An Historic Moment for NATO

Report Europe

An Historic Moment for NATO

April 1, 2004 5 min read

Authors: Nile Gardiner and John Hulsman

President Bush this week welcomed the leaders of seven new North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members to the White House. In an historic ceremony, the President marked the enlargement of NATO to include the eastern European nations of Romania, the Slovak Republic, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. This is the second wave of NATO expansion, following the accession of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999, and brings the organization's total membership to 26.


In an age of global terrorism and rogue regimes developing weapons of mass destruction, the role of NATO remains vital. The recent bombings in Madrid have reinforced the need for greater transatlantic cooperation in the war against terror. The United States must ensure that NATO continues to remain the preeminent transatlantic security institution. The Bush Administration should work to prevent attempts in Europe to weaken the NATO command structure and call for Europe to play a greater role in Iraq, as part of a NATO-led security force.


NATO Must Remain the Keystone of European Security

European Gaullist efforts to establish a European defense identity separate from and in competition with NATO, continue to gain ground. Berlin Plus, the March 17, 2003, agreement between the United States and the EU that was designed to definitively resolve questions of compatibility between the two institutions[1], has been called into question by Franco-German efforts to set up a wholly separate EU planning structure.


During the height of European opposition to the U.S. stance on Iraq, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium called the viability of Berlin-Plus into doubt. They advocated the establishment of an independent EU military headquarters at Tervuren, Belgium, with an independent planning capacity. Beyond the obvious operational drawback that such an institutional arrangement would lead to unnecessary duplication with NATO, its ramifications are clear: the independent EU command would be wholly autonomous from NATO; and it would be the institutional expression of Franco-German efforts to lessen the American role in Europe. Ambassador Nicholas Burns, U.S. representative to NATO, rightly sounded the alarm, calling the proposal "the greatest threat to the future of the alliance."[2]


President Bush should strongly support the Berlin-Plus agreement and put to an end the seemingly inexhaustible maneuverings of European Gaullists to scupper American efforts to establish a complementary military arrangement between the United States and the EU, one in which NATO remains the preeminent transatlantic security institution. For the sake of the continued vitality of the alliance, he must make it clear that the duplication of planning by the new EU command is not remotely acceptable to the United States. Only by taking such a firm stand can the President finally bury this recurring threat to NATO.


A NATO Command For Iraq

The success of the NATO operation in Afghanistan bodes well for future operations outside of Europe. Since August 2003, NATO has been in charge of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, providing 90 percent of the 5,500-strong military presence.


With this successful Afghan precedent, Washington should call for NATO to take over command of Allied troops in Iraq after the June 30 handover. This should result in a greater willingness on the part of other European nations to contribute to the long-term security and stability of Iraq. Most of the new entrants to NATO have already stepped up to the plate by either contributing forces on the ground in Iraq or offering diplomatic and strategic support for the U.S.-led coalition.


The United States should lay down the gauntlet to Paris and Berlin and call on them to join the multinational effort to build a democratic and safe Iraq. Thus far, the critics led by French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac have not lifted a finger to help the people of Iraq, while carping disdainfully from the sidelines. NATO involvement in Iraq would allow continental Europe's two biggest powers, France and Germany, to be part of the solution in Iraq, and not part of the problem. It may also allow the new Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a face-saving opportunity to keep his forces in the country.


The Spanish demand, shared by their French and German allies, that the United Nations take over control of Coalition forces in Iraq is both unreasonable and unrealistic. While the U.N. does have an important advisory role to play in Iraq, including the training of election officials and the monitoring of elections, it should not have a military or dominant political role.[3] A handover of political and military power to the U.N. would be a strategic disaster.


A NATO command in Iraq is a far better alternative to giving the U.N. a bigger say in shaping the country's future. Unlike the U.N., NATO is a multinational organization that is run effectively and can project military power. NATO's track record, from the Balkans to Afghanistan, has been excellent and bodes well for any future intervention in Iraq.



The expansion of NATO represents a remarkable achievement for liberal democracy and the transatlantic alliance. Nations that only 15 years ago suffered under the yoke of Communist tyranny are now among the freest in the world. New NATO members such as Estonia have spectacularly eclipsed some of their "Old Europe" rivals in their level of economic freedom.


It is imperative that NATO remain the preeminent organization for ensuring security in Europe. The Cold War may be over, but NATO's role is just as important today as it was at its founding in 1949. The scourge of global terrorism poses as great a threat to the world's security as communism and fascism once did.


At the same time, NATO should have a major function outside the borders of Europe. A NATO presence in Iraq, combined with its operations in Afghanistan, will carve out a new role for the alliance as an effective international stabilization force.


Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is Fellow in Anglo-American Security Policy, and John Hulsman, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in European Affairs, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] Berlin-Plus seeks to avoid the unnecessary duplication of transatlantic resources and has four elements. First, it assures EU access to NATO operational planning. Second, it makes NATO capabilities and common assets available to the EU. Third, it makes the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (always a European), also commander of any EU-led operations. Fourth, it adapts the NATO defense planning system to allow for EU-run operations.


[2]"EU Military Plans Under Scrutiny," BBC News Online, October 21, 2003.


[3] See Nile Gardiner and James Phillips, "A Limited Role for the United Nations in Post-War Iraq," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 402, January 22, 2004.



Nile Gardiner
Nile Gardiner

Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow

John Hulsman

Former Senior Research Fellow