Only a New 'Grand Bargain' on Transatlantic Solidarity Can Meet Deepest Challenges


Apr 23, 2010

This commentary originally appeared on European Affairs on April 23, 2010.

NATO's new Strategic Concept will set out ambitious goals and means for the alliance, but it seems likely to paper over the cracks which are beginning to separate U.S. interests and attitudes from those of most of its European allies.

All the allies are putting a brave face on their collective engagement in Afghanistan, but they will have trouble reaching agreement on a broader range of longer-running issues, such as:

  • The limits of future military actions
  • Relations with Russia
  • The role of non-military instruments of power and influence
  • A plan for breaking down the barriers between NATO and the European Union.

To deal with these genuinely strategic challenges, the transatlantic nations really need more than just a concept: they need a new transatlantic "grand bargain," based on the common interests of the U.S. and the European allies and setting a course to meet, together, the real challenges of the next decade. The due date for NATO to adopt its new Strategic Concept is November 19-20 at a NATO summit meeting in Lisbon. It is a major exercise to draft, consider, and adopt a new plan designed to guide the Alliance thorough the years ahead. The last such Strategic Concept was adopted at the Washington NATO summit in April 1999 and there have been a few updates since then, but no root-and-branch reconsideration of NATO's purposes and future plans. Yet, much has happened in the world and the Alliance in the interval of more than a decade, and NATO nations have deployed some of their best to take stock of the situation. Work on the new central document has been underway for nearly a year, under the leadership of the NATO Secretary-General, Denmark's former prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. He has named a Group of Experts, 12 people from different allied countries who have had experience either in government, or research organizations or the private sector. Chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the group has held a series of major seminars in capitals of NATO countries, drawing on expert opinion from both sides of the Atlantic and all sides of the Alliance, including NATO's military leadership. Its report will be delivered to the Secretary-General at the beginning of May. Sometime this summer, he will "take the pen" and draft the actual Strategic Concept, deliver it this fall to the North Atlantic Council—28 ambassadors representing each of the allied countries—and then drive it and allied capitals to agreement on a document to be formally blessed by heads of state and government in Lisbon. That is the plan, and it is fundamentally sound—as a process. Whether at the end of the day the product will be adequate for the needs is another matter.

Collective statements show what the alliance will not do

Ironically, the new Strategic Concept to emerge from this process is likely to sound more important than it really is. Historically, few if any officials at NATO headquarters or in allied capitals make practical, day-to-day decisions based on what is in the "concept" document. Unlike the 1949 Treaty of Washington that created the Alliance, nothing in the Strategic Concept is legally binding. In practice, for most people working at NATO, the process of creating the Concept is more important than the product. What matters is the work entailed is a thorough examination of the different issues at work in the Alliance and the ensuing effort to reconcile differences of perspective and even of national interests. Thus the new Strategic Concept will not likely become a reference document kept on the desks of all NATO officials, but its elaboration will enable them to leave the Lisbon summit with at least a general sense of what the Alliance will do in the next few years. They are also likely to leave Lisbon with a sense of what the allies, as a collective, will not be prepared to do. This "negative" outcome needs to be addressed by policy-makers who are concerned with the management of the current range of threats and challenges to Western interests. Since the United States was attacked directly by terrorists on September 11, 2001, and especially after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 shattered what there was of a viable security structure in the Middle East, some basic interests of many members of the alliance have been diverging. Most European allies are still mainly preoccupied with completing the European peace settlement that began with the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. For them, much has been achieved, especially taking Central Europe "off the geopolitical chessboard." But the future of Russia is still indeterminate—including new issues it poses for Europe such as energy and cyber security—and these European allies look to the United States to be firmly committed to dealing with whatever happens in Moscow. Meanwhile, the United States, while remaining a European power, has shifted its geopolitical focus eastward, both to the region of the Persian Gulf—Iraq and Iran in particular—and to southwest Asia, notably Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the absence of a renewed security threat to Europe, this changed U.S. focus is likely to continue, with the corollary that Washington will largely judge the value of its allies—if not yet of NATO itself—on how much help it receives in meeting what it sees to be the primary security interests not just of the U.S but of the West as a whole. It is no secret that Washington is not happy with the relatively limited military engagement by most NATO allies—with some key exceptions, including Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands—in Afghanistan. While all 28 allies have security forces on the ground there, most see their engagement not as a means of protecting their own security but rather of keeping the U.S. interested in Europe and of preserving the NATO Alliance, presumably for other tasks in the future. There is no easy way, if at all, of bridging that gap in terms of military engagement, especially since allied governments are convinced that the U.S. is looking for a way to leave Afghanistan sooner rather than later.

Bridging the gap on Afghanistan

There is a partial solution to restoring a sense of common cause and burden-sharing among the allies. The military campaign in Afghanistan needs to be supplemented on the ground by the promotion of good governance, reconstruction, and development. This combination of military and non-military efforts is not just a matter of appealing to the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan people: it is the only way of achieving success for the alliance in its engagement there. It is an area where Europeans can help meet at least the minimum level of effort required for Western success—and in the process gain American respect.

This goal is not as easy as its sounds. It would require:

  • A major economic and development effort by European countries especially by those in the EU;
  • The EU's assumption of a leadership role that is so far lacking;
  • The adoption by the U.S. of a "metric" for judging nations' contributions to common effort that includes non-military activities—especially what is termed nation building;
  • Greater readiness by all the allies to do something serious about integrating military and non-military instruments, what the Alliance calls the "comprehensive approach;"
  • Close cooperation between NATO and the EU, not just in Brussels but also in Afghanistan.

The last requirement involves torturous internal issues in Europe that continue to block the critically-needed cooperation between NATO and the EU. Turkey is one stumbling block. It objects to the second-class status of the Turkish enclave on Cyprus, compared with the recognized Greek-Cypriot government in Nicosia, plus the EU's constant side-tracking of Turkey's candidacy for membership. In a gesture of protest, Turkey thus vetoes at NATO most of the Alliance's possible work with the EU. There is also the traditional desire of some EU countries to keep the EU as separate as possible from NATO, although this is changing now that France has rejoined the allied integrated military command structure. Much work remains to be done to get NATO and the EU "singing from the same page."

Is NATO still the place to handle transatlantic security?

All these differences of interest and approach between the United States and many of its allies also beg a key question: whether NATO is the right instrument for dealing with the most important challenges facing the Western nations in the years ahead. Where military issues are in question, the answer is clearly "yes." But when the issues are non-military, it is a different story. There can be little doubt that a large body of work in providing common security, probably the largest body, will lie in dealing with issues like managing the global financial and economic systems; trying to dry up the swamp within which terrorism flourishes—which requires efforts in health, education, job creation, and governmental reform that will provide alternative attractions to people throughout so many contested areas and especially within major part of the Islamic world; and beginning to deal seriously with critical issues of economic and political development, the environment in general and climate change in particular, and emerging issues like competition for, and security of, key resources, notably energy and water. Only the countries of the Western alliance have the capacity to tackle this hefty agenda because they share:

  • Stable, democratic governments
  • Educated populations, well-developed health, education, and scientific sectors, and
  • A temperament and capacity to work with others.

As useful as the new NATO Strategic Concept might prove to be, what is really needed is a new "grand bargain" across the Atlantic. This would involve many elements:

  • Agreement by Europe that, in exchange for the U.S. commitment to the continent, it will help meet U.S. requirements in the Middle East and Southwest Asia;
  • A new EU strategic concept to update its 2003 European Security Strategy;
  • A basic U.S.-EU strategic partnership spanning all key issues in economic, political and social fields;
  • An updating and modernization of the old Anglo-American Atlantic Charter of 1941, which laid the basis for the post-World War II economic and political systems.

These initiatives add up to a new grand strategy for the Western Alliance, not just in the transatlantic sphere but in some areas—especially economics and the environment—with a global reach. New institutions may be required, especially a transatlantic political forum at the highest levels; and the wall between NATO and the EU must finally be dismantled, as a matter of urgency. To that end, NATO's Lisbon summit should mandate that the North Atlantic Council "in permanent session"—the 28 ambassadors—take on this task and work diligently with the EU until the basic relationship is brought into line with today's realities and tomorrow's requirements. Of course, all this will require vision and political leadership, both, however, currently in short supply. But the task is clear as well as the opportunity. And time is short to get it right before the transatlantic nations find that they no long work together as they did in the past—but must do so again in the future.

Robert E. Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is Senior Advisor at the RAND Corporation.

This op-ed originally appeared in European Affairs issue April-May 2010, at

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