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How global a role can and should NATO pursue?

Steve Larrabee (left) is a senior staff member at RAND in Washington DC and holder of the RAND Corporate Chair in European Security. François Heisbourg (right) is director of the Paris-based Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique.

Dear François,

As it enters the 21st century, NATO faces a new set of strategic challenges quite different from the ones it faced in the past. I welcome this opportunity to discuss this issue with you and hope our discussion will help clarify how these new challenges can best be addressed.

In recent years NATO has begun to move away from its original focus on Europe and recognise that the threats facing the Alliance are more diverse and geographically distant than during the Cold War. This shift in emphasis was explicitly acknowledged at the Prague Summit last November. The communiqué issued in Prague noted that NATO needed to have the capability to field forces that can move quickly "to wherever they are needed" and sustain operations over great distance, including in an environment where they might be faced with biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

This change essentially ends the "out-of-area" debate that has raged within the Alliance in the last few years. However, some in Europe oppose what they see as an effort to "globalise" NATO. They argue that NATO should remain focused on threats in the European area and its periphery. Such a view, in my opinion, is anachronistic and wrong-headed. It fails to recognise the degree to which the nature and locus of the challenges facing Europe and the United States have changed since the end of the Cold War, and especially since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Today the main threats to Western security are no longer in Europe, but emanate from beyond Europe's borders. They are posed not by the threat of Soviet invasion or instability in the Balkans but by weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and outlaw states which may be tempted to use such weapons or pass them on to terrorists. If NATO is to remain relevant and retain support among Western publics, it must be capable of addressing those new threats and challenges.

The Prague Summit made a good start in this direction. The Prague Capabilities Commitment and the creation of the NATO Response Force (NRF) will enable the Alliance to better address these new threats. The initiatives represent the best chance — perhaps the last best chance — to narrow the divergence in strategic agendas and military capabilities between Europe and the United States that has grown over the last decade.

Unless the capabilities gap is narrowed, European and US forces will find it increasingly difficult to operate effectively together

Unless the capabilities gap is narrowed, European and US forces will find it increasingly difficult to operate effectively together to meet new challenges, especially those beyond Europe. This will have two results — both of them negative. First, it will increase the trend, already evident, toward US unilateralism. If European and US forces cannot operate together, the United States will have little choice but to act alone. European Allies will be reduced to providing mop-up forces. Second, Europe's ability to influence US decisions and policy will further decline, creating even greater frustration and resentment in Europe, as Europe finds itself increasingly unable to affect decisions that impact on its own security. Both these developments would have a debilitating impact on transatlantic relations and the ability of Europe and the United States to address collectively the new threats and challenges they face today.

The real test will be whether the commitments made at Prague are actually implemented. This will require many European Allies to reorient their defence investment priorities. Many still have too many forces oriented toward Cold War missions. To meet the new challenges, these countries need smaller, lighter more mobile forces that can be sustained over long periods far from their homeland.

Some Europeans are worried that the NRF will weaken or undermine the European Union's Rapid Reaction Force. I don't see why this should be the case. The two forces have quite different purposes. The NRF is essentially a strike force for use in high-intensity combat operations beyond Europe whereas the European Union's RRF is primarily designed for peace and stability operations in and around Europe. Thus, the forces are basically complementary rather than conflictual.

Given the difficulty in achieving consensus on how and when to use force in confronting these new threats, most non-European operations are likely to be conducted by "coalitions of the willing" rather than NATO as an organisation. But European and US forces will be better able to operate together if they have trained together and have similar operational doctrines and procedures. The NRF and Prague Capabilities Initiative should help strengthen cooperation in this regard. Moreover, as recent developments in Afghanistan illustrate, NATO as an organisation may play an increasingly important role in post-conflict stability operations in areas beyond Europe.

I look forward to your response and continuing this debate.



Dear Steve,

NATO is faced with two basic strategic challenges. The first is directly linked to the constantly shifting set of military contingencies that the Allies have had to face since the end of the Cold War. The second concerns the increasing disengagement of the United States.

The Gulf War, the Kosovo air campaign and operation Enduring Freedom in and around Afghanistan bear little resemblance to each other either in terms of the enemy or the ways in which the campaigns have been fought. The situation is best encapsulated by the Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz pithy and essentially accurate line that: "The mission determines the coalition."

This has a paradoxical effect on NATO. On the one hand, the focus on European contingencies ceases to make sense. This is especially the case since the situation in the former Yugoslavia has calmed down in large part as a result of NATO's interventions in 1995 and 1999. On the other hand, a "one-size-fits-all" approach is no longer appropriate. In this respect, the creation of the NATO Response Force (NRF) strikes me as being wrongheaded in terms of its strategic premise which might be summarised as: "The coalition determines the mission." In the real world, each contingency will involve a different set of political and military actors. You don't, for example, send the same people to respond to a crisis in the Ivory Coast, as you do to Iraq, irrespective of the broader issue that NATO as such has not been invited to participate in operations in either instance, no more than it was in the case of Enduring Freedom or Desert Storm.

Like you, I don't see the NRF as being in competition with the European Rapid Reaction Force. Double-hatting can work here as it does for other military forces such as the Eurocorps. However, I doubt that a 26-country force, with a rotating standing component, will in practice be able to respond in the way it is supposed to. Political inertia and military reality will see to that. When European and US nationals have to be evacuated in 48 hours from a place like Bouaké in the Ivory Coast, you don't call a 26-nation meeting and then order whichever nation currently forms the standing component of the NRF to take on the mission. It is no insult to Norway or Hungary or indeed to most NATO members to suggest that their response capability is not optimised for operations in sub-Saharan African. In practice, in the case of an NRF-style emergency, two or three countries possessing the political will and the military ability will send in forces possessing some knowledge and experience of the terrain. That is why French and US forces took the humanitarian intervention in Bouaké on themselves last September.

In this new strategic context, NATO has a major role to play in making the formation of meaningful coalitions possible. NATO as a producer of interoperability is absolutely indispensable in this respect. Indeed, if the NRF is to serve a useful purpose, it will be because of its function as a catalyst for improving interoperability among "first military respondents", to borrow a phrase from the language of counter-terrorism.

In this new strategic context, NATO has a major role to play in making the formation of meaningful coalitions possible

Here, the second basic challenge to NATO kicks in, in the form of the United States' increasing disengagement from the organisation. There are, of course, a number of solid reasons for this development. These include the end of the Cold War and the corresponding relegation in importance of the European theatre of operations; the increasingly autonomous nature of US theatre commands, most of which — PACCOM, CENTCOM, NORTHCOM, SOUTHCOM — are not accustomed to NATO procedures, standards and norms; and, of course, the growing capabilities gap between Europe and the United States, with its growing impact on European militaries' ability to interface fully with their US counterparts.

With some 92 per cent of the US force structure outside NATO, what will be the future meaning of NATO interoperability? In practice, NATO's main customer for this public good will increasingly be European forces. The creation of a transformation-related command in the place of SACLANT may help reduce the transatlantic interoperability gap. But it will not be easy to make NATO interoperability relevant to the Unites States' non-European theatre commands, as was demonstrated by some of the difficulties encountered during operation Enduring Freedom.

Europe, for its part, has to do its share, in the form of higher and better defence spending, notably in those areas relevant to force projection and to network-centric warfare. However, this is not taking place to anything like the necessary extent. Neither the benchmarking involved in NATO's Defence Capabilities Initiative nor the launching of the European Union's defence policy have generated any substantial change in this regard.



Dear François,

I agree that in the new strategic environment the focus on European contingencies doesn't make sense. I also agree that a "one-size-fits-all" approach is not appropriate. As you point out, in the real world, each military contingency will involve a different set of political and military actors.

Finally, it's true that in a Bouaké-like contingency (rapid evacuation of citizens of NATO members), the NRF would not be much use. But that does not mean that the NRF is wrong-headed, as you suggest. The NRF is not designed for Bouaké-like contingencies. It is designed to be a strike force for highly demanding combat contingencies far from NATO territory. For lesser contingencies, such as Bouaké, other solutions will be required. However, NATO also needs to be able to deal with more demanding scenarios. And for these scenarios the NRF makes sense and can help to foster interoperability — a key requirement if European and US forces are going to be able to operate together in a coalition and address many of the new threats they will face in the future.

Regarding the second challenge, you are right. There is a danger of US disengagement from NATO — but less for the reasons you cite. The real driving force for US disengagement is the capabilities gap between European and US forces. Unless the European members of the Alliance restructure their forces away from their Cold War posture and acquire more expeditionary capabilities, the capabilities gap will grow and European and US forces will not be able to operate effectively in a coalition. The Europeans have to spend more — and spend differently — than in the past. The problem, as you note, is that this is not happening to the extent necessary. Unless this changes, the United States will have little choice but to operate on its own, whether it wants to or not.

The NRF is designed to be a strike force for highly demanding combat contingencies far from NATO territory

To be sure, the United States deserves some blame as well. Some of the initial positions adopted by the Bush administration — on the Kyoto Agreement, the junking of the ABM treaty, and the International Criminal Court — gave the impression that the administration was not much interested in the opinion of its Allies and was disengaging from NATO. Its decision to sideline NATO in the Afghanistan crisis reinforced the impression that the Alliance was being downgraded as a vehicle for coordinating transatlantic security and defence policy.

But the administration has also learned from its missteps. The NRF and the Prague Capabilities Commitment — both US initiatives — are designed to make NATO more capable of meeting new threats and offset the impression that the administration was downgrading NATO in its strategic planning. Since Prague, the administration has pushed to give NATO a greater role in Afghanistan and in Iraq if military action is taken there. Ironically, however, as the administration has sought to transform and adapt NATO for a new era, some of the Europeans who criticised the administration most vocally for by-passing NATO in the Afghanistan crisis are now blocking efforts to get NATO to take on greater responsibilities in Afghanistan and Iraq. These tactics are shortsighted and only hinder the transformation needed to enable NATO to play a more important role in addressing new threats.



Dear Steve,

The NRF is indeed conceived for contingencies larger than the evacuation of Bouaké. But the point I made applies at the higher end as well, for instance in case a non-permissive evacuation operation had to be organised at short notice for the 20,000 or so foreign nationals residing in Abidjan. How would the NRF fare militarily in its currently planned format? The NRF should not be the hybrid that is currently envisaged — Is it a "standing, non-standing force" or a "non-standing, standing force"? — but a toolbox force, with only headquarters functions being of a permanent nature.

What you say about the European-US capabilities gap is indeed correct, but I would add a reinforcing point along with a couple of nuances. The gap has entrenched a de facto division of labour, with the United States "kicking in the doors" and the Europeans "doing the dishes". This is difficult to sustain politically even at the best of times, that is when there is a high degree of agreement on aims and policies as has been the case in the Balkans since 1995. It becomes deeply corrosive when consensus doesn't prevail within the Alliance, as is the case in the Iraq crisis. A doorkicking operation involving Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States will not gracefully lead to a dishwashing "UN feeds - EU funds" peace-support operation.

The lead nation's actions have greater consequences than those of others

The first nuance I wish to underscore is that the capabilities gap between European NATO members is proportionally much greater than that between Europe and the United States. Whatever the measure of effort, the discrepancy between best European practice (that in the first instance of the United Kingdom and then of France) and the laggards (who know who they are) is greater than the transatlantic divide. The other caveat: some US rhetoric about the gap is overwrought. I suspect that if by some miracle Europeans ramped up their defence spending to levels allowing them to acquire the whole suite of command, control, communications, computing, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4 ISR) capabilities required to conduct major force-projection operations on their own, the response would be to talk of "useless duplication". Indeed, this is already the case with the Galileo programme, the civilian-funded European equivalent of the United States' Global Positioning System.

Finally, you talk about the Bush administration learning from its missteps. I don't agree. The Bush administration does not view its actions on Kyoto or NATO as "missteps". This is policy. When a US Secretary of Defence compares Germany to Cuba and Libya 24 hours before joining the International Security Conference in Munich; when repeated and consistent attempts are made to split NATO (and not only the European Union) along "Old Europe/New Europe" lines, it is difficult to conclude that the Bush administration is making inadvertent mistakes.

Of course, the Americans haven't been the only ones to play such games during the Iraq crisis. But the lead nation's actions have greater consequences than those of others. Indeed, we have reached the point where it becomes difficult to imagine a single contingency that could draw a united military response from all 26 NATO nations and invitees. Even the post-9/11 invocation of Article 5 would be difficult to recreate, so great has been the growth of transatlantic disaffection.

This is as bad a situation as I can recall. Admittedly, I can't pretend to remember Suez.



I agree that the capabilities gap is reinforcing a dangerous division of labour, with the United States acting, in effect, as a SWAT team kicking down the door and most Europeans relegated to the role of the "shovel brigade" (or dishwasher) which arrives at the tail end of an operation to clean up the rubble created by the United States. This division of labour is corrosive to Alliance unity — and military effectiveness. It also leaves Europeans essentially in the position of dependency. They have little influence on US military operations but have to pay the political and economic costs of these military actions.

This is why reducing the capabilities gap is so important. If they want leverage over US-led operations and decisions, European members of the Alliance need to be able to operate with US forces in the early stages of combat operations not just to participate in mop-up or post-combat stability operations. Otherwise, they will have little choice but to act as the shovel brigade.

I also agree that a capability gap exists between the more advanced members of the Alliance, such as France and the United Kingdom, who have been developing expeditionary and network-centric capabilities, and the rest of the Alliance. Indeed, if present trends continue, there is a real danger that a three-tier Alliance may emerge: (1) the United States and a few select NATO members who can project power; (2) the bulk of the Alliance, which remains wedded essentially to a Cold War posture; and (3) the new members, whose forces are less modern than those of the second group.

Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic need to act more responsibly to heal the emerging transatlantic rift

Some of the rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic — and here I would include President Chirac's criticism at the EU summit of the East Europeans for siding with the United States in the Iraq crisis — has made an already bad situation worse. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic need to "stop digging" and begin to act more responsibly to heal the emerging transatlantic rift.

But the main problem lies in the fact that there is no shared consensus in the United States and much of Europe on how to address the new strategic threats and challenges that the Alliance faces. Without such a consensus, it will be hard for NATO to use the military forces at its disposal effectively — with or without the NRF.

Creating the needed strategic consensus will require enlightened US global leadership and a willingness on Washington's part to treat its European Allies as genuine partners, not vassals who are expected to fall unflinchingly in line behind every new US policy initiative ("You are either for us or against us"). This is not just a question of the United States consulting more — though that would help — but of building the necessary strategic consensus within the Alliance for its actions. At the same time, the United States' European Allies need to begin taking the emerging new threats and transformation of their military forces more seriously than most have done to date.



Dear Steve,

That Europeans should be investing more in defence is something we have no trouble in agreeing. This is pretty much what environmentalists would call a "no penalty" policy. We need to limit the transatlantic gap to help keep the Alliance together, and if the Alliance were to fall apart, Europeans would have to spend more on defence. Unfortunately, the fact that the two of us agree will presumably have little, if any, material impact.

The Alliance has to cope with two even more important problems. One is due to the changing nature of security threats. A political-military alliance designed to cope with a state-centred threat is not well geared to deal with non-state menaces such as al Qaida<. Police work, non-military intelligence sharing, financial monitoring, and social and economic initiatives are not core competencies of NATO. In the same vein, in a world of rapidly changing challenges, with geostrategic focus shifting from Afghanistan in 2001-2002 to Iraq in 2003-2004, the mission does indeed dictate the coalition. With or without a Response Force, NATO will struggle to "zap" from one conflict to another.

Care by both Americans and Europeans will be required if we are to save the Alliance

The biggest difficulty the Alliance now has to deal with is probably the sense among many of its members, and a sizeable fraction of their publics that the most important Alliance member has become a source of insecurity. This is a momentous, and ominous, shift away from the post-9/11 unanimity. A security alliance that is seen as diminishing rather than increasing security would become an oxymoron. This may be a temporary phenomenon and dealing with North Korea's nukes may help pull us together again. However, we are all on notice that much more care by both Americans and Europeans will be required if we are to save the Alliance from the looming split of the West. Such care has not been conspicuous during the past few months.



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