Will Europe Ruin NATO?

Oct. 1, 2000

Last July 14, the largest Western military parade of the year took place, as always, in Paris. The huge throng of Bastille Day marchers wound its way through the center of the capital and down the Champs Elysees, much as it has done in preceding years. In a notable break with tradition, however, French troops this time were joined by foreign contingents. Soldiers of eight other European nations marched in the streets, even as British Jaguar and German Tornado fighters roared overhead.

The alteration was no accident. The Bastille Day parade was a symbolic gesture meant to emphasize and celebrate the birth of a distinctly European military force to back the continent’s vast economic and diplomatic power.

Indeed, as France began its six-month presidency of the European Union, Paris made it a top priority to follow through on commitments to forge a strictly European corps of up to 60,000 troops ready to deploy to a world hot spot by 2003. In what was seen as a precedent-setting move in that direction, the five-nation European Corps headquarters took command earlier this year of the 46,000 NATO forces in Kosovo, 80 percent of which are European.

France is the most passionate promoter of this distinct European Security and Defense Identity (ESDI). “The European Union must make its voice heard more clearly on the international stage,” French President Jacques Chirac declared in a recent speech. “We have conviction, as well as courage. But our commitment lacks coherence, and, it must be said, Europe’s action does not have a high profile.”

The dream of a distinctly European foreign policy and defense identity has inspired the French at least since the times of President Charles De Gaulle, who in 1966 withdrew France from NATO’s integrated military command structure in reaction to the preponderant US role in the Alliance. Today, however, the vision is endorsed not only in Paris but also in London, Brussels, and even Washington.

After last year’s successful launch of the euro, the common European monetary unit, European Union officials headquartered in Brussels are brimming with confidence and anxious to match their growing economic and diplomatic clout with military might. Though long skeptical of any European initiatives that could jeopardize its “special relationship” with the United States, Britain under Prime Minister Tony Blair has become a key proponent of ESDI.

Clinton Administration officials, meanwhile, see the ESDI process as the most promising way to motivate European allies to modernize their military forces and shoulder more of the West’s defense burden.

Unanswered Questions

“There should be no confusion about America’s position on the need for a stronger Europe,” said Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott at a NATO conference shortly after the unveiling of the ESDI plan last December. “We are not against. We are not ambivalent. We are not anxious. We are for it. We want to see a Europe that can act effectively through the Alliance, or, if NATO is not engaged, on its own.”

Even so, US officials and lawmakers are troubled by a number of specific and as-yet-unanswered questions. Among them:

Will the effort to create EU crisis management and military staffs and separate European headquarters bring wasteful duplication that drains resources and energy from NATO

Will the creation of a distinct European defense identity lead to a decline in the commitment of European states to NATO as the primary security agency of first resort in times of crisis

Is that very outcome–the decline of NATO–an unspoken European goal, especially in France

How will the EU reconcile its views with those of non-European Union NATO allies such as Turkey and Norway, who could conceivably be asked to bail out an errant EU-led operation despite having had little say in its launching

How can an EU renowned for bureaucracy, fractiousness, and tenacity on trade issues develop the instinct for trans-Atlantic cooperation and consensus that has proved critical to the success of NATO for the past 50 years

Most importantly, why should one believe that the Europeans will finally, this time, manage to find the money and political backbone to turn their defense and foreign policy ambitions into reality

“The Europeans have raised the bar pretty high,” said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Whether they go over it or under it, there are likely to be consequences.”

If Europeans fail to live up to their rhetoric and dramatically undershoot their military force goals, the political fiasco could reinforce calls by NATO skeptics in Washington for a US disengagement from the affairs of Europe. “If this is handled badly from a public relations standpoint, it could well fuel a growing sense of isolationism in the United States,” said Biden. “That’s why it’s so important that the Europeans stay the course in terms of dollar and troop commitments to Kosovo and with ESDI.”

Defining Moment

Historic and at times harrowing events over the past two years have conspired to accelerate Europe’s campaign for unified, autonomous positions in foreign affairs and defense.

One significant boost came in December 1998, when Blair and Chirac issued the St. Malo declaration on European defense. The accord stated in unequivocal terms that “the [European] Union must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them, and a readiness to do so in order to respond to international crises.”

Simon Serfaty, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, saw the declaration as a pivotal moment. “St. Malo was important because it signaled a change in traditional stances on the part of both Great Britain and France,” he said. “Because Britain was now a leader in the effort, it also assuaged US concerns.”

Blair managed to mute London’s own traditional skepticism about such a Eurocentric force. He claimed–convincingly–that it was the only thing that would prod European nations to make the military investments necessary and that the United States had been demanding.

“The French have also taken great pains in recent years to emphasize that they now believe a European defense force should be developed with NATO, rather than outside the Alliance,” said Serfaty.

Realization of the long-held dream of a common European currency also gave the 15 EU member states confidence they could indeed surmount monumental challenges in the name of unity. The value of the euro dropped 14 percent after its introduction–and a number of key EU members such as Britain have yet to adopt it–but participating members are on schedule to fully abandon their national currencies in favor of the euro in 2002.

The dual goals of monetary union and common foreign and security policy originated in the same document, the Treaty on European Union, drawn up in December 1991 and known as the Maastricht Treaty. It has largely charted Europe’s post-Cold War course toward greater unity.

“One reason the United States is now taking the concept of ESDI more seriously is because the Europeans actually introduced the euro, despite a lot of naysayers who insisted it would never happen,” said Serfaty. “And once you get the money right, it’s natural to start working on the foreign policy and military force pieces of the puzzle.”

Flexing Muscles

The growing confidence with which the European Union has been flexing its muscles in foreign affairs and security matters has been clearly evident in recent months.

Take, for example, the Austrian case. When Austria, an EU member, installed a coalition government that included the far-right Freedom Party of Nazi-sympathizer Joerg Haider, the EU took the unprecedented step of threatening sanctions designed to isolate Austria diplomatically.

In other assertive moves, European Courts of Justice and of Human Rights struck down laws in Germany banning female soldiers from jobs involving weapons and a British law banning gays in the military, thus raising questions of national sovereignty and provoking controversial showdowns on two issues that have bedeviled US military policy for years. Rather than fight the courts, both EU countries moved with little fanfare to bring their militaries into compliance with the rulings.

NATO’s 50th anniversary summit in Washington in 1999 was notable for having codified the quid pro quo at the heart of the European drive for its own security arrangement. Washington endorsed ESDI and proposed procedures whereby NATO might transfer assets to an EU-led operation if the Alliance opted out. The Europeans, in turn, pledged themselves to a Defense Capabilities Initiative to close a trans-Atlantic gap in defense capabilities and advanced military technologies.

The 1999 war in Kosovo added urgency to both impulses. European leaders were unsettled to find themselves embroiled in a shooting war whose outcome was wholly dependent on the actions of a nation whose President had for months been in the grip of impeachment and whose national legislature seemed unsupportive of the war effort. Suddenly, the Europeans were forced to think seriously about what would happen in a crisis should America not answer the bell. This nightmare vision made some Europeans determined to develop their own defense wherewithal.

Kosovo also forced American and European officials to face the fact that a great gap had opened up in technological prowess and power projection capabilities of the two sides-a gap so great as to have created, in essence, a two-tier Alliance. Out of necessity, US forces conducted 90 percent of the precision airstrikes in Kosovo, and the United States supplied an overwhelming proportion of the required command and control, intelligence, reconnaissance, strategic lift, and logistics.

“The Kosovo air campaign demonstrated just how dependent the European allies had become on US military capabilities,” remarked Lord George Robertson, NATO secretary general.

Robertson further noted that the Europeans became major contributors only after hostilities ended. (They supplied most of the on-the-ground peacekeepers.) Whether it was precision-guided weapons or all-weather aircraft, ground troops able to reach a crisis quickly or battle management systems, the Europeans were found lacking.

The danger was put bluntly by Robertson. He said, “We must avoid … a two-class NATO, with a precision class and a bleeding class. That would be politically unsustainable.”

Devilish Details

After fully endorsing ESDI in principle at the Washington summit in 1999, US officials began riding herd on the process to try to ensure that the Europeans lived up to their commitments as part of the plan and to ensure that the process did not lead to rifts between NATO and the EU.

There have been annoying moments. For example, Clinton Administration officials were alarmed last year by diplomatic language that emerged from an EU summit in Cologne in June 1999. It seemed to suggest that the Europeans were backing away from the bedrock principle that NATO, and not the EU, would remain the option of first resort in times of future crisis. When EU officials also seemed reluctant to formalize consultations between the EU and NATO, US officials immediately suspected the French of reverting to form and once again trying to keep the United States at arm’s length on European security deliberations.

Amb. Alexander Vershbow, the permanent US representative to NATO, chided his European counterparts on the point. “Sometimes one suspects that there are fears on the part of some members of the EU–[French Strategic Affairs Director] Regis de Belenet may want to comment on this–that if the NATO-EU connection were established too soon, the United States would somehow pollute or contaminate the EU’s internal workings. It’s as if the United States were some kind of computer virus that, once let in the door, would cause a complete meltdown of the EU’s ability to make decisions.”

Vershbow later developed this theme in an interview. “We did sense a real disconnect between the Washington summit and the EU summit in Cologne,” he said, “and it’s taken quite some time to get things back on track. There are still some potential pitfalls we haven’t solved that fall under the heading of unfinished business.”

Vershbow went on, “We must preserve the important principle that NATO remains the option of first resort in security matters. The US has to establish how non-EU allies such as Turkey and Norway will be included in their deliberations on possible EU-led operations. And we need to formalize the NATO-EU connection.”

The most delicate unfinished business concerns whether Europeans will match their muscular rhetoric with resources and political willpower.

There’s no getting around the fact that, nearly two years after the emergence of ESDI, most European defense budgets remain flat. Germany has even proposed significant defense cuts. Many European armed forces also remain largely configured for the Cold War, with inadequate strategic lift and logistics capability and bloated personnel rosters. In 1999, personnel expenses consumed a stultifying 61 percent of European defense budgets, compared to only 39 percent of US defense spending. Unavoidably, the large force sizes leave little money for modernization. In 1999, the US spent 24 percent of its defense budget on new systems. The corresponding figure in the EU was 14 percent.

Doing What Europeans Do

Vershbow noted, “The important thing is that the Europeans not use smoke and mirrors to reach their goals, because already there are signs that they may be using some accounting tricks. The Europeans are now talking the talk, but they’re not yet walking the walk.”

Concern about trans-Atlantic burden-sharing–a perennial flash point in Congress–flared anew this past spring. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen traveled to Munich to complain that the European allies were tardy in supplying 4,000 civilian police and $36 million in reconstruction funds they had promised for Kosovo. Following up, outraged Senators attached a provision to a defense bill setting a July 2001 deadline for the withdrawal of all US forces from Kosovo and threatening a major reduction in funds for the Kosovo operation. Ultimately the bill was defeated but not before greatly alarming European allies.

“The concern I have raised with our European colleagues was that this problem in Kosovo comes on top of a dangerous pattern of defense budget cuts in Europe,” Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said in an interview. “They’re talking about new defense structures and ESDI, but that begs the question of where the resources are going to come from when their defense budgets are declining. At the same time, we Americans need to be careful not to prematurely drive a stake in the heart of ESDI, because we should encourage our allies to take a serious look at their collective defense capabilities.”

In June, NATO Secretary General Robertson traveled to Washington to argue that European allies had gotten the message. He also stressed that the same forces the Europeans have pledged to upgrade as part of a deployable 60,000-troop Eurocorps would also be available to NATO if the Alliance decided to take the lead of an operation.

“I believe we have turned the corner and are now winning the argument over reduced defense budgets in Europe,” Robertson said, speaking to defense reporters. “There are very few European countries now contemplating defense cuts, and the majority are actively reshaping their armed forces. That reflects the alarm bells we in Europe still hear ringing in our ears over the Kosovo conflict. We in Europe recognize that we have to rebalance the Alliance to meet future threats.”

Beneath the wrangling over defense expenditures lies a less obvious but deep-seated anxiety within NATO over the bureaucratic culture of the European Union.

When ESDI was envisioned, plans called for all-European operations to be handled by the Western European Union, a much smaller organization that specialized in security issues. Last year, national leaders chose to subsume the WEU to the EU, which itself has laid out an aggressive agenda to expand to as many as 20 countries in the next few years.

The Leviathan

Even with its current 15 members, the European Union already has a formidable reputation for spinning red tape and inducing inertia. Meanwhile, the EU’s executive body, known as the European Commission, was forced to resign en masse last year after publication of a 140-page report that detailed cronyism and financial irregularities.

US officials in Brussels in recent years have fought EU counterparts to bloody stalemates over trade issues ranging from “hush kits” on US aircraft to bananas and hormones in beef. That tradition of confrontation, if applied to sensitive and weighty trans-Atlantic security issues, could have disastrous repercussions.

“The EU is a huge institution with no culture in defense decision-making and a number of members like Ireland and Sweden with a tradition of neutrality,” said an official on NATO’s international staff. “Compared to the WEU–which was a small organization that had no grand aspirations–the EU is also much less modest. If ESDI is not managed very carefully, I can easily see fissures developing in relations between NATO and the EU.”

Publicly, the US continues to endorse ESDI as a way to increase European burden-sharing within the Alliance. Privately, senior US officials display significant ambivalence. They believe that the ESDI-ization process has gained nearly irreversible momentum. They further note that European success no less than failure would inevitably lead to a decline in US predominance in NATO. Europe would demand influence and senior military positions commensurate with its increased contribution.

That in itself could cause a serious political reaction in Congress. Said a top US officer at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Belgium: “My concern is that, if we don’t find exactly the right balance in this effort, this whole notion of a separate European defense identity could be leveraged by those in Washington who would like to bring US troops home from Europe.”

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger used to lament that there was no phone number a statesman could dial to speak to “Europe.” Trying to forge a common policy response from Europe’s fractious nations-even in the face of a monolithic Soviet threat–was no easy task. One positive result of the ESDI initiative, however, is that such a phone number now exists. Dial 285-5000, city code Brussels, and a phone will ring just off historic Schumanplatz at the center of the European Union’s vast headquarters complex, a sweeping structure of pink marble columns, glass-and-steel walls, and a stone courtyard that at once invokes old world splendor and new age aspirations. The ring will be answered at a new diplomatic crisis center near room 50DH 30, office of the man some experts have taken to simply calling “Mr. Europe.” His name is Javier Solana, a former Spanish politician and Secretary General of NATO who was named late last year as the first EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy.

“Does the United States now have a single phone number to get European Union opinion on defense and foreign policy issues?” he asked rhetorically. “I suppose my number will serve, at least as much as we in Europe have any single number to call in Washington, D.C., for similar discussions.”

Since taking office, Solana has argued forcefully that the events of the past year have propelled Europe beyond the point of no return in its long quest to match its vast economic power with political and military influence on the world stage.


As former Secretary General of NATO, however, Solana is determined to minimize the trans-Atlantic tensions. “Establishing a European Security and Defense Identity while still maintaining strong trans-Atlantic ties is not only possible, it’s imperative,” said Solana.

Solana is well aware that the US is skeptical of Europe’s commitment to reaching its goals. “Certainly if the European countries do not significantly improve their power projection and defense capabilities, they will not reach the capability to adequately conduct EU-led operations, or NATO operations for that matter,” he said. “No one denies that European forces that in the past focused on homeland defense will have to restructure to be able to deploy, much like US forces that have never had to worry about homeland defense have always been deployable. But I’m very hopeful they will improve those capabilities. The commitment of the European leaders is clear that this transformation must be made. It won’t happen in the next 24 hours, but it will happen.”

Solana pleads for the US, until then, to have patience. “We’re only months from the Helsinki summit, so of course all the formalities have not yet been worked out,” said Solana, stressing that the target date for creation of Europe’s rapid-reaction corps is 2003. The EU is committed to finding ways to include the considerations of non-EU allies in future decisions, he said, and is developing a formal mechanism for bilateral EU-NATO relations.

“And if anyone suggests that some conflict over trade or bananas will be allowed to undermine the trans-Atlantic alliance and the common values and fundamental security partnership that we share, they have a very narrow view of what the Alliance is all about,” Solana added. “As for the European Union itself, which is something absolutely new and unprecedented in history, I think it will prove a necessary element of stability if we want a globalized world that is ruled by law and not the law of the jungle.”

In the meantime, US officials in Brussels already have seen at least one positive result of Europe’s quest for a foreign policy and defense identity all its own. In the past, much to the chagrin of the US diplomatic corps, the European Union offices would simply close up during the holidays without even a skeleton staff. When a fairly urgent dispatch arrived on the desk of an official at the US Embassy last Christmas, however, he decided on a lark to dial 285-5000 to pass it along to the Europeans. To his ever-lasting surprise and delight, someone actually answered the phone.

James Kitfield is the defense correspondent for National Journal in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Long Deployment,” appeared in the July 2000 issue.