The Conservative Case for NATO Reform

Report Europe

The Conservative Case for NATO Reform

May 8, 2002 15 min read
John Hulsman
Former Senior Research Fellow
John is a former Senior Research Fellow.

Without question the single most underreported story to emerge in the wake of September 11 was the non-use of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the counter-terrorist response. With great fanfare, America's European allies invoked Article V of the Treaty of Washington, which states that an attack on one member of NATO should be construed as an attack on all. This image of the Three Musketeers was quickly belied by the American response to European overtures: Thanks, but no thanks. Washington saw the alliance as simply not worth the bother. The reasons behind this polite refusal should gravely concern NATO proponents on both sides of the Atlantic.

Such a public breakdown of the central relevance of NATO merely confirmed what many of us have been warning for years. It signaled that the long-term rot at the heart of NATO--the burden-sharing/power-sharing controversy--has finally led to unquestionable damage. For 50 years an unhealthy dynamic has persisted, with America urging Europe to spend more for its defense, the allies resenting perceived American bullying, and the U.S. in turn resenting continual European inaction. During the Cold War, the geopolitical reality ensured that America rightly defended Europe as a key arena in its global contest with the Soviet Union, regardless of anemic Western European defense spending. This was a fact most Western European leaders were well aware of, allowing them to generally disregard Washington's pleas for more equitable burden-sharing. However, with the end of the Cold War and the coming of the war against terror, America's geopolitical imperatives have changed, while European defense spending habits have not. The result has been an alliance that is in danger of not being interoperable, that possesses a cumbersome decision-making structure, and that places around 85 percent of the total NATO capability on one pillar. It is little wonder that Washington declined to use such a creaky defense edifice in meeting the most significant geopolitical challenge of the new era.

Rather than continuing to score debating points about the European failure to spend more than a pittance on defense, a new proactive argument must be advanced in the place of these old, stale nostrums if NATO is to survive and thrive in the new era. From an American realist point of view, such a new yardstick comes readily to hand. It is the bedrock notion of American national interest; that is: What sort of NATO does the U.S. want in the immediate future? The answer to this first-principle question will provide the definitive answers to a host of pressing issues now confronting the alliance. All too often this subset of concerns--the Combined Joint Task Force mechanism (CJTF), the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), NATO-Russia relations (NATO at 20 members), NATO enlargement--are seen as separate matters, rather than parts of a whole. If it is recognized that, at base, America wants NATO to 1) prove more politically and strategically flexible in the new era and 2) not encumber the U.S. when it chooses to act unilaterally, a new agenda for NATO reform will flow naturally from these first principles. Paradoxically, such an agenda also dovetails with European strategic goals, and is rooted in the reality of the present. NATO finds itself in the ruins of the burden-sharing/power-sharing argument. For NATO to survive, it must transcend it.

For in the new era, a two-tiered NATO is bound to emerge. While the Article V commitment will remain the sacrosanct first tier of NATO, it will function as a sort of life insurance, which while important, is unlikely to be needed in the near term. The second, more vibrant tier of the alliance will revolve around out-of-area missions, with coalitions of the willing emerging from Brussels as the likely military configuration of choice in the new era. This reality, combined with these new first-principle imperatives, leads to a clear picture of how NATO will need to be reformed to stay relevant.

NATO's Combined Joint
Task Force (CJTF) Initiative

Given the above criteria, the Combined Joint Task Force Initiative (CJTF) deserves enthusiastic NATO support because it allows for greater alliance flexibility in both decision-making and crisis-response. This corresponds entirely with the new drive to make NATO more relevant to the realities of the post-9/11 era. First endorsed at the Brussels NATO summit in January 1994, the CJTF enables coalitions of the willing to meet security challenges that do not threaten the primary security interests of all alliance members. Up to now, NATO's ossified decision-making structure allowed for only two political responses: either a member state decided to fully engage in a military mission or prevented one from occurring. CJTFs put a third option on the political table, while retaining America's ability to prevent the alliance from acting in ways contrary to seminal American national interests by retaining its consensus-blocking power over the alliance's operational and political directives. In an era where American and European interests are at best complementary, but certainly not identical, this "yes, but" option is imperative. Rather than dragging member states into secondary interest missions or forcing unopposed yet disinterested nations to prevent a mission from occurring altogether, CJTFs provide NATO with a third political answer through which both the European allies and the U.S. can decide not to stand in the way of a mission yet opt not to directly participate in it.

The CJTF initiative also enhances flexibility in mission operations by establishing flexible crisis response mechanisms. One such example is the mobile command and control centers, which can be deployed in territory or at sea with little local support and then vanish back into NATO headquarters in Europe when the mission is complete. In this way, NATO assets are retained, yet can be utilized as needed for out-of-area missions. CJTFs provide the best mechanism for conducting NATO coalitions of the willing in future out-of-area missions, facilitating the second tier of NATO, which is crucial to the survival of the alliance. Whether in the Balkans, the Caucasus, or Central Asia, NATO will face threats that require both strategic and political flexibility. CJTFs provide for this desperately needed fluidity.

The CJTF option has already proved useful. The Macedonian peacekeeping mission, for example, has been a de facto CJTF, with the Europeans contributing the vast majority of military forces, all of whom are using common NATO wherewithal. This is as it should be, as the crisis in Macedonia is undoubtedly of greater strategic importance to countries such as Italy and Germany than to the United States, which has been able to support the mission diplomatically without being militarily encumbered. Similarly, the European Security and Defense Policy is an institutionalized CJTF of sorts, working in tandem with the CJTF initiative's goal of furthering alliance flexibility.

European Security
and Defense Policy (ESDP)

The ESDP initiative arose from a 1998 conference in Saint Malo, France, at which European members of the alliance agreed to a proposal for defense cooperation conducted through the European Union in Brussels, the seat of European aspirations for greater unity and cooperation. At base, the ESDP initiative sought to provide Europeans with the military capability to conduct their own missions. ESDP received a political boost following the embarrassing military disparity revealed during the Kosovo air war, during which U.S. intelligence assets identified almost all the bombing targets in Serbia and Kosovo, U.S. aircraft flew two-thirds of the strike missions, and nearly every precision-guided missile was launched from an American aircraft. Technologically, the European contribution to the allied effort was deficient due to a lack of computerized weapons, night-vision equipment, and advanced communications resources.2 Chastened, the EU convened at the December 1999 Helsinki Summit to establish an institutional framework for the practical implementation of ESDP. Participating EU member states agreed that by 2003 they would be able, within 60 days of an order, to deploy a force of 60,000 rapid reaction troops that could be sustained in theater for at least a year. The Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) would possess the military ability to undertake the full array of Petersburg tasks, ranging from humanitarian aid to peacekeeping operations.

Despite absolutely no evidence that ESDP has led to an increase in European defense spending,3 the U.S. should conditionally support ESDP as part of the larger transatlantic reform initiative. Through economies of scale alone, the European allies are likely to marginally improve their moribund defense capabilities. While Western Europe's defense budget is almost two-thirds that of America's, it produces less than one-quarter of America's deployable fighting strength.4 There is no doubt that Europe spends far too little on its defense and that this deficiency is at the root of much that ails NATO. It is equally of little doubt that, given the financial strictures imposed by the stability pact of the euro on deficit spending, the political popularity in Europe of its over-generous safety net, and the bureaucratic dominance of finance ministers in the larger European states vis-à-vis defense ministers (Eichel-Scharping, Fabius-Richard, Brown-Hoon), there is no prospect of European defense spending significantly increasing in the near term. The ESDP initiative should be viewed by American policymakers as being a relatively minor but useful initiative that may help slightly reduce the capability gap, all the while accepting Europe's budgetary realities.

Even here, caveats are necessary. U.S. support should be conditional, resting on the assurance that NATO retains the de facto right of first refusal in a crisis and the majority of planning remains within the control of the alliance. ESDP should augment NATO, not emerge as a rival to it. Clearly, if the European allies meet their Helsinki requirements, ESDP will serve key U.S. and European interests by making the alliance more flexible while not threatening American dominance over transatlantic military issues.

European nations are only now in the process of adapting their militaries to the challenges of modern warfare. Instead of maintaining obsolete Cold War force structures, the Europeans must concentrate on buying unglamorous but essential items that will correct their deficiencies in lift, logistics and command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence (C4I) to make their forces capable of mastering the 21st century battlefield. Through economies of scale, ESDP may be the only practical hope for the Europeans to remain in the technological game, allowing NATO to preserve a degree of interoperability, so crucial to the genuine functioning of any military alliance.

America's greatest fear must be not that Europe will do too much through ESDP, but that it will continue to do too little. American policymakers are becoming impatient with Europe's lackluster approach to shoring up their share of the NATO burden. ESDP can be part of the transatlantic reform process through forging a marginally more equitable capabilities partnership between the U.S. and European members. Conditional support of Europe's ESDP initiative fits in well with what should be the two cardinal principles underlying American views of any NATO reform: that it promotes alliance flexibility and does so without significantly limiting American military options.

"NATO at 20"

In recognition of their increasing strategic rapprochement, NATO and Russia agreed this past December to move forward toward the creation of a new NATO-Russian deliberative body, the NATO-Russia Council. The Council, also known as "NATO at 20," aims to grant Russia a closer role with the alliance through the establishment of a joint decision-making forum to cope with a variety of common security concerns, such as those relating to terrorism, proliferation, and regional conflict response. A new institutional relationship with Russia dovetails with overall American desires to make the alliance more flexible and relevant in the post-9/11 era by recognizing the broadened scope of the rapprochement between Moscow and Washington. NATO hopes to flesh out the new initiative by the May 2002 meeting of alliance ministers in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Currently, disputes over the scope and the power of the Council remain unresolved. The least sweeping proposal on the table seeks to render the new Council as a replica of the current Russia-NATO permanent joint council, amounting to little more than a talking shop. The most sweeping option, initially favored by Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain, would allow for direct Russian participation in NATO decision-making on a semi-permanent basis, whenever certain issues, such as non-proliferation, are discussed. Such a stance would give Russia a semi-permanent role in the alliance, allowing it to obstruct many fundamental aspects of NATO decision-making. Whereas the first option fails to give NATO the added strategic flexibility closer ties with Russia might bring, the second allows the Putin government the prospect of hamstringing NATO decision-making. The U.S. would be wise to reject both of these extremes, as they do not enhance American strategic options.

Instead, NATO should adopt a prudent middle ground that recognizes the potential for collaborative opportunities with Russia, yet places safeguards on the scope of Russian involvement with the alliance. Such a policy establishes an issue-by-issue approach that would allow Russian participation in NATO decision-making only when all NATO members deemed it appropriate and only in reference to the specific issue at hand. For example, if the 19 decided to take a decision about proliferation matters regarding Iran, they could well collectively conclude that Russian involvement served alliance interests. Russia would then enter into NATO discussions on Iranian proliferation with the same rights and privileges as any other NATO member for the duration of that initiative. After a decision had been taken, NATO would resume deliberations without any direct Russian involvement.

To ensure that this process would not be made at the crest of a very slippery slope leading to NATO's obsolescence, the following stipulations should be agreed upon by May. First, Russia must not be able to block issues that involve military decisions. Second, NATO must withhold from Russia the Article V guarantee reserved for full NATO members. Third, NATO must retain its right of retrieval, allowing the U.S. or any member of the alliance to withdraw an issue from NATO deliberation if consensus is unattainable at the "20" member gathering. Such safeguards will ward off any efforts to encumber America in a decision-making quagmire.

By following its new first principles regarding the alliance, the U.S. should proceed cautiously and patiently, lest it sacrifice alliance security in its haste to foster closer cooperation with Russia. NATO-Russian relations are at their most promising, and closer ties with Moscow should be viewed by American decision-makers as an opportunity rather than as a problem. However, while NATO-Russian relations are warming, it would be foolish to gamble NATO autonomy on six months of Russian good behavior or, conversely, undermine the burgeoning NATO-Russia relationship by failing to recognize the evolution of the partnership.

NATO Expansion

As NATO considers another round of enlargement this fall, it must ensure that doing so contributes to this new strategic doctrine of flexibility. Given the evolving two-tiered de facto structure of the alliance, creating a larger pool of NATO countries should further opportunities for the successful operation of coalitions of the willing. But while the current yardsticks for new NATO members--the Membership Action Plan (MAP) and the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program--ensure that new members are functioning democracies that share alliance values, maintain secure borders, and attempt to develop interoperable forces, an additional standard must be established. New NATO members should be brought into the alliance only if they recognize that its remit runs beyond Article V; that many of today's threats to transatlantic security come from outside of Europe, and that they are both willing and able to develop capabilities to allow them to contribute to coalition operations out-of-area as well as on the Continent.

NATO's response to the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11 demonstrated that the alliance has far too many members who are willing to sign bold declarations, such as invoking Article V, but are then either unwilling or unable to undertake substantive military action. If the alliance is to make a meaningful contribution to transatlantic security in the 21st century, it must be able to fight collectively, not just sign pieces of paper. The alliance's approach to expansion should not be to bring everybody into the club and then try to mold them into good NATO members, but to help the accession countries become fitting candidates prior to their joining.

Current provisions of the MAP can be better tailored to aid candidates in developing their force abilities through emphasizing a sector-by-sector approach to interoperability. As many of the current states in the queue (Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Slovenia) are relatively small with limited budgets and are unlikely to field a modern air force or have advanced satellite reconnaissance capabilities in the near future, these candidates should instead be judged on their ability to develop resources that would be useful to future coalitions of the willing, and the out-of-area missions they may undertake. For example, ensuring that field hospitals, military police, rapid reaction forces, and similar units have the appropriate training, equipment, and deployment capabilities will be extremely relevant to alliance needs. Doing less in terms of numbers of troops deployed, but doing it at a higher technological level will ensure alliance interoperability into the future. As long as entering members begin to possess the mission operations ability and willingness to countenance out-of-area missions, a large NATO expansion, perhaps allowing for the Baltic states, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia, supports the underlying American first principles of enhancing strategic flexibility while limiting the ability of NATO to encumber the U.S. As many of the Central and Eastern European states tend to politically be more in-sync with America than with the Western Europeans, enlargement can be seen as a way to significantly increase the number of possible partners for the U.S. in conducting coalitions of the willing. Such an expansion policy is an integral part of the program for overall NATO reform.

Away from the old theology, towards a new realism

The rhetoric behind the burden-sharing/power-sharing debate, the snake in the garden for NATO since its inception, has proven particularly virulent since the advent of the war on terror. For NATO is nowhere near as useless as its detractors suggest, nor is it as seminal as its proponents blithely assert. What is needed is a new syntax to discuss the post-9/11 alliance that moves away from the stale theology that itself is impeding successful reform of NATO. A clear-eyed realism must take the place of absolutist positions about the alliance. In the new era, NATO will be an important politico-military option on both American and European policymakers' menus, while ceasing to be the only game in town. Coalitions of the willing, both within and outside the alliance, are destined to emerge as the military configuration of choice. NATO, having proven remarkable adaptable throughout its history, must again shed its skin, becoming more flexible and less encumbering in order to function as a forum where coalitions of the willing can be easily assembled between various members of the transatlantic partnership. This is a more instrumentalist version of the alliance that does away with much of the pseudo-sanctity surrounding NATO, but practically will ensure its usefulness well into the future. Such a coalition reform policy is perhaps the best way to handle the drift in European-American relations, a process that can only be managed if it is first acknowledged. On both sides of the Atlantic, it is simply time to grow up about NATO.

John C. Hulsman, Ph.D. is Research Fellow for European Affairs in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. He spoke at the Bulgarian Atlantic Club, Sofia, Bulgaria, on April 9, 2002.

1. The author would like to thank Michael Scardaville, Rachel Prager, Paul Skoczylas, Kimberly Thompson, and Carrie Satterlee for their valuable help in the preparation of this lecture.

2. See John C. Hulsman, "A Grand Bargain with Europe: Preserving NATO for the 21st Century," The Georgetown Public Policy Review, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Fall 2000).

3. In fact much evidence to the contrary exists. According to NATO, in 2000 the U.S. spent around 3 percent of GDP on defense; France, 2.5 percent; Britain, 2.25 percent; Italy, 1.9 percent; Germany, 1.5 percent; and Spain, 1.25 percent, with the NATO average a paltry 1.5 percent. See "If Only Words Were Guns," The Economist, November 24, 2001, p. 47.

4. Bruce Clark, "Armies and Arms," The Economist, April 24, 1999, p. 12


John Hulsman

Former Senior Research Fellow