National Interests as a Guide to the Future

Posted in NATO | 30-Mar-04 | Author: James Thomson

We prefer soft power
The breakdown in American–European relations precipitated by the war with Iraq had been brewing for a long time. It has its roots in the different strategic appraisals of the United States and Europe – or more specifically, Germany, France and several smaller European countries. These differences stem from divergences in views of vital security interests, threats to those interests and the role of military force in security policy.

Strategic partnerships, alliances and international security institutions have their roots in shared perceptions of both interests and the threats to them. That certainly was the case for several key contemporary institutions, such as the United Nations Security Council and NATO and arguably even the European Union (EU). When the perceptions diverge, as they now have, the institutions themselves are undermined.

The terrorist attacks of 11 September connected the Middle East directly to the core interest: the security of US territory. The American people continue to feel a very real threat from terrorist attacks. They are rattled by continued attacks around the globe, by the frequent warnings from federal authorities of risks of terror attack, and by the possibility of terrorist attacks involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD). For American leaders and the people, the threat is seen as existential: the possibility that terrorists, using WMD – or perhaps more conventional means – could mount an attack that would cause mass casualties or harm the ability of the government to carry out essential functions now seems very real. The likelihood that the fourth hijacked plane, downed in Pennsylvania, was heading for the White House or the Congress suggests that the 11 September attacks were intended to stop the operations of the government. Thus, it is not surprising in the least that the United States has been willing to commit major military power as part of its efforts to combat terrorism.

The war to depose the Taliban government of Afghanistan and the continuing war against al-Qaeda is supported by a large majority of the American people. The only political controversy has surrounded the question of the degree to which civil liberties should be limited as part of this struggle. The war to remove the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, although somewhat controversial in the United States before its start, gained popular support because the administration and its allies successfully linked Iraq to the broader war on terrorism, if not directly to al-Qaeda.

These linkages - the danger of Saddam’s regime seeking to possess WMD and the promises of Saddam’s ejection as a step toward a more moderate and pro-Western Middle East - are still under debate. Post-Saddam, the war continues. Security is not fully established and a legitimate Iraqi regime is not yet in place. Previous efforts at nation-building, including those still under way in the Balkans, have required the maintenance of external security forces for many years. The Iraq war was justified in large part by the links among Saddam, terrorism and WMD, which invoked vital US interests. If these links break down because of lack of evidence or a waning of terrorism, the justification for war and occupation would then rest largely on the promotion of democracy and human rights, not on vital national interests. In that event, this analysis suggests that public support for the occupation could be imperilled if it becomes increasingly burdensome.

Terrorism and the possible possession of WMD by terrorist groups, especially al-Qaeda, seem at present the greatest threat to the core security interest of direct self-defence. US leaders will almost certainly be willing to use major military force if they believe that it will reduce the threat. In such cases where terrorists are proven to have access to WMD, it is hard to imagine any domestic political resistance to the use of force against either terrorist groups or regimes that are harbouring them.

The continuing war on al-Qaeda will probably not lead to another large-scale military employment, but will more likely be fought in smaller-scale engagements (as currently in Afghanistan) alongside law enforcement and intelligence operations. However, the possibility cannot be discounted that al-Qaeda either could find a home with a friendly regime (or people friendly to them), as it did with the Taliban, or more likely, could control and operate in swathes of territory inside a country.

Either of these contingencies could cause US leaders to launch an attack to disrupt al-Qaeda operations. The first of these contingencies is highly unlikely; as for the second, Pakistan and Sudan are probably the places of greatest concern today, although a list based on informed speculation would be fairly long. Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons programme is a worry, given that country’s instability and the chances of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of extremists. The US and allied efforts to support President Musharraf are, in part, an effort to forestall that scenario. Syria and Iran are also under scrutiny. Continued development of WMD, especially nuclear weapons, by either nation, coupled with their ongoing support for terrorist groups, could create the impetus for a US attack.

The WMD and nuclear programme in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea have not previously been linked to terrorism stemming from the Middle East; however, the desperation of the North Korean regime for hard currency raises the prospect of sale of nuclear weapons or other WMD to terrorist groups. The Russian WMD and nuclear programmes are still a security concern because of potential access to terrorists and Russian support for the nuclear weapons programmes by hostile actors elsewhere, such as Iran. Although Russia no longer threatens US interests, its capabilities remain substantial and issues regarding command and control remain. But it is now very hard to imagine a casus belli between the United States and Russia that would lead to an armed conflict.

China and North Korea are the only easily foreseeable threats to US interests beyond the primary vital interest of self-defence. Until 11 September, China was an important component of analysis of future US national security concerns. Even though the terrorist threat has now eclipsed these analyses, the issue remains. Will China’s economic growth lead it to seek military domination of Asia and will that pose a threat to the US vital interest of preventing the domination of northeast Asia by a hostile power? While China does not pose such a threat today, it could in the future, and the United States will increasingly be concerned that it can provide adequate countervailing power in the region.

Northeast Asia and the Middle East will very likely be the chief geographical regions of US concern about threats to its vital interests. The probabilities of actual military clashes with North Korea or China are lower than in the Middle East, but the need to reconstruct deterrence in the region is growing. Unlike in Europe during the Cold War, when the United States relied on both US-based and European- based nuclear forces, in Asia only US-based nuclear forces provide the nuclear component of deterrence. As Chinese and North Korean capacities to strike the United States grow, the US will need to rethink its nuclear deterrence posture in the region along with its capabilities to defend against nuclear attack. Deterrence, of course, means threats to use nuclear weapons.

If there is to be a strong US–European partnership in the future, then there ought to be some overlap between the strategic perspectives of both partners. Given the diversity of outlooks within Europe and the lack, as yet, of any unified and coherent European strategic posture, it is difficult to say to what degree Europe shares the US perspective sketched out above. The European Union has developed a consensus on some security issues but not on others. Nevertheless, it is possible to make some generalisations about the European perspective on its vital interests, threats to those interests and the role of military force.

From the end of the Second World War to the present, ‘Europe’ has been focused inwardly – on protecting itself from the USSR, on economic growth and on building the ‘ever closer’ European Union. As a consequence, Europe is now a regional power, not a global one, and most European states do not consider that they have vital interests outside Europe. Although logically it ought to be possible to draw up a list of European vital national security interests that resemble those outlined earlier for the United States, adjusted for geography, there has been little thinking in Europe along those lines. Although Europeans agree with the United States that al-Qaeda is a serious threat, they do not see it as existential. For Europeans, terrorism is an old phenomenon, one that they have struggled with for much longer than the United States.

I believe in NATO
The largest divergence between the European and American strategic outlooks is over the role of military force in security policy. There is little disagreement in principle between the United States and Europe about the utility of other instruments of security policy, be they political or economic. But regarding military force, a wide gap has opened, especially between the United States on one hand, and France and Germany on the other. During the Cold War, containment policy in Europe was underwritten by military force, including the willingness of the United States, France and the UK to use nuclear weapons first in the event of a conflict with the USSR. But in the post-11 September context, their views on the use of force or threatened use of force are quite different.

Public opinion polls show that the views of French and German leaders are widely supported by their domestic constituencies. President Jacques Chirac has, in essence, said that military force should not be the basis of security: ‘There can be no lasting international order based on the logic of power’. And of course, the US decision to launch the attack on Iraq was finally triggered by the French statement that they could see no circumstances under which they would support the use of force in Iraq. This made it impossible to see a clear way to a UN Security Council resolution.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder moved in lockstep with the French president on these issues after ruling out German participation in any war in Iraq during the 2002 German election campaign. The German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, said that a ‘world order in which the national interests of the strongest power is the criterion for military action simply cannot work’. The problem with this statement is that this is, in fact, how the United States sees world order – at least that part of the world order that it relies on to protect its vital interests. Moreover, as this paper has tried to show, there is nothing much new about this.

Thus the United States and Europe – at least Germany, France and several smaller countries – have moved apart on the fundamentals of security policy. This estrangement is more than just a divergence of views. These Europeans chose not simply to sit the Iraq conflict out, but to actively oppose the United States in the UN Security Council and NATO.

All during the 1990s, American leaders and their allies talked about the importance of ‘coalitions of the willing’ to deal with future threats. The notion was to use the infrastructure of NATO – and, perhaps, the UN – to support these coalitions. But European opposition to the American use of force (or threats) negates this notion. If there is – as seems likely – a future crisis that will put the use of force on the agenda yet again in situations where the perceptions of interests and threats are not broadly shared, US leaders will almost certainly avoid a replay of Iraq and thus will avoid both NATO and the United Nations Security Council.

This does not mean that the US–European relationship has no future. Both parties share many interests and will find cause for common action in many fields. They share interests in stability in the Balkans; in promoting global health, economic development and human rights; and in reducing tensions between India and Pakistan, to name but a few examples. The US and Europe also agree on the importance of eliminating the threat from al-Qaeda. They broadly agree on the role of many instruments of security policy – economic development, political relationships and diplomacy, police and intelligence cooperation. Americans and Europeans will need each other and will find plenty of opportunities to cooperate. Unfortunately, however, these shared interests are not perceived as vital ones by either side; nor do they see eye-to-eye on the key issue of the role of military force.

Two things could change this analysis: The United States could move towards the European view or the Europeans could move towards the Americans. The US could move if the American people’s views of potential threats to US vital interests were to moderate. If the occupation in Iraq remains burdensome in terms of American blood, money and attention, and if the links to terrorism and WMD weaken, the American people’s belief that American vital interests do in fact exist there will be tested. The United States might turn to its allies for more help than it has to date and this might then change the American approach to the likely future crises.

The Europeans might shift their position on the use of force if they thought that their vital interests were seriously threatened, especially the security of their homeland, in ways parallel to the United States. It is hard to see this happening without some kind of massive shock, such as a major terrorist strike in Europe. This seems less likely than a strike on the US. The aims of terrorist groups, in particular, al-Qaeda, include forcing an American withdrawal from the Middle East. Europe – except perhaps the UK – is less a focus of their efforts.

For the United States, the vector of a possible existential threat has shifted from the USSR to terrorism, the Middle East and northeast Asia. For Europe, the existential threat has simply disappeared. During the Cold War, the United States used the threat of massive use of force, including first use of nuclear weapons, to secure its vital interest in Europe. Naturally, Europeans were comfortable with those threats because their most vital interest was on the line. They are understandably not comfortable with similarly politically risky threats and actions, such as preventive war, when they do not feel their most vital interests are on the line. And that makes all the difference.

James Thomson is President and CEO of the RAND Corporation and Chairman of the Board of RAND Europe.

This text has been excerpted from a longer article in the winter 2003–04 issue of “Survival”, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

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