Commentary Magazine

How to Wreck NATO

The heads of state of the NATO countries will convene in Washington in the last week of April to celebrate the 50th anniversary of what many have called history’s most successful alliance. While past triumphs are toasted, the presence of three newly admitted members—Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic—will signify that, far from resting on its laurels, NATO is poised for an era of new accomplishments. But is it?

Washington had hoped the summit would adopt a blueprint for the future in the form of a “new strategic concept”: expanding NATO’s mission beyond territorial self-defense to peacekeeping in areas outside its borders. But as the Economist observed last December, in recent meetings “NATO diplomats found they could not agree on what the alliance was for, what weapons it would threaten to use, and in what circumstances.” In all likelihood, the leaders gathered in Washington will produce some kind of document to paper over the fissures that have been revealed. But those fissures will not easily be healed, for they reflect underlying goals that are diverging and may be irreconcilable.



When the cold war expired nearly a decade ago, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic felt that the moment had arrived for Europe to take greater responsibility for its own security. For Europeans, the goal was independence and self-respect. For Americans, it was release from burdens.

By mutual agreement, a disintegrating Yugoslavia was chosen as the test case. It was an unfortunate choice at an unfortunate moment. As David Owen, special representative for Yugoslavia from the European Union (EU), would later put it: “This was going to be the time when Europe emerged with a single foreign policy and . . . it unwisely shut out an America only too happy to be shut out.”

Owen spoke these words just as Bill Clinton began his presidency. Although the war in Bosnia had already touched the consciences of Western publics, for the next two years the American administration made only desultory efforts to stem the carnage. And those efforts, such as they were, met resistance from America’s key allies. France in particular objected to proposals for NATO involvement, arguing that the crisis was more appropriately addressed by the Western European Union (WEU), an organization—not to be confused with the European Union—that was founded in 1947 and had long existed only on paper.

By 1995, both the Clinton administration and the Europeans recognized that, if this suppurating wound on the body of Europe were to be closed, more active American involvement was needed. This led to a brief NATO air campaign against the Serbs and then to the Dayton accords. France abandoned, at least for the moment, its project of displacing NATO with the moribund WEU, and President Jacques Chirac even acknowledged, in a speech to the U.S. Congress, that “NATO simply doesn’t work without American leadership.” But this brief interlude of amity would not last.

In the crucible of Bosnia, Clinton, who had begun his presidency pledging to “focus like a laser” on the domestic economy, came belatedly to recognize the importance of foreign policy and took to referring to America grandiosely as “the indispensable nation.” Once reluctant about the expansion of NATO eastward, he now made it a cornerstone of his second term. The Senate’s 80-to-19 vote to ratify the admission of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic crystallized a post-cold-war American resolve to withstand the temptation of isolationism.

Europeans, however, were less celebratory about the discovery of America’s “indispensability.” Although few heeded the warning of Hubert Védrine, the French Foreign Minister, that NATO expansion was a “Trojan horse” by which Washington intended to keep Europe “under U.S. control,” neither did they treat it with great enthusiasm. Rather, Europe’s excitement was reserved for another project: the adoption of a single currency. Even if, as many European leaders acknowledged, the purely economic effects of the euro might be mixed, their hope was that it would lead to greater political cohesion. They especially hoped it would make Europe stronger in relation to America.

Nor was the euro the only measure being undertaken to strengthen Europe vis-à-vis the U.S. In 1996, the NATO foreign ministers endorsed the creation of something called a European Security and Defense Identity within NATO. In theory this meant that NATO’s European members would be able to undertake missions in which United States forces would not participate. (It was stressed, though, that such missions would still rely on “NATO assets,” which meant that Americans would supply most of the intelligence and logistics.) Another initiative went even farther, aiming to create, under the rubric of a Common Foreign and Security Policy, a European military capacity truly separate from NATO. At a summit this past December at St. Malo, Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared formally that the EU “must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces . . . . so that Europe can make its voice heard in world affairs.” To top it off, an effort has even begun to breathe life into the WEU.

The United States has officially welcomed each of these initiatives, just as it has the euro. It has also agreed to the appointment of a European as deputy commander of NATO with substantial authority at supreme headquarters. And Washington has paid conspicuous attention to the issues of pride and symbolism that seem especially important to the French: the Dayton accords were officially signed in Paris, the Kosovo negotiations were placed at Rambouillet, and a Frenchman was chosen to command the Kosovo “extraction force” in Macedonia.

But this has not sufficed. When the U.S. drew a line at the French demand that a “European” (read: Frenchman) be named chief of NATO’s southern command, a move that would in effect have put a French admiral atop an American armada, France retaliated by postponing its own scheduled reintegration into the overall NATO military structure. And now much more serious divisions have emerged over what should be the next steps in the alliance’s evolution.



As the Americans see it, the admission of new Central European democracies will pave the way toward, in the words of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “a new and better NATO,” one that will be “committed to meeting a wide range of threats to our shared interests and values” and that will work “to ensure stability, freedom, and peace in and for the entire transatlantic area.” To the Europeans, however, adding to NATO’s membership is one thing; adding to NATO’s mission is another. As the Belgian newspaper, Indépendant, faithfully reported the mood on the continent, “Washington’s proposals for a new global role for NATO have run into a wall of European opposition.”

The issue has been joined over the question of NATO’s relation to the United Nations, a dispute that may seem merely theoretical but is nevertheless symptomatic. Briefly: the French, German, Belgian, and Dutch governments, with the consent of other European leaders, have adopted the position that NATO should undertake no military action (other than defense of its own territory) without the prior authorization of the UN Security Council. Everyone understands that to turn decision-making over to a body in which Russia and China hold veto power is a formula for paralysis. Why then has it been proposed?

Some European spokesmen have said they are primarily concerned about obedience to international law, but this is hard to credit. For one thing, France has long pursued its own post-colonial policy in Africa, including intervening militarily on a couple of dozen occasions, almost never on the authority of the Security Council and sometimes without any legal justification whatsoever. Then, too, Security Council resolutions are not the only grounds in international law for the use of force; the North Atlantic Treaty rests upon the UN Charter’s explicit designation of self-defense and “collective self-defense” as “inherent rights,” a proviso that applies no less to NATO action in defense of Kuwait or Bosnia than to American action in defense of Germany. Finally, most scholars today agree that “humanitarian intervention” also constitutes a legally valid (if poorly delineated) category of military action; indeed, this was the only real legal justification for NATO’s decision to authorize air strikes against Serbia over Kosovo.

If legal scruples are not the true reason behind the insistence on subordinating NATO’s non-self-defense missions to the Security Council, the London Daily Telegraph was closer to the mark in noting “fears in European governments that NATO would become a global policeman, with Alliance members tagging along behind American-led foreign-policy initiatives.” Paul Quilès, chairman of the defense committee of the French National Assembly, was blunter: “If we agree to this once, we run the danger of being at the mercy of all the international policy decisions made by the Americans.”

In other words, the Europeans do not want to be drawn into joining the United States in a global policy. But they also do not want the United States to go it alone. Jacques Chirac has complained about America’s “unilateral temptations,” and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has likewise pointed to the “danger of unilateralism, not by just anybody but by the United States.” The common denominator in this mishmash turns out to be precisely what it seems: an objection, per se, to any broad-gauge exercise of American power.



French leaders, including Chirac and Védrine, talk often of American “hegemony.” This is a term given currency in international politics by the Chinese, who used it in the 1970’s to justify their tacit alliance with the capitalist West against their fellow Communists in Russia. In other words, it is a term connoting menace. More recently, Védrine and others in France have coined an epithet for America: “hyperpower.” In French as in English, the prefix means excessive, needing to be diminished. When Védrine says that “the entire foreign policy of France . . . is aimed at making the world of tomorrow composed of several poles, not just a single one,” he clearly implies that what is required is not just strengthening the “several” but weakening the “one.”

Although France is most outspoken, it is not alone in this attitude. In Germany, the magazine Der Spiegel has complained that “the Americans are acting, in the absence of limits put to them by anybody or anything, as if they own a blank check in their ‘McWorld.’ ” For former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the attraction of the euro is that it “will change the whole world situation so that the United States can no longer call all the shots.” The difference is that for the French, unlike for the Germans, the task of weakening the hyperpower is no mere abstraction.

On a number of fronts, French policy has aimed explicitly at hamstringing the United States—or, as Védrine puts it, at applying a “principle of leverage.” Thus, for more than a year, France has largely sided with Iraq in its confrontations with Washington; French oil firms have taken the lead in counteracting U.S. efforts to penalize the terrorist regime in Iran; Paris has made a heavy-handed effort to insert itself into Arab-Israel diplomacy; and in Bosnia, allied efforts to apprehend the Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic for war crimes were compromised when a French officer tipped him off. Perhaps the most dangerous ploy of all is France’s attempt to forge a strategic alliance with Russia, encouraging that fragile country’s reckless flirtation with pan-Slavism (as in its support for Serbia) and its ties with Arab tyrants like Saddam Hussein.

True, even during the cold war France was a difficult ally; but when push came to shove, it knew which side it was on, and which side threatened it more. Today, France seems to feel that American hyperpuissance is the principal obstacle to its own ambitions. As for the other Europeans, although most are not as rivalrous in their feelings toward America as Chirac and Védrine, many would probably agree with the view expressed in a Danish newspaper that America sees NATO solely as “a tool for [its own] global interests.”



This is, to say the least, a curious way of putting the matter. In any immediate sense, the areas in which NATO action has been proposed or contemplated in recent years, including the Balkans and the Persian Gulf, are much more vital to Europe than they are to the United States. The Balkans, after all, are in Europe, and Europe is also more dependent on energy imports from the Gulf than is the United States. A similar point can be made about the whole problem of Islamic fundamentalism, which bears on policy toward Iran as well as the Balkans: tension with Muslim minorities is much more of an issue for Europe than it is for America.

Of course, to say that America’s interest in those regions is not as immediate as Europe’s is not to say that America has no interest. To the contrary, there is a good reason why so many Americans are concerned about events there and elsewhere. It has to do with the bitter lessons of World War II, which taught us to define American interests in a broader and more contingent sense. Ever since then, American policy has been guided by the idea that it is wiser to work for a more peaceful, freer, and more stable world than to wait until trouble comes knocking on our door. Which is to say that the new missions that NATO might undertake if Washington has its way would indeed serve American interests—in the same way NATO’s old mission did.

In theory, the old NATO was a mutual defense pact. But in fact there was no mutuality in it: NATO was designed to defend Western Europe against a Soviet attack, which the United States was pledged to repulse. American policy was not altruistic, however. It was based on the sound calculation that if Western Europe fell under Soviet domination, America would be put at a severe disadvantage and would ultimately be endangered itself.

Similar reasoning now underlies the proposal that NATO prepare to confront new threats. Discouraging aggression, terrorism, weapons proliferation, ethnic conflict, mass murder—these are American interests and European interests at once. And just as the case for an enduring American interest in Europe entails contingencies more remote and speculative than those of the cold war, it also points to the European interest in issues and places beyond Europe’s own borders and immediate self-defense.



The peevish resentment of American preeminence and the reluctance to connect one’s own security to the general peace are two sides of the coin of selfish nationalism that Europeans like to believe they have transcended. That they (and others) should feel some envy of America is inevitable. As Der Spiegel put it: “Never before in modern history has a country dominated the earth so totally as the United States does today.” But insofar as Europeans find intolerable the imbalance between America’s power and their own, there is only one remedy consistent with the role of an ally. That is to build themselves up, not to pull America down.

Europe possesses wealth and population equal to America’s, but it has not chosen to forge them into comparable sinews of geopolitics. It is, for example, well within Europe’s means to strengthen its military forces. It currently spends about 2.2 percent of GDP on defense, one-third less than the share it allocated at the end of the cold war and one-third less than the United States allocates today.

What inhibits the Europeans? Those among them who think about the matter tend to believe the critical factor is lack of unity. This same belief, indeed, underlay the drive for a common currency and a common foreign and security policy. But it may be wide of the mark. In the Bosnian crisis, conflicts between Germany on the one hand and Britain and France on the other largely disappeared by the time the bloodshed began. For three years after that, Western Europe was on the whole united—united, that is, behind policies of weakness and cowardice. Nor has the EU evinced much disharmony over its utterly fruitless policy of trying to appease the Iranian regime in the name of “critical dialogue.”

These two examples suggest that what Europe needs if it is to become more of a force in international politics is not so much unity as courage. Instead of dispatching to Bosnia impotent, blue-helmeted peacekeepers who in the end served only as Serbian hostages, the Europeans might have mustered the fortitude to defeat Serbian aggression, which surely they had the means to do. Had they so acted, they would be more powerful today—and the balance of strength within NATO would be different.

Védrine has summoned Europe to rally its “courage”—its “nerves of steel”—against the United States. But the courage to stand up to someone who wants to be your friend is like the courage of an adolescent taunting his parents. A truer demonstration of European courage would be tough action against sponsors of terrorism or enemies of Western interests and values like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Serbia’s Milosevic.

Ironically, the American proposal to redefine NATO’s mission, received so coolly in Europe, might in fact contribute to European empowerment by establishing the principle of fighting for common ideals (just as, no less ironically, the rush to European integration may compound military weakness unless love of continent can truly replace love of country). Cooperating to address challenges in a wider geographic area would also put Europe on a more equal footing with America; it is when the two collaborate solely to defend Europe alone that Europe becomes a kind of protectorate.



To be sure, if the European response has been shortsighted, the United States can hardly claim that its leadership has brilliantly illuminated the path to a rejuvenated Western alliance. On those occasions when President Clinton has not ignored foreign policy altogether, he has approached it through the prism of domestic politics—including, as it seemed at the time, impeachment politics. This encourages Europeans to look cynically upon American pronouncements of high principle. No less harmful is the President’s penchant for commercial diplomacy: by using his office to win contracts for U.S. firms at the expense of their European competitors in places like China, Clinton has undercut U.S. moral authority. Finally, the administration’s long record of empty threats toward Iraq, Serbia, China, and others has hardly held up a model of courage.

But whatever the deficiencies of U.S. leadership, for Europeans it is playing with fire to expect that America will long endure peacetime “allies” whose tacit and sometimes explicit aim is to weaken us, to cut us down to size. For if NATO crumbles, they will suffer most. It was only the American presence in Europe in the decades after the close of World War II that put to rest the all-against-all insecurity that had such tragic consequences in the first half of this century. Even today, most Europeans still do not seem very confident they have surmounted the patterns of the past. As Margaret Thatcher revealed in her memoirs, both she and French President François Mitterrand sought to impede the reunification of Germany: four decades of the Bonn republic had not canceled the memory of other Germanies.

But we ourselves would hardly escape unscathed. The collapse of our foremost alliance might well propel the American people on a path of isolationism they would have cause to regret. If things went badly in Europe, our actions would surely come back to haunt us as they have done more than once before.

It would be pleasant to think that wiser heads among the European powers will prevail over sorer heads, just as it would be pleasant to think that, at the forthcoming summit, American and European leaders alike will face up to the risks and especially the sacrifices that will be required if NATO is to continue to be a bulwark of the peace. Pleasant, but—given the combination of European irresponsibility and the Clinton administration’s live-for-the-moment approach to foreign policy—unlikely.


About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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