NATO: We can't be partners with an obsolete alliance

Posted in NATO , United States , Europe | 04-Feb-04 | Author: E. Merry| Source: International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON - NATO is not the vehicle to restore trans-Atlantic partnership; the alliance today is the major impediment. For America and Europe to work together on the world stage, they must respect each other. For this, Europe must respect itself by taking full responsibility for its continental and regional security, while Washington needs a European partner worthy of its respect rather than today's reluctant subordinate.

Everyone understands that the Atlantic alliance fulfilled its cold war agenda beyond the fondest dreams of its founders more than a decade ago. Everyone also knows that Europe faces no credible military threat in the foreseeable future. Indeed, the current German defense restructuring is based on this premise.

It is also widely appreciated that Russia and the other non-Baltic former Soviet states pose serious, but not military challenges to Europe: imploding demographics, epidemic diseases and narcotics use, collapsing infrastructure, failed rule of law - but not tank armies.

Less well understood is that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in an act of institutional self-preservation, has conducted a silent political coup on the parliaments and citizens of its member states.

Established in the 1940's for defensive purposes, the alliance in the 1990's decided to "'go out of area to avoid going out of business." NATO has justified nondefensive operations and even a war against Serbia by referring to the North Atlantic Treaty, which legitimizes nothing of the kind. Rather than revise the treaty and seek ratification from national legislatures, NATO simply behaves as if its political decisions carry international legitimacy on an equal footing with the United Nations Charter.

The crisis in trans-Atlantic relations is less the product of differing views about Iraq than the inevitable result of a NATO which has lost its reason to exist and has ceased to be a true alliance of shared interests, let alone of shared values.

NATO was created to serve a European need - to inject American power into conditions of post-World War II economic devastation and Soviet threat - and was not intended to be permanent. Today, NATO serves the non-European objectives of U.S. global policies, as a "toolbox" for engagements far afield. The new jargon reflects Washington's contempt for its European auxiliaries, who are "tools" and refueling points rather than true allies.

A crisis was waiting to happen. While all European governments support the United States in some circumstances (such as pursuing Al Qaeda in Afghanistan), and some will back Washington even against the wishes of their populations, no European state shares America's global role or responsibilities, and still less our perspective on the utility of armed force.

Europe lost its global ambitions through the collapse of its overseas empires and its self-destructive wars and ideologies. So Europe was bound to recoil at its "toolbox" status. Iraq was only the first instance.

It is absurd to think Europe is unable to look after its regional security needs. European members of NATO already spend more on defense than the rest of the non-American world, while maintaining almost half again as many uniformed personnel as does the United States.

The problem is that no aspect of public policy in Europe is organized today in such rigid and narrow national parameters as is defense, with most spending oriented to job creation and to redundant "balanced" national force structures. The result is dysfunctional: the European defense whole is much less than the sum of the parts.

This failure stems from the continued existence of NATO and the outdated U.S. military presence in Europe. The failure is at heart psychological. Europeans are so accustomed to using the United States like a pair of crutches for security that they do not notice that their injury is long healed and that using crutches is artificial, awkward, and causes serious strains on the European organism.

No one should expect a European superpower. Europe has neither the inclination nor the demographics for a global role. No one should expect a truly integrated trans-national European military. Nobody should imagine that defense self-sufficiency will come more easily than have other aspects of European integration over the past 50 years. Everyone should recognize that Europe will never carry its own limited weight in the world so long as Americans are willing to do it for them.

The United States needs a genuine partner in Europe, but is reluctant to shed its dominant, hegemonal habits within NATO. Europe knows the end of the cold war liberated it from the "struggle for mastery in Europe," but hesitates to put aside the American crutches and subsidy. A new and genuine trans-Atlantic partnership is long overdue, but for now, politicians on both sides of the ocean confirm Lord Keynes' dictum, "The difficulty lies not in the new ideas but in escaping from the old ones."

The writer, a former State Department and Pentagon official, is a senior associate at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.