The Next President and NATO


Oct 26, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service on October 26, 2004.

The next president of the United States — whether George Bush or John Kerry — will almost surely press the European allies in 2005 to provide greater help in meeting the triple challenges of Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terrorism. In particular, whoever is president will turn to the NATO alliance for help. But will NATO be “ready and able” to do so, even if its member states are “willing?”

The answer, as much as alliance politics, will determine whether Europeans respond to American needs. But getting a positive answer will depend in part of whether the U.S. steps up its own commitment to NATO; this includes more fully supporting NATO's deployments, sharing military high technology, and accepting a truly open trans-Atlantic market in defense goods. NATO underwent a major transformation during the 1990s, which positioned it to address remaining items on the 20th-century European security agenda. NATO even began acting “out of area” by conducting combat and peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo.

In this decade, NATO has been transforming itself again, to get ready to meet the challenges of the “post-post-Cold War era,” and especially the rise of terrorism and instability in the Middle East. The new Allied Command Transformation is transferring to Europe the techniques of modern warfare that underpinned U.S. battlefield success in the Afghan and Iraqi wars. NATO has created a Response Force, able to project limited but capable military forces great distances. It has beefed up its flagship Partnership for Peace program and its Mediterranean Dialogue with seven countries. At its most recent summit this June, NATO adopted an Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, to work with countries in the Persian Gulf. And NATO has taken command of the U.N.-mandated International Security Assistance Force now operating in Kabul and — in time — elsewhere in Afghanistan But this degree of “ready and able” is not enough. Part of the problem stems from continued reluctance of most European governments to pay for the forces NATO needs to continue being effective, especially beyond its traditional bounds.

Two years ago, NATO adopted its Prague (Summit) Capabilities Commitment, which focuses on the ability of allies to fight effectively together and to get troops from here to there (air and sea lift) and sustain them, including in Afghanistan. Response has not matched commitment, however. Thus in Afghanistan, NATO is strapped for tools to do the job, a fact that the NATO Secretary-General Jaap deHoop Scheffer has warned could become the alliance' s first failure.

But not all of NATO's capability problems can be laid at the Europeans' doorstep. Europeans are also concerned that the United States is progressively taking NATO less seriously. In addition to disagreements over Iraq — which can be reduced by enlightened leadership on both sides of the Atlantic — there are two unfortunate harbingers of U.S. intentions toward NATO and U.S.-European military cooperation. One is the fact that the United States is contributing only a handful of officers and soldiers to the NATO Response Force, although creating the force was Washington's idea. The United States is almost absent from ISAF, despite its bellwether role in determining NATO's future.

Even more important, trans-Atlantic cooperation in modern warfare depends on the ability of every ally to field and use compatible equipment, beginning with vital capacities for command and control. This also requires close cooperation among defense industries on both sides of the Atlantic. The Europeans complain, however, about continued U.S. reluctance to share “black box” technologies, while Washington cites concerns about technology leaks to undesirable third countries. The U.S. concern is legitimate, but it has remedies. In the meantime, the balance of military trade across the Atlantic continues heavily to favor the United States — which is good for the U.S. balance of trade, but makes it harder to get allies to pull their military weight.

There are exceptions. UK-based BAE Systems is high in the second tier of suppliers to the Defense Department (and reciprocates as the leading European partner for the U.S. Joint Strike Fighter), and the EADS consortium looks set to buy the U.S. military electronics manufacturer, Racal. But these “permission slips” are few and far between.

For example, the next major U.S. helicopter program might benefit from cooperation in key areas with experienced European producers. But because the first units of what promises to be a significant “buy” will be for the presidential helicopter fleet, there are political pressures to freeze the Europeans out of even a limited contribution to a largely U.S.-made entry in the competition. Behavior likes this invites a like-minded European response. Thus it would benefit the United States for the administration elected in November to resist these isolationist pressures in military procurements, beginning with the presidential helicopter replacement. What should be a free flow of science, technology, and common military production within the alliance remains a modest trickle. If the U.S. does not open up to its allies, it can probably expect some ensuing limitation on U.S. military sales to Europe and reduction in the useful flow of technologies from there to here.

But America cannot afford to choke off the very capacity for military cooperation by Europeans for which it has been clamoring. Even if the allies are “willing,” that course risks crippling NATO and condemns the United States to shouldering even more of shared strategic, military, and political burdens in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Robert E. Hunter is a senior advisor at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.

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