ESDP and NATO: Companions or Competitors?

In 1993, the United States began giving strong support to the development of a vigorous "European pillar" within the Atlantic Alliance. This pillar, being created as the European Union's new European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), would potentially draw upon NATO military capabilities and would be available to help the EU undertake certain tasks in circumstances where NATO--meaning the United States--chooses not to become engaged. The ESDP is a major step toward full European integration, in parallel with progress toward a Common Foreign and Security Policy. As ESDP develops a rapid reaction force, it can, in time, enable the European Union to take military action. But unless it is done correctly, ESDP risks severely weakening the ties of Atlantic Alliance. This is the argument of The European Security and Defense Policy: NATO's Companion - or Competitor?, a new publication by RAND Senior Advisor and former U.S. ambassador to NATO Robert E. Hunter. It delves into the ESDP's relationship to NATO and examines what must be done to ensure that the storehouse of European security is increased and transatlantic cohesion is preserved.

For the last several years, there has been intense debate across the Atlantic about the relationship between NATO and the ESDP. The United States supports ESDP, but on the basis that it is created within NATO, "separable but not separate" from the Alliance, and drawing mainly on NATO's military assets. In particular, Washington has been concerned that the Europeans will "unnecessarily duplicate" NATO's military capabilities, including the critical function of operational planning; that they will begin developing a "European caucus" within NATO that will detract from the effectiveness of its decision-making; and that, in the end, they will not spend enough money on defense to make a difference, while competing with NATO. The author argues that, on balance, for the United States the role of ESDP is strongly positive, provided that these problems can be resolved. Accordingly, he makes several recommendations, some of which have gained added importance following the events of September 11, 2001, and the new focus on countering terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.; below are just a few of these recommendations:

  • NATO First. There needs to be wholehearted, unambiguous European adherence to acting only "where NATO as a whole is not engaged". Many Europeans will resist the notion that this implies "NATO first", but as a practical matter, it is important for preserving cohesion of the Alliance.
  • Shared Risks/No Division of Labor. There needs to be reaffirmation of the cardinal NATO principle that risks are to be shared by all allies and that there must not emerge, formally or informally, a "division of labor" between NATO and EU/ESDP, except in relatively marginal operations outside of Europe - e.g., in Africa.
  • Cooperative Planning. Approaches to operational planning must not put NATO and ESDP at loggerheads. Methods of defense planning (i.e., developing forces over the long-term) must be mutually compatible, and cooperation should include shared contingency planning and crisis management.
  • Defense Spending and Capabilities. European governments need to commit themselves to keep defense spending up or, where it is falling, stop the slide. The European allies should avoid duplicating those NATO assets that would be available to the EU (through the ESDP) where these divert defense moneys away from other critical areas. But if the United States wants ESDP to avoid unnecessary duplication, it must reassure the Europeans that NATO would release NATO assets, including U.S. equipment operated by U.S. service members.
  • Interoperability. The EU under ESDP needs to concentrate its force modernization on interoperability with NATO military capabilities, especially within the Defense Capabilities Initiative (DCI). It is critical that two levels of interoperability do not develop - one for the United States and a handful of key European allies, and one for the rest. To this end, it is also critical that the United States share high technology with allies.
  • Political and Strategic Dialogues. Solid, sustained political and military dialogue between the EU - through the ESDP - and NATO and between national governments is needed. In particular, transatlantic agreement on "burden sharing" has been poisoned by different definitions of the term. A thoughtful dialogue is essential so that burden sharing does not increasingly become an irritant in transatlantic relations.
  • Cooperation on Terrorism. NATO and the EU need to create a common locus for counter-terrorism planning and coordination. This should entail a permanent coordinating staff and council involving both the EU and NATO, and including all the relevant parts of governments. Given the special need for U.S. leadership, direct engagement of the U.S. National Security Council process with this Transatlantic Counter-Terrorism Coordinating Council could pay major dividends.
  • Integrating different aspects of policy. An ongoing consultation between the European Union, NATO, and the United States on key policy issues including military, political/diplomatic, intelligence, finance, and judicial/police.

The author notes that "getting ESDP right" is a necessary goal on its own that requires sufficient leadership, understanding, and commitment on both sides of the Atlantic. But it is also essential for the allies to "get right" other critical matters, such as threats to allied territories from beyond Europe -- highlighted by the events of last September 11-- missile defenses, defense investments by European allies, NATO enlargement, and other issues. According to the author, fostering productive NATO-EU/ESDP relations is, at least for the near and medium term, more about political will and tactics than long-term goals and strategy. He argues that there is no reason why serious efforts by U.S. and E.U. leaders should not produce the desired results: a mutually reinforcing relationship between the EU (acting through the ESDP) and NATO that works for all and for overall security in the transatlantic region and beyond.