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Rejuvenating the Alliance

Guillaume Parmentier argues that NATO needs to focus on its military capabilities and to become a more equal partnership between the United States and the other Allies.

Striking back: The US decision effectively to go it alone in Afghanistan has led to fears that the Alliance is being marginalised

(© US Department of Defense)

In the wake of the attacks against the United States on 11 September and the subsequent war on terror, the debate over where NATO is headed has once again been brought into sharp focus. While one country, the United States, dominated the Alliance's military structure for more than 50 years for good strategic reasons, the situation is very different today. Indeed, the time has now come for Europe and the United States to share the risks and responsibilities of providing security. If this fails to happen and the Alliance is not fundamentally reformed, the United States may choose to conduct future operations alone, bypassing NATO and, in this way, undermining the institution.

NATO demonstrated by its actions in the former Yugoslavia, and especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that it remained the central institution for providing security in Europe for most of the 1990s. Nevertheless, the campaign against al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan seems to have added voice to the chorus of criticism originally expressed at the time of the Kosovo campaign concerning US unilateralism. This is because the United States chose to put together an ad hoc coalition to fight the campaign, rather than to make the most of Alliance resources, even though NATO had taken the unprecedented step of invoking Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, its collective-defence provision, in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September attacks.

The extent of the crisis within the Alliance precipitated by the US action in Afghanistan should not be exaggerated. The events of 11 September were, after all, a direct attack on US territory, and the fact that the campaign was largely a US affair reflected this. Moreover, the campaign itself took place a long way from Western Europe in conditions for which the European Allies were ill-equipped to contribute and for which the United States possessed unrivalled capabilities. Nevertheless, the US decision effectively to go it alone has reinforced an impression that the United States is increasingly indifferent to NATO and led to fears that the Alliance is being marginalised.

Existential question

This sentiment first came to the fore during the Kosovo campaign when it became clear that "multinational" planning of operations was nothing of the sort. Indeed, Operation Allied Force was planned not at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) but at the US Command in Europe. The then Supreme Allied Commander General Wesley Clark reached his decisions with the help of a small group of officers, almost all of whom came from the US Command. Multinational approval came post facto from NATO's Military Committee and the North Atlantic Council. This state of affairs had been accepted by Europeans during the Cold War because of the overriding need to keep the United States engaged in Europe to the greatest extent possible. However, given that intervention in the former Yugoslavia was not about the defence of Alliance territory, the lack of multinational planning is difficult to justify.

For many Europeans, the basic US attitude towards NATO appears problematic. It seems unclear whether NATO is the institution of choice for the United States or whether the country generally prefers to form ad hoc coalitions and to turn to NATO only when its leaders find it convenient to do so. This turn of events is very different to the situation in the early 1990s. At that time, the United States advocated using NATO for all crisis-management operations, while France favoured the formation of ad hoc coalitions. The discovery by both countries that NATO was, in fact, a multilateral organisation - with all the controls that that entails - has led them largely to reverse their earlier positions.

One area in need of reform is the link between NATO's political and military arms. At present, the distance between the two, which is the result of Cold War developments, is too great. Here, the Kosovo campaign was extremely revealing. While the North Atlantic Council does act as a multilateral body, it is focused on political issues. All Allies willing to share the risks associated with a military action should also have a direct say in and control over operations. Moreover, this is necessary to ensure that the Alliance's military concerns are properly heard by its political authorities.

According to the Washington Treaty, while the North Atlantic Council is the Alliance's only political authority, the Military Committee was conceived as the senior authority for all military matters. The Chairman of the Military Committee was originally expected to liaise between the two bodies. He was at the pinnacle of the Alliance's military hierarchy, which ensured a truly multilateral approach to military matters. However, the decision to establish a supreme command, entrusted to a US officer, double-hatting as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) and the US Commander in Europe (USCOMEUR), not only placed that officer above all others, including the national representatives on the Military Committee, but also made him responsible for two lines of command, those of the United States and of NATO. Moreover, the potential conflict of interest is accentuated by the fact that USCOMEUR is responsible for a wider geographical area than SACEUR. For all these reasons, the Alliance's real military leader can act largely outside multilateral political supervision.

The future of NATO lies not in its politicisation but in its militarisation

The Military Committee alone has real legitimacy in military matters, since it represents all member states. It enables political decisions to be translated into military terms, and ensures that political leaders are made aware of the concerns of the military. By delegating powers to its chairman, it could again entrust to him the role of liaising with the North Atlantic Council. The need to renew the relationship between the North Atlantic Council and the commands via the Military Committee is all the more vital because NATO is no longer narrowly focused on defending the territory and national integrity of its members. The emergence of new missions and the demonstrated will to share risks and responsibilities make multilateral political control more essential than ever. To achieve this, relations between the North Atlantic Council and military structures must be re-established within a hierarchical framework that gives primacy to the political authority as befits democratic countries. Such a reform would give the North Atlantic Council added trust in NATO's military side and, in the process, leave the Military Committee sufficient room for manoeuvre to take charge of military operations.

Two possible directions

NATO today is at a crossroads with, in my view, two paths open to it. The first, the line of least resistance, is a political option which would lead to the gentle decline of the Alliance. The second, my preferred path, requires a remilitarisation of the Alliance to maximise the competitive advantages and unique attributes that NATO already possesses.

If Allies are not careful and if the United States no longer considers NATO the institution of choice for political and military engagement in Europe, the Alliance risks becoming merely a forum for discussion and a source of useful and interesting analysis, much like the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) or, in the security field, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Within such a forum, European security issues would be examined at a political level. However, NATO would gradually lose its unique and specific character as a military organisation and become a talking shop at risk of losing influence to the OSCE, or even the European Union.

The danger of moving down this first path becomes greater the more and the quicker that the Alliance enlarges. This is because many countries aspiring to join NATO have poorly equipped militaries with the result that their practical contribution to overall Alliance capabilities is likely to be minimal.

The alternative path requires focusing on the attributes that NATO already possesses. The Alliance has no competitor among other organisations in a number of fields, such as command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4 ISR); the monopoly of the language of international communications; and multinational procedures in military matters. It also has the ability to share assets, both joint assets and national assets assigned to NATO. In future, therefore, the Alliance should concentrate on its crisis-management missions and make the necessary internal modifications to carry these out effectively.

To shape NATO into an effective multilateral military instrument at the service of its members, two reforms are now essential. Firstly, the geographic division of commands has to be abandoned in favour of a functional division. Secondly, it is necessary to cater for the development of a European defence policy.

The geographic breakdown of commands was the natural response to the threat faced by the Allies during the Cold War. However, since the end of the Cold War, as the nature of the threat has changed, the geographical division is more difficult to justify. Worse still, it hinders the rapid mobilisation of assets coming under different chains of command. To resolve these difficulties, the command structures have to be made more flexible. The Allied Command Atlantic could mutate towards control of "sea-air" missions, and SHAPE towards control of "air-land" missions. The first command could be entrusted to an American, since the United States possesses clear superiority in this field, while a European could have operational command of the second, as Europeans are naturally better equipped in Europe. Placing a European in charge would also enable better integration of European defence within NATO.

During the Cold War, the shared desire of all NATO's European members was to ensure maximum engagement of the United States in any conflict. On the one hand, the United States alone possessed a sufficient deterrent capability against the Soviet Union. On the other, it was the least directly threatened as a result of its geography. Europeans, by contrast, could not choose whether they became involved in a potential conflict. Rather than risk US isolationism, NATO's European members sought to anchor the United States in Europe and oblige it to make good its political and moral commitments by giving it the highest military responsibility in the Alliance.

More than a decade after the end of the Cold War, it is time that these attitudes changed and that Europeans took greater responsibility for their own security. There is, however, a veritable gulf in capabilities between those possessed by the United States and the European Allies. Moreover, the gap between defence spending on the two sides of the Atlantic continues to widen. To meet this ever-growing budgetary and capabilities gap, therefore, the European Allies will rapidly have to intensify cooperation among themselves.

The construction of a European security and defence identity cannot, however, be envisaged separately from the reform of NATO. Given the need to share risks and responsibilities, it is, above all, in the interest of the Alliance strenghten the European identity within it. All the more so as the existence of a coordinated European position would greatly facilitate political cohesion. Critically, the European Union must be able to use NATO assets in the event that the United States chooses not to participate in an operation. As long as SACEUR remains an American, it will be necessary for his European deputy to exercise full responsibilities for European-led operations. To this end, the peacetime responsibilities of the deputy SACEUR must be increased. A military leader cannot take control of an organisation as complex as NATO in a time of crisis without having exercised actual day-to-day command in peace.

Better cooperation among European Allies would also make it possible to combine the needs of an existing organisation, with its structures and arrangements, with those of coalitions of the willing. Furthermore, such coalitions could, on the model of the Partnership for Peace programme, include countries which are not members of the Alliance, such as Russia, thereby helping the latter to intensify its current rapprochement with NATO. In this respect, it is worth bearing in mind how much the experience of joint participation in crisis-management operations in the Balkans has contributed to improving relations between NATO and Russia.

The NATO-Russia relationship has also improved markedly in the wake of the attacks of 11 September. The creation of a NATO-Russia Council in May is a major step in the right direction and it will be important to deepen relations without giving Russia a veto over future NATO action. However, cooperation should be extended beyond politics into the military sphere, including planning. From this point of view, frequent and repeated joint exercises are an absolute must.

However paradoxical it may seem, the future of NATO lies not in its politicisation but in its militarisation. The scope of Alliance activity cannot be limited simply to general political discussion of major European security issues. On the contrary, NATO will only be able to demonstrate how indispensable it is to Euro-Atlantic security, if its member states invest in its military capabilities and make the most of these capabilities in real crisis situations. The challenge for NATO today is to ensure that an enlarged Alliance retains its military capabilities and does not waste away into a mere discussion forum.

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