BERLIN -- When the best and brightest of the U.S. foreign policy community think about United States-Europe relations, they reflexively designate the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as the institution for transatlantic cooperation. These scholars, diplomats, and politicians--from both parties--are America's Atlanticists. Unlike the neo-conservatives, they think in multilateral terms, value the Europeans as long-standing allies, and believe in international law. In the two-party system there is virtually no one to their left who advocates an alternative. President-elect Barack Obama is certainly no exception. Yet the Atlanticists err by clinging so stubbornly to NATO. As much as it has struggled to reinvent itself since the days of the East-West conflict, NATO remains a U.S.-dominated military alliance with a Cold War mindset. Not only is NATO ill-equipped to confront the plurality of new challenges in the post-Cold War (and now post-American) order, but it has become counterproductive to the task it was originally created to do, namely to guarantee security in Europe.
President Obama would be well served to rethink fundamentally America's relationship to Europe: he should move toward a strategic partnership of equals with the European Union and entertain the possibility of new forums to address transatlantic and global security threats. In the long-term, a close, respectful working relationship with the EU would enhance America's own security and enable it to engage much more effectively in a multipolar world. Perhaps most critically, the alliance has to make way for a new pan-European security system that includes--not excludes--Russia.
America's long-standing preference for NATO as the transatlantic institution of choice has several explanations. For one, it had arguably--at least until Afghanistan--a record of success. It helped the West win the Cold War without firing a shot (on the European continent.) NATO's job, as British secretary-general Lord Ismay famously put it in 1967, was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." But rather than close up shop with a resounding "mission accomplished" in the early 1990s after the Berlin Wall came down, the 1949-vintage pact sought to find a new purpose.
Because the Europeans on their own lacked the military hardware necessary to wage war against Serbian nationalists, NATO led the humanitarian interventions in Bosnia in 1995 and against Milosevic's Serbia in 1999. The same year as the latter campaign, on NATO's fiftieth anniversary, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland became the first former Warsaw pact countries to join NATO, over Russia's stiff objections. In the years that followed, the Baltic states plus Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania joined. The September 11 attacks drew NATO into the Bush administration's war on terror, prompting the first ever invocation of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, the clause in NATO's founding document ascertaining that an armed attack against one member shall be considered an attack against all of them. Although the United States and Great Britain circumvented NATO tO topple the Taliban government in late 2001, two years later NATO took its operations outside of Europe for the first time in the form of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Today the NATO-led force includes 50,000 troops from 40 countries, including all 27 of the NATO allies.
Given the East-West stalemate during the postwar decades, it was possible for NATO allies to work together in the name of collective defense, despite the many differences of opinion within the pact. Leaving aside the question of the nature of the Soviet threat (archives in Moscow turned up no plans for an invasion), the United States and the Western Europeans concurred that the Soviet Union was indeed the enemy. Although the United States set the agenda and the Western Europeans were effectively junior partners, the principle of collective decision-making was formally respected. And since it never came to a shooting war, Article 5 was never tested. Thus, on the surface at least, relative harmony prevailed and NATO emerged victorious.
Moreover, in the aftermath of the Cold War there were no obvious alternatives to keep the United States and Europe close once American troops withdrew and the nuclear umbrella became irrelevant. Creating a new body was beyond the imagination of Washington's foreign policymakers at the time. (There had been discussion of replacing the institutions of the East-West conflict with a collective pan-European security architecture that would include Russia. A wholesale revamping of the Convention on Security and Cooperation on Europe (CSCE) was one option taken seriously by the Western Europeans and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the time, but never followed up.) Lastly, because it was and would remain primarily a military organization, NATO was one institution that the United States, with its nuclear arsenal and vast military superiority, would be certain to continue to dominate.
Yet by transforming the alliance into an agency for addressing international crises of all kinds, NATO'S advocates have only called greater attention to its inadequacy for the twenty-first century. NATO'S new "comprehensive approach" to security endows it with a catch-all mandate that changes as new threats or missions arise and has grown to include responsibilities that go far beyond the exercise of military force. But while its mandate has changed, its tools and thinking have not.
There is no better example than NATO's flagship mission in Afghanistan, where the alliance is confronted with civilian, policing, and humanitarian duties that it cannot possibly fulfill. Most of the European NATO member states in Afghanistan argue that stability is only going to be achieved through a strategy that combines education, rule of law programs, economic aid, and infrastructure projects. They underscore that the purpose of the international mission is to facilitate a handover to the Afghans and to create conditions for reconstruction. In contrast, the Americans, they charge, treat the mission foremost as an extension of the war on terror, their single-minded pursuit of the Taliban and the collateral damage it entails nullifying the goodwill and cooperation that the Europeans have tried to nurture. Germany and Spain point out, for example, that Afghan poppy production--and Afghanistan's bumper crops--cannot be checked by military might, and that air strikes on poor Afghan farmers could well backfire, costing the endeavor ever more hearts and minds. But counternarcotics is, as of October 2008, another category that has been added to NATO'S to-do list.
Even in the training of Afghanistan's armed forces, NATO has been overwhelmed. But as much discord as there is in the alliance over strategy, there is consensus that the Afghanistan mission is make-or-break for NATO and that, at the moment, the latter appears the more likely outcome.
The war in Afghanistan is only the most egregious illustration of NATO'S dilemma. Whether it is cyberwar, peacekeeping, international terrorism, or energy security, NATO is invoked by Atlanticists as the go-to institution, overburdening it yet further with new responsibilities beyond its capacities. According to the Dutch political scientist Peter van Ham, "NATO'S instruments have become blunt and outdated in the light of today's non-traditional security challenges and techniques." Yet, he notes, contrary to expectations its portfolio has only expanded: "Whereas not too long ago the main question was how the European Union could use NATO'S military tools ... the debate is now how should NATO draw upon the resources of the European Union, the United Nations, the World Bank, as well as nongovernmental organizations."
Yet U.S. foreign policymakers have not considered new forums or mechanisms to address the new threats. Nor have the Europeans been particularly enterprising or ingenious. For them this is the comfortable path of least resistance: by putting these complex challenges in NATO'S hands one after another, they appear to have...