted by the United States since the election of Barack Obama. On 1st December 2009, President Obama delivered a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in which he said ‘the nation that I am most interested in building is my own’. More recently, in a piece for Foreign Policy published in November 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued that America has entered a ‘Pacific Century’, in which ‘the future of politics will be decided in Asia […] and the United States will be right at the center of the action’. Yet just how important is this new pivot? And what does it mean for Europe and the future of transatlantic relations?
In spite of talks of US national ‘retrenchment’ and ‘shift’ towards the Asia-Pacific, it is important to keep things in perspective and look beyond the narrative. That the US is turning its back away from Europe to focus solely on its own territory and the Asia-Pacific region is clearly an exaggeration. The current moves are better described (and indeed have been) as a rebalancing of the US strategic risks and priorities in a time of austerity: none of the key future risks and threats that the US could face in the near future emanate from Europe; in the meantime, significant economic and strategic potential lies in Asia-Pacific, which is precisely relevant for the US given the current economic crisis it faces. Moreover, Asia’s defense spending will overcome Europe’s in 2012. It is also expected that by 2015, China will spend more on its military than the combined total of NATO’s top 8 members excluding the US, hence the need for the US to build strong political and economic ties in the region to encourage long-lasting peaceful relations.
Finally, the United States and Europe share centuries of political cooperation. Together they hold significant diplomatic experience in dealing with a wide-range of security scenarios under the NATO banner. Crucially, military cooperation has also helped forge a range of formal and informal ties (including cultural understanding and mutual trust) that will remain of utmost relevance in the future. The emerging strategic narrative of the twenty-first century – especially when considered not only from a threat perspective but also with a view to opportunities – is not a problematic one for transatlantic relations. Material challenges, however, will undeniably influence both strategy and mutual relations.
The material base: Maintaining defense capability in the face of austerity measures
The ongoing defense cuts and overall budgetary pressures risk hampering the alliance’s ability to respond to a range of challenges in the future. Only five NATO countries currently spend more than 2% of their GDP on defense, including Albania and Greece whose forces largely lack the level of deployability and modernity most needed within the Alliance. Additionally, only two NATO European countries are currently increasing their defense budgets, namely Estonia and Norway. Counting defense spending as percentage of GDP alone, however, is an outdated measure to assess the potential for meaningful cooperation within NATO on current and future security challenges.
More importantly, the key problem lies on how and what for Europe spends on defense rather than as how much: In fact, Europe still spends more on defense than China, Russia and India combined, but approximately 70 per cent of Europe’s ground forces are not deployable. Over 75 per cent of Europe’s defense programs are done nationally, without coordination with other European countries. Europe has 89 major platform programs, 23 different types of Armored Fighting Vehicles, 16 national naval shipyards, 7 types of armed helicopters, and 10 different types of air-to-air refueling aircraft (for only 47 aircraft in total).
As a result of Europe’s fragmented defense spending, the US has not been able to rely heavily on its European partners within NATO. Additionally, European countries have been able to avoid cooperating with their neighbors precisely because the US has been providing for much of the defense and security burden. The situation has now changed: the US is no longer willing to spend as much of its energy and resources in Europe, and budgetary pressures are urging Europeans to change their mindset on defense.
Internal dissonance: Shared mission but divided labor?
In the preparation of the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, NATO faces a series of operational and logistical challenges related to the transition from direct engagement to a supporting role (the precise contours of which have yet to be agreed in a tense political atmosphere). Imminent challenges are likely to dominate discussions on Afghanistan at the Chicago Summit and thereby distract attention away from deeper questions raised by NATO’s experience with its hitherto most significant out-of-area operation.
First, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan has thrown into stark relief the lingering controversy over burden sharing within the Alliance. The division of labor, as it played out within ISAF, has not only been delicate politically but also damaging in terms of strategic and operational coherence. While U.S. troops have operated in a combat role – chiefly supported by the United Kingdom and, more reluctantly, by Canada, the Netherlands and a few others – many European NATO members have struggled to garner domestic support for even limited, peacekeeping-oriented deployments. Second, with conditions on the ground deteriorating rather than following the (perhaps overly optimistic) projections of many transition-advocates, the mission in Afghanistan has led to widespread skepticism over its strategic value. The more limited operation in Libya in 2011 – with the US only leading the initial military operations and acting as an enabler for the rest of the NATO campaign – has been lauded as a leaner model for intervention based on limited support to indigenous forces on the ground and the protection of civilians through airpower. Yet whether the same conditions under which success was achieved in Libya will be present in all or any future missions remains doubtful.
Together, these uncertainties raise doubts over whether NATO possesses both the doctrinal foundations and political consensus required to address the spectrum of security threats outlined in its 2010 Strategic Concept. Can the Alliance operate on an opt-in basis – where a few of the willing to undertake action under the NATO banner with the token support of the rest – without losing the legitimacy that stems from its broad regional membership? Diverging security interests and priorities might be a growing reality. However, a division of labor within NATO, including the recognition of national caveats and political limitations upon participation of individual member states, must follow a consensus over what constitute valid missions for NATO to undertake.
Revitalizing the Transatlantic Alliance: Three Recommendations for Europe
A strategic outlook for Europe
In a Pacific Century, Europe will need to retain a key strategic role. The rising powers’ modest appetite for crisis management interventions when their interests are not directly engaged and the United States’ increasing reluctance to take the lead and act as the world’s sole policeman confer Europe a crucial role to play in international security. The European Union holds a wide range of much needed tools for proactive diplomacy and crisis management. Its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP – the crisis-management arm of the EU) can make a positive difference under particular circumstances, in particular as part of small and targeted soft security missions involving a range of non-military assets such as diplomacy, economic leverage, judicial training or border management.
Europe’s biggest security challenges are likely to arise from instability in its immediate neighborhood, including North Africa and the Mediterranean. Migration, including a flow of economic (and climate) refugees, and the uncertain outcome of popular unrest against authoritarian regimes that may spread further south on the African continent present European states with important challenges as they are going through a deep economic crisis at home. While the United States has little incentive to get involved in these areas, it is in its interest to support European allies in their application of both soft and hard power in pursuit of regional stability and order.
In order to consolidate a proper strategic outlook, European NATO members should seek to leverage the EU’s key strengths, which include a wide range of diplomatic tools including development, judiciary, education and training assistance. In these areas, the EU can be a crucial force-multiplier for its member states. In particular, European countries should strive to enhance their post-conflict reconstruction efforts in Europe’s neighborhood, for instance by providing judiciary assistance, stronger border management and governance advice in Libya.
Mini-lateralism as a way forward
Following a decade that has exposed the limits of large multilateral defense programs, both in terms of capability procurement and military cooperation, Europe is now increasingly focused on clusters, in other words, smaller groups of countries with convergent interests and priorities. Recent examples include naval cooperation between the Netherlands and Belgium, military cooperation in strategy, capability development, external operations, training and exercises as part of the ‘Nordic defence co-operation framework’ (NORDEFCO) and wide-ranging military cooperation between the UK and France as announced by the November 2010 Franco-British treaties.
In spite of initial reluctance, both the EU and NATO seem increasingly willing to embrace the current dynamic, provided it helps improve Europe’s defense capabilities. Crucially, the EU and NATO each recently announced the creation of two new strategies to enhance prioritization, specialization and cooperation in defense, namely the EU’s ‘Pooling & Sharing’ and NATO’s Smart Defense initiative. While these initiatives remain open concepts rather than substantial programs, they have the potential to provide much-needed top-down guidance and coordination, and help Europe play a bigger role in security and defense. Given the US decreasing willingness to intervene militarily in Europe’s territory and immediate neighborhood, this seems like a salutary evolution.
Flexible contributions within a lean and collegiate organization
Any alliance of 28 member countries is bound to become de facto a multi-tier organization. Following NATO’s military operations Afghanistan and Libya, it is perhaps clearer now than ever that NATO is divided into a number of smaller groups of countries with similar interests, capabilities, military structures and levels of political will. More importantly, the United States once again stands out as an actor in its own league, first because of the spending, capability and technology gap there is between the US and others within the alliance (e.g. the US share of NATO military spending has increased to 75 per cent) and second because of the impact the reassessment of its strategic priorities may have on NATO. With this context in mind, the Alliance will need to think about reforms that provide greater flexibility in responding to rapidly evolving strategic realities.
First, there is a need to clarify the division of responsibilities not only within the transatlantic relationship but also among NATO’s European members. If the Libyan operation – with the United States ‘leading from behind’ both politically and military – should indeed provide a model for future interventions then European countries need to consolidate their role in the driving seat by tackling a series of delicate but crucial questions. In particular, who should take the political lead to fill any leadership gap? If the United States should continue to act as a military enabler in the future (providing the majority of ISTAR and air-to-air refueling capabilities) what capabilities do European countries need to develop both individually and jointly?
Second, budgetary pressures and inconsistent political will across Europe raise a number of issues that call for structural reform within NATO. Member countries should recognize that NATO’s financial mechanism based on the principle of ‘costs lie where they fall’ is untenable. They should find ways to encourage member countries that cannot intervene in certain missions for various reasons to at least contribute to them financially. Second, given the current budget deficit NATO itself is facing (approximately $450 million), NATO as a whole should conduct a more comprehensive review of where restructurings and savings could be made. These could be achieved, for instance, by relying more on so-called ad hoc structures or Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) organizations instead of larger and more permanent bureaucratic ones.
Given the current security and political environment, the Chicago summit is unlikely to address long-term questions about the future of the Transatlantic Alliance in the so-called Pacific Century. However, amidst significant strategic changes, the nature, objectives, structure, and internal mechanisms of the alliance will need to be closely looked into for NATO to remain a relevant and influential security actor. A comprehensive strategic discussion on the role that Europe must (and can) play in this century is crucial in order to revitalize transatlantic ties. NATO leaders should keep in mind two important caveats. First, geopolitics alone provides few compelling answers. The systemic shifts that stand behind the United States’ strategic rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific region should be viewed in a broader perspective. In spite of talks of Europe's declining influence in the world, the transatlantic link constitutes an opportunity for both Europe and North America to approach this Pacific Century in a strong position. Second, material resources undoubtedly matter but should not be assessed in a narrow quantitative way. The elephant in the room in any debate over defense spending and reform is the issue of burden sharing within the Alliance. However, this debate should follow, not precede, agreement over which type of missions NATO can realistically expect to carry out in the near future. In sum, NATO leaders should evaluate the transatlantic alliance’s continued relevance – and by extension the value of European nations as alliance partners – within a holistic analysis of common interests among states in tackling security threats within a shared framework of values.
29 March 2012
Andrea Barbara Baumann and Benoît Gomis are members of the Young Atlanticist Working Group.