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Re-examining the transatlantic bargain

Michael Rühle reviews two must-read accounts of NATO's past, present and future: one a history, the other a classic insider's tale.

Everybody can talk about NATO, but few can write about it. Capturing the multi-purpose character of the Alliance is far more difficult than most would-be authors believe. As a result, the books they produce turn out to be either boring clones of the NATO Handbook or too outlandish to warrant serious consideration. Fortunately, the two books reviewed here do not suffer from these shortcomings. They are written by authors with considerable experience in the worlds of both academia and policy-making. And it shows.

Stanley Sloan's NATO, the European Union and the Atlantic Community: The Transatlantic Bargain Reconsidered (Rowman & Littlefield, Boulder, Colorado, 2002) is a history of NATO written for a wide audience. Sloan worked in the Congressional Research Service for 25 years as the senior specialist in international security policy. His work for Congress, for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and for the Senate NATO Observer Group make him a seasoned observer of the transatlantic security scene. Building on his 1985 book NATO's Future, Sloan examines the Atlantic Alliance from its origins to the aftermath of the 11 September attacks. Using the term for the Alliance that was originally coined by former US NATO Ambassador Harlan Cleveland, namely the "transatlantic bargain", Sloan traces the various metamorphoses of this deal from the late 1940s to the present.

The general outline of this bargain - the United States pledging continued involvement in European security arrangements in return for a European commitment to organise itself both for external defence and internal stability - remained unchanged. Yet, as Sloan demonstrates, its implementation remained a source for continuous friction. Indeed, the bargain had to be revised almost as soon as the Washington Treaty was signed. Once it became clear that the European Allies would fail to meet the ambitious force goals they had set for themselves, the United States had to engage in Europe in far more substantial ways than initially envisaged, bequeathing "a legacy with which NATO struggled until the end of the Cold War".

Over several chapters, Sloan covers the main elements of NATO's post-Cold War transition. One chapter focuses on the evolution of NATO's military tasks and strategy, and the influence of NATO's Balkan engagement on that evolution. An examination of the development of NATO nuclear strategy and forces follows. Another chapter is devoted to NATO's policy of Partnership, enlargement, and relations with Russia and Ukraine. In line with his overarching theme, he also devotes much room to the development in the 1990s of a new transatlantic bargain, first through creation of a European Security and Defence Identity and then through the establishment of an autonomous Common European Security and Defence Policy by the European Union.

In covering the many changes taking place within the Alliance, Sloan keeps an eye on the factors of continuity. By putting developments in historical perspective, or by drawing parallels between similar events from different times, he offers the broader historical context other publications on NATO sometimes lack. His observations never fail to enlighten. For example, he convincingly argues that NATO's 1967 Harmel Report not only injected a new sense of purpose into the Alliance after a series of crises, but that it also gave NATO the enhanced "political" personality that enabled the Alliance to play a crucial role in winding down the Cold War almost 25 years later. Equally enlightening is his discussion of geographic and historic differences between North Americans and Europeans, which account for many of NATO's persistent difficulties.

Will the transatlantic bargain remain intact? In Sloan's view, NATO has done remarkably well, but is now confronted with changes in the transatlantic relationship that may well pose an existential challenge. The marginal role the Alliance played in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks pointed to the shape of things to come. According to Sloan, both sides of the Atlantic are to blame. The Europeans, through their insufficient defence efforts, have contributed to a widening transatlantic capability gap. The United States, on the other hand, by under-utilising NATO in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks, "missed an opportunity to move the NATO consensus well beyond the 1999 strategic concept". Sloan's analysis is pertinent, and he has every reason to feel vindicated: the recent US proposal for a NATO Response Force comes very close to an idea he floats in his book.

Yet more needs to be done. In Sloan's view, the time has come for something more ambitious: an institutionalised "Atlantic Community Treaty". He argues that: "It is increasingly clear that the challenges faced by the Euro-Atlantic Allies cannot be completely resolved within the narrow confines of the Alliance", and suggests that this new forum should include all members of, and applicants for, membership in both the European Union and NATO. "It would provide the best setting in which to discuss US plans for a national missile defence as well as a constructive framework for the management of future trade and economic ties. And it would help close current organisational and membership gaps between NATO and the European Union without undermining either." He admits that such a new Atlantic Community "may remain beyond the political will and energy of the Euro-Atlantic democracies in the years immediately ahead". But asserts that: "The story that began following World War II, which has led to an unprecedented level of cooperation in the Euro-Atlantic area, is far from over."

The book's systematic structure is both its strength and its weakness. Many issues are revisited in several chapters, albeit from different angles. This does not matter if one reads individual chapters selectively, as most students will do. Yet as a whole, this approach makes the book repetitive. The narration veers between factual passages and personal reflections. And Sloan's plea for a comprehensive "Atlantic Community Treaty", a clarion call for a rejuvenation of transatlantic ties, remains unconvincing. Treaties cannot substitute for a lack of common interests. Still, Sloan succeeds in providing the reader with a rock solid and bang up-to-date NATO history. Its accessible style and its comprehensive coverage make it both a primer and a book for the specialist reader. NATO, the European Union and the Atlantic Community will be required reading for students and practitioners alike.

Enlargement conundrum

Sloan ends his most instructive chapter on enlargement with the observation that NATO's transition from an exclusive club to a more open one has been largely successful. This was by no means a foregone conclusion. In the early 1990s, the very idea of inviting new members into NATO, yet at the same time remaining on good terms with Russia, seemed a bridge too far. So how was it achieved? Ronald Asmus' book Opening NATO's Doors (Columbia University Press, New York, 2002) gives the answer: the process was well managed.

Asmus covers the enlargement process from the end of the Cold War to the Senate vote on ratifying the accession of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1998. That Asmus' book is the definitive account of NATO enlargement should not come as a surprise. After all, Asmus has been a key player in both developing and implementing this policy. At RAND, he co-authored the 1993 Foreign Affairs article that gave NATO enlargement intellectual credibility. He then worked closely with individuals from the Clinton team, and in 1997 joined the State Department's European Bureau, working with then Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on NATO-Russia issues.

Asmus, who also served as Albright's principal speechwriter, provides a fascinating tale of how an idea from the fringes is turned into mainstream policy. Once past the first chapter - in which the author only just stops short of claiming that he and Clinton were the reincarnations of Dean Acheson and Harry S. Truman - the book makes for an excellent read. Asmus sticks to a chronological narrative, and he refrains from writing from the perspective of hindsight. In this way, he gives the reader an authentic feeling of the policy dilemmas the United States was facing at each phase of the process. Asmus' masterful way of weaving excerpts from de-classified State Department memos into the text only serves to further enhance the book's authenticity.

Asmus notes that: "Had it been up to NATO alone, enlargement might very well have stopped at the Eastern German border." There was simply no impetus in the West to move beyond what had been achieved in 1990 and what already appeared like a miracle in its own right: German unification in NATO. Soon, however, things started to change. Once the Central and Eastern European democracies began to push for NATO membership as a vehicle to integrate with the West, the issue was on the agenda. With the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe "too weak" and the European Union "too slow" in Asmus' words to integrate these countries within a reasonable timeframe, no alternatives were in sight. The "NATO magnet", to use then National Security Adviser Sandy Berger's term, was exerting its pull.

For the Clinton Administration there were many reasons to be in favour of NATO enlargement - and against it. On the "pro" side, there was, above all, the idealistic notion of consolidating Europe as a united continent, of doing for Europe's Eastern half what NATO had previously done for the continent's Western half. Other reasons in favour of enlargement were the need to establish the Administration's foreign policy credentials, to fend off Republican critics, and to look for a common transatlantic project that could mend the rift that had emerged over the wars of Yugoslav dissolution. On the "con" side, there was, above all, Russia. Only if Russia could be made to play along would NATO enlargement deliver the goods it was supposed to deliver. "Losing Russia" over NATO enlargement was not an option anyone considered acceptable. A modus vivendi with Russia had to be found, even more so as the European NATO Allies remained nervous throughout. As Asmus puts it: "The Administration faced a paradox: to get the Allies on board it needed a NATO-Russia agreement. But to get Moscow to negotiate seriously on a NATO-Russia agreement, it needed to convince Moscow that Allied support was solid and enlargement inevitable."

Not surprisingly, therefore, Opening NATO's Doors is as much about Russia as it is about NATO. In essence, it is about getting the Russian leadership to swallow the bitter pill of a US-dominated military alliance moving towards its country's borders. Talbott and his aides had to convince Russia that the "monster" of NATO enlargement, as then Russian President Boris Yeltsin called it, was actually pretty tame, and that, instead of resisting the inevitable, Russia should grasp the opportunity to re-define its relationship with the West. In great detail Asmus recounts the numerous meetings in which the Russians appeared simultaneously determined and undecided, cunning and honest, cool-headed and neurotic. It was presumably in their neurotic moments that the Russians proposed forgetting about the Europeans altogether and simply establishing a Russo-US condominium over Europe - prompting Talbott to remark dryly that they might just as well have proposed Yalta as the place to agree on it. In the end, however, the Russians gave in and settled for "damage limitation", to employ the term that former Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov used in his memoirs, by signing the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. NATO enlargement could proceed, seemingly irreconcilable objectives were reconciled, and Washington had demonstrated that it is possible to have one's cake and eat it.

Like Sloan, Asmus effectively dismisses claims that NATO enlargement was primarily driven by US domestic politics. Yet he provides interesting insights about the difficult struggle on the "home front", with the Clinton Administration trying to shield the NATO enlargement process from its critics as well as from its most ardent supporters. In the end, things fell into place, but only after its fair share of cliff-hangers. One was NATO's 1997 Madrid Summit, where French President Jacques Chirac, in a last minute Franco-US showdown, argued against the US position of inviting only three countries into NATO, opting for five instead. Another was the ratification process in the United States itself, which required the Clinton Administration to stroke many - mostly Republican - egos in order to steer the process towards its happy ending: a comfortable 80 to 19 vote in the Senate in favour of enlargement.

That the book does not quite deliver on its sub-title - How the Alliance remade itself for a new era - is only a minor flaw that does not detract from the volume's overall value. Other authors, including Asmus himself, have dealt with the issues of NATO's broader reform elsewhere. For the European reader, however, one observation remains striking: the virtual absence of the European Allies in the NATO enlargement process. Although some inflated egos in Berlin may still claim that they invented NATO enlargement, the whole process was US-driven. As Asmus shows, even the German government remained in two minds as to the benefits of no longer being on the frontline and the drawbacks of alienating Russia. Other European Allies also get short shrift. Some bickered, some wavered, and, in the end, then Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke steamrolled them into submission. Considering the benign outcome of the process, this may not necessarily have been a bad thing. Yet it remains puzzling that more than half a century after the Second World War Europeans quietly accept that the United States should re-order their continent for them - and do so through the expansion of a military alliance.

Asmus' book is a success story - a story about an idea being born, debated, moulded into policy, and then carried through with remarkable persistence. Yet the question remains: was it really NATO enlargement that brought about the new undivided Europe? Or was it rather the elaborate cooperative network that NATO built around enlargement - including the Partnership for Peace and special relations with Russia and Ukraine - in order to cushion the potentially negative impact of moving NATO to the East? Asmus' book can be read both ways. But in the end, the point may be moot. It worked. And, as the saying goes, everybody loves a winner.

Read more: history of NATO
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