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Debate
Should NATO play a more political role?
     Espen Barth Eide   VERSUS   Frédéric Bozo

Espen Barth Eide is director of the International Politics Department at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs in Oslo.

Frédéric Bozo is a professor at the University of Nantes and a senior research associate specialising in transatlantic relations at L'Institut français des relations internationales in Paris.

                 YES

NO            

Dear Frédéric,

With the transatlantic drama over Iraq now seemingly behind us, it's time for calm debate about the future relationship between Europe and North America, and NATO's role within it. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's remarks to February's Wehrkunde conference in Munich and subsequent comments from both sides of the Atlantic have brought the question of what the transatlantic alliance is about today into the open. This is a good thing, because it's in everybody's interest for this debate to be transparent, far-reaching and constructive. Transatlantic relations in the 21st century will clearly be different from what they were in the second half of the 20th. But "different" does not have to mean "worse".

NATO is a highly successful alliance immersed in an identity crisis from which it is unlikely to emerge soon. This is not, of course, the first time that the Alliance has questioned its rationale. France's withdrawal from NATO's integrated military structure in 1966 was a similarly seminal moment, which led a year later to the Harmel Report On The Future Tasks of the Alliance. Fifteen years ago, the dismantling of both the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union triggered a debate about whether a politico-military alliance linking Europe and North America was still necessary. That debate led to the decision to go "out of area" (as opposed to out of business) with the result that for most of the 1990s the Alliance was engaged in three large projects in the intersection between political and military spheres. These were peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations in the Balkans; preparing a number of Central and East European states for membership in NATO and, by extension, the transatlantic community; and providing a forum for a coordinated response to events in Russia. Combined with the continued security guarantee, this provided enough of an answer to the question of "why NATO" for more than a decade. It should be noted, however, that all three projects related directly to the European continent in a climate of continued US focus on the European security scene.

More than the end of the Cold War, therefore, it's the post-9/11 world that has brought NATO's purpose into question. This began with the Afghan campaign, though not as a result of any disagreement within NATO. Indeed, on the contrary, as French daily Le Monde put it, we were "all Americans" then. The problem was rather a feeling of irrelevance. Given that NATO had invoked Article 5 for the first time in response to 9/11, US talk of "the mission defining the coalition" was the opposite of what European Atlanticists wanted to hear. It took almost two years for NATO to commit on a major scale to Afghanistan. That followed the Iraq crisis and deep disagreement over both NATO's role in the defence of Turkey and the legitimacy of the war itself.

The Alliance must once again become a forum for open dialogue about the major issues it is to engage in

The tone of the debate has changed radically since then. Neither Washington nor any European capital wishes to repeat the experiences of the past two to three years. The recent visits of President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Europe - as well as the way they were received - symbolised a mutual desire to demonstrate unity and commitment. But beyond expressions of good will, details of a new "consensus" remain unclear.

In my view, today's challenge is two-fold: first, to make a realistic assessment of the Alliance's role in new political circumstances; and second, to repoliticise the Alliance rather than allowing it to atrophy into little more than a military "toolbox".

The starting point for an assessment of NATO's role is recognition that Europe's political landscape has fundamentally changed. Today, the European Union is a player in international security in its own right. Indeed, an increasingly ambitious European Union is currently adding military capacities to its existing "soft-power" toolbox. Many future transatlantic debates will have to take place between the European Union and the United States simply because the agenda has to be broader than that provided in NATO's more classical security forum. Many key issues on the current international agenda - the curbing of Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions, plans to lift the arms embargo on China and the need to help Africa emerge from its several complex crises - require multi-faceted approaches. Atlanticists should stop deploring this. Attempts to use NATO to blunt the European Union's political ambitions are doomed to fail. Encouraging the European Union's political development while simultaneously forging a vibrant security partnership with NATO is the way to go. There will still be plenty for NATO to do. The Alliance remains the most logical forum for everything from coordinating military instruments to strategic debate about common security challenges between the two main pillars of the West. Moreover, it should aim at remaining so, recognising that this is the Alliance's contribution to a broader, transatlantic security architecture.

This requires a "repoliticisation" of NATO. The Alliance must once again become a forum for open dialogue about the major issues it is to engage in. A sincere transatlantic dialogue about how to deal with terrorism, for example, is greatly needed precisely because Allies have differing perspectives on how to respond to this common challenge. NATO will also likely remain active in places like Afghanistan and Kosovo and continue to provide the military muscle behind future multilateral, peace-enforcement efforts. Where to engage, and how to do so, may prove controversial. Decisions should, therefore, be rooted in a broader political consensus within the Alliance than is currently the case. And where the Alliance provides the military backbone of broader international peace-building efforts, it needs to be better connected to the overall political processes relating to the political future of these situations. Again, this requires a more political NATO and enhanced cooperation with other organisations, including the United Nations.

NATO's challenge is not merely to survive - nobody is actually suggesting that it should die - but to remain a key player and a key forum in the very area in which it has already proved so effective. But it will only remain effective if the Allies develop a common political understanding of its role. There is no common enemy to substitute for the threat posed by Communism or the Soviet Union. "Terrorism" doesn't do the trick. Instead, the Alliance today is an expression of the continued relevance of the "West" in international security. In a renewed transatlantic political forum, however, we must expect further disagreement. The challenge is not to pretend that differences aren't there, but to confront them head on.


Yours,
...top...
Espen


Dear Espen,

Just two years ago, in the run up to the Iraq War, NATO was on a collision course. One group of countries, led by the United Kingdom and the United States, accused the other, led by France and Germany, of betraying the collective-defence commitment, which is the cornerstone of the Alliance. The issue, one recalls, was the defence of Turkey. The latter accused the former of destroying the foundations of collective security on which the very same Alliance was created. The issue, of course, was their willingness to wage war without UN Security Council authorisation. The viability of the Alliance and the future of transatlantic relations were at stake.

To be sure, NATO has recovered from this crisis. By the June 2004 Istanbul Summit, the wounds had essentially healed. Yet unlike most previous NATO crises, the Iraq affair has not led - at least not to date - to a new beginning, as was the case with the Harmel Report, for example, after France's withdrawal from the integrated military structure. Instead, the Alliance seems today to be suffering from anaemia. The symptoms are there for everyone to see. NATO has been struggling to persuade Allies to deliver on their force commitments both in regard to ISAF and the training of Iraqi forces. The Alliance's role in the broader Middle East initiative remains little more than a slogan. Finally, and perhaps more seriously, in the words of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the Alliance is no longer the "primary venue" where its members "discuss and coordinate strategies".

If nothing is done, anaemia risks degenerating into something worse leading eventually, some time down the road, to death. Since nobody wants the Alliance to fade away - least of all the French, who are among its most committed members when it comes to contributing to the NATO Response Force or appointing high-ranking officers to key positions in the military structure - something has to be done.

So is politicisation, as you and others suggest, the right medication and would a more political role for NATO infuse new life into the Alliance? A reading of NATO's history suggests this might well present a way forward. At key moments in the past, politicising NATO has provided the answer to a lingering malaise or an acute crisis. In addition to the Harmel exercise, one recalls the Report of the Three Wise Men in the aftermath of the 1956 Suez Crisis. In both instances, it was about making NATO more "political" in order to bolster ailing legitimacy and strengthen internal cohesion.

It was only when NATO intervened in Bosnia and Herzegovina that the Alliance's claim to a central role in Euro-Atlantic security was secured

More recently, NATO's successful renewal in the 1990s was premised on the idea that, in the absence of the Soviet threat, the Alliance had to become more political to compensate for a declining military rationale. In essence, since NATO was no longer needed to prepare for the defence of Europe, it justified its continued existence by taking on a wider role for European security and thereby contributing to the continent's post-Cold War stability.

It seemed to work, and by the mid-1990s, NATO, which many had assumed would slowly waste away after the Cold War, was again thriving and positioning itself as the cornerstone of European security. Yet one needs to take a closer look at what made this unexpected revival possible. Until autumn 1995, the relevance of NATO's "new" security missions and, by extension, its future as a vibrant alliance was very much in question against the backdrop of its divisions and inaction in response to the wars of Yugoslav dissolution. Indeed, it was only when NATO intervened in Bosnia and Herzegovina and then deployed the Implementation Force to oversee the peace process there that the Alliance's claim to a central role in Euro-Atlantic security was secured. Moreover, this position was reinforced three years later by intervention in Kosovo.

The bottom line, it seems to me, was that NATO's future was assured only when the Allies demonstrated its continued vitality as a military instrument in a new strategic environment, dealing with non-Article 5, out-of-area contingencies. In the absence of such a demonstration, seeking to rejuvenate NATO at the time by "politicising" the organisation would simply have led to the creation of a talk shop.

Today's problem with NATO is that its usefulness or at least its centrality, especially in military terms, is no longer seen as a given by its members. There are two explanations for this. The first is by no means new. The United States no longer sees NATO as the institution of choice for conducting military operations, even under US command. This has been clear since the Kosovo campaign, which was an experience that the US military did not enjoy. The way in which Washington shunned Allied offers of support during the Afghan campaign in autumn 2001 confirmed this state of affairs.

The second factor is slowly emerging and is to a large extent a consequence of the first. Europeans are increasingly reluctant to commit forces within a US-dominated framework in which the United States hardly commits forces itself, as illustrated by ISAF in Afghanistan. Hence their eagerness to beef up the European Union as a potential first choice for operations and to take the lead in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and sooner or later in Kosovo.

If current trends continue, NATO risks becoming an empty shell because it no longer matches the emerging structure of the transatlantic relationship, which is the result of US detachment from Europe and of Europe's new politico-strategic assertiveness. This, of course, would be terribly wrong. NATO is still needed, if only because Americans and Europeans need each other militarily. Europeans continue to need US protection, though less so than earlier, and definitely require US support to conduct demanding military operations, as is the case in Bosnia and Herzegovina under Berlin-Plus type arrangements. The United States needs Europe's military manpower in peacekeeping operations in which it is reluctant to commit forces, such as ISAF.

The conclusion, in my view, is simple. While NATO in its present configuration is not likely to remain an attractive framework for either entity, there is ample room and need for its transformation into what we really need, namely an instrument to maintain and promote the military connection between the European Union and the United States. I am aware that this requires a radical departure from old thinking in the Alliance. But I am convinced that if we do not seriously think of ways to reconcile NATO with the new reality of EU-US relations, it will just fade away, doing irreparable damage to the transatlantic community in the wider sense. Politicising NATO is not the issue and amounts to little more than an empty slogan, unless we tackle the fundamentals and thereby make the Alliance, once again, the key venue for strategic coordination between America and Europe. This, in turn, means making the EU-US connection work, in particular in military terms.


Yours,
...top...
Frédéric


Dear Frédéric

Our analysis of both recent history and the current situation coincide to a large degree. We both believe that the Alliance has to be reconciled with the new reality of EU-US relations. We also concur that NATO must continue to see the military connection between Europe and the United States as a cornerstone of its raison d'être. After all, a military alliance without a military task is hardly sustainable.

Where we apparently disagree is on the conclusion: whether "repoliticisation" is the way forward. You seem to believe this is little more than an empty slogan and that what is needed is "strategic coordination between America and Europe" and "an instrument to maintain and promote the military connection between the European Union and the United States".

My point is that I do not believe that a "pure" military connection can be maintained over time without a strong political underpinning - and that this political underpinning does not come by itself. We should remember that transatlantic political cohesion was crucial - though often implicit - throughout the Cold War. Both Western European and North American Allies agreed on deterring the perceived Soviet threat, and both also agreed that an American commitment to Europe had a stabilising effect well beyond the existence of a common threat. Indeed, the success of the project of European integration that has led to the European Union should be seen in this light. The transatlantic security partnership helped provide the conditions for functional economic integration in Europe, since some of the most politically complicated issues could be discussed elsewhere. NATO could concentrate on its military role, because the political cohesion was there from the outset, maintained by the continued common threat. What is implicit and commonly agreed becomes so evident that there is no need to repeat it. Still, without this sense of common purpose, there would have been no NATO in the first place. And even when disagreement on strategic choices emerged during the Cold War, overall political cohesion was maintained due to the perception of a common threat and common purpose.

NATO has to sharpen its politico-military machinery in a way that both Allies and Partners perceive as relevant for the challenges of a new century

Today, we haven't only moved beyond the Cold War, but also beyond the transitional, post-Cold War period. What has become abundantly clear in recent years is that political cohesion between Europe and the United States cannot be taken for granted, and nostalgia alone will not keep the Alliance afloat for long. If NATO is to survive - which I both hope and believe it will - it must be the right answer to today's, not yesterday's, challenges.

Any use of military power remains, in Karl von Clausewitz's words, "the continuation of politics by other means". This is particularly true when it comes to intervening in conflicts that do not represent existential threats to us, but rather are long-term investments in a more stable order. Joint action - like that currently ongoing in Afghanistan - must be based on political agreement about what we are trying to achieve and where it fits into the broader picture. Here, NATO has much to offer. Beyond agreeing on committing troops, it has a developed system of political guidance to the military effort and a forum in which conflicting opinions can be aired and consensus built.

In the coming years, NATO should demonstrate that it is more than a "coalition of the willing". Coalitions may be attractive to the coalition leader, at least as long as someone comes along. But as the United States is realising in Iraq, it cannot rely on long-term troop commitments. These come and go depending on political circumstances. For junior partners, coalitions are problematic, as they typically lack a "balanced" political framework with the result that the only way to express disagreement is to withdraw. For smaller countries in particular, multinational frameworks are more attractive in the long run. NATO - through its political structure, and with a civilian Secretary General and secretariat - can add political judgement and direction, and provide a way by which the military contribution is politically connected to the wider effort it is trying to support.

This does not happen by itself. NATO has to sharpen its politico-military machinery in a way that both Allies and Partners perceive as relevant for the challenges of a new century. Only then will it combine readily available military capabilities with an enhanced ability to create political consensus.


Yours,
...top...
Espen


Dear Espen,

I agree that the much-needed military connection between Europe and the United States, which a revamped NATO should provide, will not be sustainable without "a strong political underpinning". But the question then becomes, what institutional framework is best suited to promote such political consensus? Throughout the Cold War, NATO was indisputably the most appropriate institutional forum because of the existence of a clear, common threat. NATO's political centrality, in other words, was a function of its sheer military value.

Today, this is no longer the case. While we cannot and should not completely exclude scenarios in which we would collectively have to fight an external enemy presenting an existential threat, this can no longer be the privileged rationale for NATO. The war against terror, in other words, is not a functional equivalent of the Cold War. It cannot in itself provide the cement holding the Western Alliance together, because Americans and Europeans do not necessarily agree on the nature of the danger and on the ways and means to tackle it. Indeed, they often disagree. This is what the crisis of the Alliance has been about since 2001.

Politicising NATO amounts to little more than an empty slogan, unless we tackle the fundamentals

To be sure, most Allies will no doubt continue to view peacekeeping operations like ISAF in Afghanistan as what NATO's military role should be about for the foreseeable future. As a result, beefing up the political dimension of such operations does make sense. But I very much doubt that a residual peacekeeping role for NATO, albeit a politicised one, can in and of itself make for a renewed transatlantic relationship.

In order to recreate the political foundations of the Alliance, we should, I believe, take on two far more demanding challenges. First, we should try to reach agreement on the conditions for the use of force in situations other than those coming under the right of self-defence. It was disagreement on the legitimacy - or the legality - of preventive military action that caused the rift in the Alliance over Iraq.

Second, we should try to forge a common understanding on the ways and means to expand democracy and the rule of law. While we agree on the objective, we do not share a vision of how to achieve it. Since this is likely to remain a major preoccupation for Americans and Europeans alike, as recent events in the Middle East indicate, we urgently need to reach agreement on that score if we are serious about restoring a sense of common purpose in the Alliance, as you rightly advocate.

We will not achieve this by decree or by making "politicisation" of the old NATO the order of the day. We can only do this through a serious, in-depth dialogue between America and Europe. Because the emergence of a coherent European Union is a reality which can no longer be ignored, the bottom line is that the rejuvenation of the Alliance presupposes not only the adaptation of NATO's military apparatus to this new situation, but also the creation of a direct strategic link between its two main entities. Only by reconciling the workings of the transatlantic relationship with the structural change that has occurred in relations between America and Europe will we be in a position to restore a sense of common purpose which makes for a sustainable Alliance.


Yours,
...top...
Frédéric


Dear Frédéric,

I have argued from the outset that NATO has no alternative but to adapt to Europe's rapidly changing political landscape. At the core of this transformation stands the emergence of the European Union as an increasingly coherent international actor. Already an established "civilian" power, it now also boasts certain military and crisis-management capacities and the European Security Strategy provides for a self-styled European answer to the National Security Strategy of the United States. These two players - the European Union and the United States - will provide the main building blocks of what we may still refer to as the "West".

NATO's repoliticisation is about more of the strategic debate about new threats taking place within NATO itself



My point is that through NATO we already have an organisation that provides a politico-military framework for this reformed transatlantic partnership, which also provides an alternative to ad hoc "coalitions of the willing". Were NATO to focus exclusively on its military structures, its status would rapidly decline to one of a mere standards organisation. To me, NATO's repolitisation is about more of the strategic debate about new threats, as well as the role the Alliance can play in peace-enforcement and peace-building tasks, taking place within NATO itself. I want to see member states taking this feature of the organisation much more seriously than they have in the recent past.



Yours,
...top...
Espen


Dear Espen,

We are not far apart, and this gives me hope for the future of the Alliance. After all, our two countries have traditionally had diverging perspectives on this issue. As you know, the French, ever since General de Gaulle, have been keen to distinguish between the Alliance itself - whose existence has never been at stake in French policy - and NATO's organisational structure - which the French have seen as needing to be improved. During the Cold War, this distinction was hard for other Allies to grasp, let alone to accept. However, it seems to me that this is no longer the case, and that now the distinction makes even more sense.

It is important to restructure the Alliance to transform NATO into what should essentially be a bilateral Euro-American organisation



Today, it is more important than ever to build a robust and sustainable transatlantic relationship, if for no other reason than because it can no longer be taken for granted. At the same time, it is important to restructure the Alliance to transform NATO into what should essentially be a bilateral Euro-American organisation. This is the way to preserve NATO's military relevance and thereby preserve the long-term politico-strategic connection between Europe and the United States in the framework of the transatlantic Alliance.


Yours,
...top...
Frédéric


* Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.