A Trans-Atlantic Moment


(The Washington Times)

by F. Stephen Larrabee and Julian Lindley-French

February 22, 2009

The election of Barack Obama provides an important opportunity to revitalize the trans-Atlantic security partnership. This partnership has served both sides well in the past. But after eight years of deep ideological differences during the Bush administration, it is badly frayed and in need of new leadership and new vision.

Given the complexity of the challenges and the daunting security agenda they face, neither Europe nor the United States can manage these challenges on its own. Close and sustained cooperation is required, as well as a new mindset that recognizes the degree to which many of the problems are interlinked and cannot be addressed in isolation.

The Obama administration will initially be given a warm reception in Europe simply because it is not the Bush administration. However, while the Obama team may be seen as less unilateral in its approach than the Bush administration, it is likely, as Vice President Joe Biden made clear in his address to the recent Munich Security Conference, to demand more of its European allies. At the same time, many Europeans may not welcome the request to assume more of the burden for managing global security that is likely to accompany the new U.S. willingness to consult and cooperate.

If a new, revitalized trans-Atlantic security partnership is to be effective, Europeans need to be willing to shoulder more responsibility for global security and develop the political and military capabilities to meet the new challenges facing the trans-Atlantic community. Afghanistan is likely to provide the first concrete test of whether such a new security partnership can be forged in practice. What is needed is not simply more troops, but a comprehensive strategy that integrates political, economic and military means, and that recognizes the degree to which stability in Afghanistan is linked to stabilizing Pakistan and reducing Pakistani-Indian tensions.

Creating such a new security partnership will not only require Europe to think and act more globally but will demand changes on the U.S. side as well. If the United States wants a more capable European partner, one which can act globally, Washington should adopt a more supportive and less ambivalent attitude toward the EU's European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP).

Many U.S. officials view the ESDP with suspicion, fearing it is designed to weaken NATO. Such fears, however, are without real foundation. A strong European defense and security policy cannot be built without Great Britain. London has made clear, however, that it will not support a security policy that weakens NATO. This view is shared by Atlanticist members of the EU such as Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark and Portugal, as well as the new members from Eastern Europe. Thus a strong quorum within the EU opposes any effort to try to weaken NATO.

Finally, France's position has undergone an important evolution. In contrast to former President Jacques Chirac, President Nicolas Sarkozy has sought to build closer ties to NATO, including giving the green light for France's return to NATO's integrated military command, from which President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France in 1966. This has removed an important source of friction with the United States and should facilitate closer cooperation between NATO and the EU in the future.

Rather than competitors, the ESDP and NATO should be seen as complementary vehicles for strengthening trans-Atlantic capabilities for crisis management. Which one takes the lead in a crisis will depend on the nature of the crisis and the capabilities needed to defuse it. The key issue is not who goes first but how the two institutions can work more effectively together to defuse and manage crises.

In addition, the Obama administration should support ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. If the treaty fails, low defense spending and ad hoc approaches will be reinforced, weakening Europe's ability to act as a strong and effective partner of the United States capable of addressing new global security challenges.

Permanent structured cooperation, which is enshrined in the treaty, offers an effective way to squeeze more capability out of anemic defense budgets that will rise only marginally in the coming years.

To be sure, these steps will not end all cross-Atlantic differences. But they would enhance the capacity of the United States and Europe to address the pressing security challenges they will face in the coming decades.

F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Corporate Chair in European Security at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit policy institution. Julian Lindley-French is Professor of Military Operational Science at the Royal Netherlands Military Academy. This article is adapted from a recently published report by RAND and the Bertelsmann Foundation titled "Revitalizing the Trans-Atlantic Security Partnership: An Agenda for Action," which they co-authored.

This commentary originally appeared in The Washington Times on February 22, 2009. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.