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ESDI and NATO:

Challenges and Requirements through 2010

Gary L. Geipel

[17 July 2001]

Summary

A European Security and Defense Identity (ESDI) is not an inherent threat to the transatlantic security relationship, as embodied in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). A strong NATO under United States leadership also is not an inherent threat to the development of common European Union (EU) security policies and integrated military forces, as embodied in ESDI. Recognizing the compatibility of ESDI and a US-led NATO is the first step towards a projection of evolving transatlantic security relations in the next ten years. A collision or competition of robust institutions and a major rift in US-EU relations is unlikely. Instead, the likely problems in transatlantic relations will arise from internal EU and US failures to realize the potential of ESDI and NATO. Such failures, in turn, could cause the EU and the US to neglect or mishandle ongoing security challenges, especially in the Balkans and the Near East. This kind of failure on the ground poses the most serious short- to medium-term threat to the credibility of both European integration and transatlantic collective defense. The combination of a weak ESDI and a weak NATO remains the most plausible scenario through 2010, which is a far greater cause for concern than the prospect of a strong ESDI and continued US leadership in NATO.

Misperceptions and Misunderstandings

The transatlantic security dialogue has followed a rather unhelpful pattern since the end of the Cold War. It really is not a dialogue at all, in the sense of being mutually informative. Instead it has taken the form of parallel conversations within Europe and the United States, revealing more about the insecurity and indecision that exist on both sides of the Atlantic than about a common vision for the future. Therefore, the first step in understanding the likely evolution of transatlantic security relations is to challenge the conventional accusations and assumptions on both sides.

The typical litany on the European side goes roughly as follows: The United States is a "Hyperpower," in the now widely used formulation of French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine. It is extraordinarily powerful compared with other nations and it seems likely to take a unilateralist course, expanding its military strength and reach in order to protect its own national interests on a global scale while rejecting multilateral frameworks. US isolationism is not inconsistent with unilateralism in this view, because the values and national interests of the Hyperpower are so unique. (US plans to deploy a National Missile Defense (NMD) typically are seen in Europe as evidence of both a unilateralist and isolationist mindset.) Europe cannot expect US presence and protection to continue indefinitely as America’s Hyperpower expands. Therefore, the European Union (EU) must develop combined military forces and joint decision-making structures of its own. In the minds of some European leaders, the resulting European Security and Defense Identity (ESDI) will fill a void left by the US as its leadership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) diminishes. In the minds of other Europeans (a minority), ESDI will permit Europe to pursue a security path that may deviate substantially from "inappropriate" US goals and priorities.

In the United States, the litany goes this way: America is the only nation willing to bear a substantial military burden in order to promote a stable international order, in which serious challengers to liberal democracy, free markets, and energy supplies are not permitted to arise. Alliances are only of marginal help in this regard. They obligate the US to protect certain nations but rarely bring benefits to the US in dealing with challengers outside the protected region. Europe is a particular offender in this regard, doing little to provide for its own security, to say nothing of preparing to assist the US with more far-flung problems. ESDI is only rhetoric. And if meaningful European security structures do somehow develop, they will serve to compete with the US and undermine its global priorities. America is trying to do what is good for the world (such as developing a capacity to defeat missile attacks) while Europe wallows in timidity, meaningless multilateralism, and outdated concepts of security. NATO is the primary expression of America’s military role in Europe and if the European nations were serious about their desire for a continued transatlantic alliance they would not seek to create separate or even "separable" structures such as ESDI. In the face of European ineptness, ingratitude, and indifference, the US should leave European security problems to the Europeans whenever possible or (in a minority US view) disengage completely from Europe.

These parallel conversations suffer from several serious flaws. The misperceptions and misunderstandings across the Atlantic can be grouped into five areas:

The two conversations seriously exaggerate each other’s minority opinions. The European conversation implies that isolationism is a major strand of intellectual opinion in the US and a common view among American voters. This simply is not true. Elite-level foreign policy debates in the US dwell primarily on the extent and nature of US engagement overseas while arguments in favor of retreat are rare. And presidential candidates advocating US disengagement once again did poorly in America’s 2000 primary elections. Meanwhile, the US conversation implies that neo-Gaullist designs for an independent or anti-American security policy are among the chief drivers of ESDI. This also is not true. Indeed, recent breakthroughs in ESDI coincided with the muzzling of neo-Gaullist voices by leaders in Britain and Germany, and with grudging steps on France’s part to accept the construction of European capabilities within a NATO framework.

The two conversations antagonize each other with inconsistent charges. Europe’s muddled claim is that the US is a nation with an alien culture and potentially dangerous global designs – until a security problem arises on Europe’s doorstep and the US becomes an indispensable "partner." Former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright was correct to criticize voices with "European accents" that "distort American intentions; revel in American setbacks; forget American sacrifice; and tell neighbors they must choose between Europe and the US." America’s muddled claim is that Europe fails to carry its weight in dealing with military-security challenges and remains dangerously dependent on the US – until Europe shows signs of attempting to develop serious independent military capabilities and then stands accused by the US of undermining transatlantic solidarity. NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson was correct to criticize the "schizophrenia" in which "the Americans say, ‘You Europeans have got to carry more of the burden.’ And then when Europeans say, ‘Okay, we will carry more of the burden,’ the Americans say, ‘Well, wait a minute, are you trying to tell us to go home?’ "

The two conversations turn good news into bad news. Few observers of international security still dispute that US power and global engagement served to defeat the major alternative to democracy and free markets. The defeat of Soviet communism created a "unipolar moment" that has coincided with an unprecedented spread of prosperity and general peace. Europe should only be so fortunate, then, as to enjoy the benefits of continuing US "Hyperpower." Meanwhile, US leaders have long claimed to seek the "single phone number" that they could call to enlist European assistance, as well as the European capabilities that might permit a meaningful division of labor in military matters. The US should only be so fortunate, then, as to witness the creation of a genuine ESDI that has "independent" clout.

The two conversations underestimate the great commonality of values across the Atlantic. Culture and core values are not the same things. Many observers fail to recognize this distinction, focusing too much on culture. Yes, the cultural differences between European elites and Middle America are wide and perhaps growing wider (even as European and American elites grow closer together in their cultural attitudes). Efforts by European elites to drive cultural wedges between their publics and the US on issues ranging from the death penalty to fast-food preferences are unseemly but they are nothing new. Meanwhile, the core values that define domestic-political life and animate foreign engagement remain remarkably consistent between Europe and the US. For example, parts of two recent speeches by US President George W. Bush and EU foreign-policy czar Javier Solana could have been prepared by the same speechwriter. Bush, praising European unity: "Through a hard history . . . Europe has come to believe in the dignity of every individual: in social freedom, tempered by moral restraint; in economic liberty, balanced with humane values." Solana, explaining the purpose of a common European security policy: "to promote the values and principles for which the European Union is respected world-wide. We should increasingly be able to ensure that the rule of law and human rights are respected, and that people throughout the world can, like ourselves, enjoy the benefit of freedom, democracy and prosperity."

The two conversations ignore the most serious internal challenges that stand in the way of a robust ESDI and a robust NATO. Perhaps this is the purpose of the parallel conversations: it is easier to distort the views of others than to confront one’s own deep-seated contradictions. If European nations truly seek credibility as a geo-strategic player with a single voice, then (1) they must end the absolute priority given to funding the welfare state and begin to fund serious military capabilities; and (2) they must demonstrate a willingness to place the lives of their soldiers at risk for purposes that go beyond national self-defense. The European conversation is largely silent on these most basic matters. For its part, if the US truly seeks to sustain the unprecedented prosperity, global influence, and generally benign security environment that it has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War, then (1) it must sustain key alliances not because they are "balanced" or equitable in a strict accounting sense but because they are the keys to US leadership; and (2) its troops must remain present for long periods of time in difficult places such as the Balkans, on the ground and in large numbers, whether or not US allies make a similar commitment. The US conversation is largely silent on these most basic matters.

The Requirements of Robust Institutions

To summarize the previous section, the following are important baseline findings about the transatlantic security relationship:

  1. Isolationism on America’s part and neo-Gaullism on Europe’s part are luxuries that neither side can afford and that neither side is considering seriously. Disputes over these "dangers" are mere distractions from real concerns.
  2. Europe is inconsistent if it decries America’s global clout while expecting to benefit from a US security umbrella. The US is inconsistent if it denigrates Europe’s poor military performance while criticizing European defense integration.
  3. The common values on which the Atlantic Alliance was built remain very strong on both sides of the ocean.
  4. The primary obstacles to the rise of a robust ESDI and the preservation of a robust NATO are inside rather than outside Europe and the US, respectively.

Having confronted the misperceptions and misunderstandings that confuse the European and US conversations on security, it is easier to examine the future of ESDI and NATO in both the short term (through 2003) and medium term (through 2010). A useful way to proceed is by examining the requirements of a robust ESDI and a robust NATO, and the extent to which such requirements have been, or are likely to be, fulfilled. On the following page, Table 1 outlines the requirements of a robust ESDI and Table 2 outlines the requirements of a robust NATO.

 

Table 1: Requirements of a Robust ESDI

  • Proven mechanisms for shared military decision making by Europe’s powerful nations and shared views among them regarding the most difficult challenges to European security.
  • A single market in defense procurement in which genuinely "European" requirements are fulfilled by genuinely "European" defense firms.
  • Significant combined "European" military capabilities that are deployable to distant battlefields, sustainable, and equipped with sophisticated weaponry and C3I.
  • Demonstrated capacity to engage combined European forces in military crises beyond the borders of Europe.


 

Table 2: Requirements of a Robust NATO

  • A constantly demonstrated US commitment to European security, including a large, sustained presence of US troops on European soil, especially in European trouble spots, and US willingness to exercise leadership over European nations (in the case of a weak ESDI) or partnership with a European collective (in the case of a strong ESDI) on continental security matters.
  • General agreement among members on the primary challenges to European and transatlantic security.
  • US and European military capabilities that are compatible (at worst) and complementary (at best).
  • Continued NATO expansion to tie the choices of as many European nations as possible to Europe’s collective security interests.

Viewing the requirements of institutional strength in this way allows us, first of all, to observe that there are no inherent contradictions between a robust ESDI and a robust NATO. There are no requirements of a robust ESDI that make a robust NATO less possible. And there are no requirements of a robust NATO that make a robust ESDI less possible. ESDI and NATO are compatible. It is important to reinforce this simple conclusion because it runs counter to so much casual commentary on both sides of the Atlantic, which often sets up a false choice or competition between European integration and transatlantic collective defense.

Diplomatic and institutional developments in recent years almost all have strengthened the conclusion that there is no inherent conflict between ESDI and NATO. For example, the British-French summit at St. Malo in December 1998 cleared the dual hurdles of British resistance to "autonomous action" on the EU’s part and French resistance to "conformity with our respective obligations in NATO." Then, in April 1999, NATO ratified the Common Joint Task Force (CJTF) mechanism, which for the first time allowed "coalitions of the willing" among European NATO members to mount operations using American intelligence infrastructure, lift, and logistics without direct US participation. CJTFs create compatibility, at least in theory, between NATO’s primacy in collective defense and the EU’s capacity for autonomous action.

For its part, official Washington has remained generally sanguine in recent years about ESDI’s impact on NATO. The US under the Clinton Administration asserted its concerns that ESDI not "decouple" European security from NATO, "duplicate" NATO structures, or "discriminate" against non-EU members of NATO. European nations generally have echoed those goals. For example, German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping declared last year that a weakening of NATO was "neither desired nor anticipated" as a consequence of ESDI, and the appointment of the pro-American German General Rainer Schuwirth as head of the EU’s nascent military apparatus only reinforced the point. NATO’s Lord Robertson made the obvious but important observation that "the US retains key strategic capabilities, which are indispensable for all but the smallest contingencies . . . There is no reason to fear ‘decoupling" because for the foreseeable future, a decoupled Europe simply can’t work."

Early implementation of the EU’s "Headline Goals" for the deployment of autonomous crisis-intervention forces has been marked by scrupulous attention to NATO coordination. The EU’s Feira European Council of June 2000 called for the creation of four ad-hoc working groups between the EU and NATO on security issues, capabilities goals, modalities for EC access to NATO assets, and permanent arrangements for EU-NATO consultation. The two organizations appear headed for a joint EU-NATO planning staff, with the acquiescence of France. America’s indirect support for ESDI now transcends two Administrations and includes the recent comment by President Bush that "[w]e welcome a greater role for the EU in European security, properly integrated with NATO."

A clash between ESDI and NATO is in no way inevitable, therefore. In assessing the future, it is more useful to examine the extent to which requirements inside ESDI and NATO are being met.

ESDI’s Prospects

By 2003, the basic mechanisms will be in place to permit European Union leaders to inform themselves on joint military options and to make decisions through the European Council on the deployment of such EU military assets as have been developed by that time. The Council’s three new political and military bodies approved at the Nice summit of 2000 – a standing Political and Security Committee, a Military Committee, and a Military Staff – should be operational by 2003, as well as the joint EU-NATO planning staff. It is less certain that these mechanisms will have been "proven" in any meaningful way by 2003. Contingencies in the Balkans between now and 2003 almost certainly will continue to be addressed inside NATO and in separate national defense ministries. However, new EU mechanisms surely will be tested before 2010. Their success or failure will have less to do with their precise bureaucratic structure and more to do with the ability of European leaders to arrive at similar conclusions about security challenges. The difficulties in this regard seem particularly serious as a result of the likely composition of the EU’s nascent Rapid Reaction Force (RRF). Early contributors to the proposed force include neutral Ireland and non-EU member Turkey. European consensus on military operations that includes nations as diverse as these will not come naturally or easily, and may not come at all.

If Europe is to improve the quality and quantity of its armed forces without dramatically increasing national defense spending, then it must develop the efficiencies of large-scale joint procurement and it must encourage the continued consolidation of the European defense industry. The US currently spends almost four times as much as all of Europe on military research and development, and European spending remains highly fragmented.

This requirement of a robust ESDI will not be met prior to 2003 and is not certain in the medium term through 2010. The problems appears to lie more on the government side than on the industry side. Recent years have seen the consolidation of Europe’s defense industries, including the merger of BAe and Marconi Electronic Systems to form BAeSystems and the creation of the EADS consortium of continental defense firms. Joint government procurement lags behind, however. France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the UK signed a letter of intent in 1998 on the harmonization of their procurement efforts but the more important framework agreement fulfilling the letter of intent has languished.


This most basic requirement of ESDI is by no means assured. The EU’s "Headline Goal" calls for the creation by 2003 of a 60,000-soldier Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) deployable within 60 days to deal with a regional conflict or humanitarian crisis, where it could be sustained in the field for at least a year. In practice, this means that at least 120,000 soldiers – ideally much more – must be at the EU’s disposal in order to permit routine troop rotations. An EU "Commitment Conference" in November 2000 generated pledges of about 100,000 soldiers, 400 aircraft, and 100 ships to the RRF from a diverse group of nations. At this rate, the EU may be able to declare its Headline Goal "achieved" in 2003, but in practical terms the RRF will not be a coherent fighting force by that date. The end of the decade is a more realistic time frame, though the longer that it takes Europe to assemble a deployable force, the greater the EU’s credibility problems will become. With a combined 2 million soldiers in their national armed forces, after all, European nations should in theory not have great difficulty assembling 60,000 troops ready to fight.

Of course, the RRF will be judged by more than its numbers. It will need to be a transportable, potent and well-equipped force. Several European nations have placed orders for a new Airbus military transport aircraft, and some progress is being made in Britain, France, and Germany on the development of satellite reconnaissance systems and precision-guided weapons. Still, the shortcomings of the EU nations in crisis intervention capabilities remain large. As one US analyst has written, the EU’s failure to deploy a serious force in the shortest possible time "could have real repercussions in the United States. . . . Washington would be even less likely to take Europe’s interests and views into account. And it could stimulate withdrawal from areas that some in the United States already regard as peripheral to our interests (including the Balkans).

NATO is widely understood as the organization primarily responsible for security within Europe and the North Atlantic region. There may be future crises in that region that the EU will choose to address, or be forced to address, without the US and therefore without NATO’s full involvement. The ESDI may play a role in preparing for such responses. However, the credibility and additional value of ESDI also will be measured in terms of its response to security crises outside the traditional NATO boundaries. Though some argue that NATO is legally capable of organizing "out-of-area" responses, the more common assumption is that combined responses to non-European crises will come together on an ad-hoc basis, as was the case in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Against this background, an ESDI that is able to bring a European military response to bear on a security problem outside Europe will be a more credible and robust ESDI.

The EU certainly will not fulfill this requirement by 2003. The nascent RRF will remain a poorly integrated force without serious "power projection" capabilities until the middle part of this decade at the earliest, when large-scale transport aircraft and supply capabilities become part of Europe’s arsenal. After that point, depending on global circumstances, the EU may be given an opportunity to demonstrate its out-of-area reach.

NATO’s Prospects

It cannot be repeated too often that the US is the lynchpin of NATO and that America’s military presence in Europe is the primary symbol of Washington’s commitment to safeguard continental security. Far from being a "burden," as it is often portrayed in US commentary, America’s current engagement in the Balkans is a crucial demonstration of its resolve to maintain responsibility for European security, which in turn is the basis for US influence in Europe and America’s resulting political and economic clout. A failure to recognize this crucial linkage between America’s power and prosperity on the one hand, and its ongoing leadership role in European defense on the other hand, presents one of the greatest risks to NATO’s future in the decade ahead.

Agreement among the US and its allies on the key challenges facing Europe is greater that it often appears. For example, though the key NATO nations bring different interpretations of history and subtly conflicting sympathies to their Balkan policies, widespread consensus exists that instability in the Balkans can spill over on the surrounding region and potentially on the entire continent. This consensus forms the basis for NATO’s Balkan intervention. Similar consensus exists on the need to anchor the former Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe into "Western" institutional structures and norms of behavior. This consensus permitted the generally successful expansion of NATO to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland.

Differences of opinion are greater on security issues outside the traditional NATO sphere. US plans to develop and deploy an NMD system, for example, arouse European fears of US isolationism. Europe’s concern is that by developing the capacity to safeguard its own homeland, the US will lose interest in providing forward protection in Europe. Recent US assurances that missile defense can and should be extended to America’s allies have helped to ease concerns about NMD. US-European differences over appropriate policies in dealing with "rogue states," with human-rights abusers such as China, and with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute also flare up periodically. However, such differences do not seem likely to cause a serious transatlantic rift in the near term (through 2003) and can continue to be managed for the foreseeable future.

This requirement stands at great of risk of not being met, either in the near term through 2003 or in the longer term through the end of the decade. The problems on the European side are twofold. First, Europe’s spending on defense, always smaller than America’s, declined even further in the 1990s. Since 1995, European defense budgets have fallen by an average of 5 percent in real terms every year. As a result, in 1999, the total US defense spending of $275 billion amounted to almost twice the $140 billion spent by NATO’s European members.

Second, Europe allocates more of its defense spending for personnel and less for R&D than does the US, widening the capabilities gap even further. NATO’s European members have more than 2.3 million active military personnel, as compared with about 1.4 million in the US armed forces. The US spends almost $27,000 per soldier on military R&D, however, while Europe spends only an average of $4,000 per soldier on R&D. The consequences of these allocations were on stark display in NATO’s Kosovo action in 1999. Only a handful of Europe’s 2.3 million soldiers were deemed capable of deployment to the Balkans. The US provided the crucial logistics and C3I infrastructure for the conflict, and US pilots flew 80 percent of all the combat missions carried out by NATO.

An Alliance characterized by similar levels of per-capita Gross National Product (GNP) but by such dissimilar levels of military investment and technological capability is an Alliance ripe for constant tensions over burden sharing and for growing incompatibility on the battlefield. The incompatibility of technology and equipment levels across the Atlantic is likely to worsen over time, as US defense spending begins to climb again while European spending continues to decline, and as the US pursues technology associated with the Revolution in Military Affairs while Europe continues to invest primarily in manpower and outdated force structures.

NATO’s continued expansion to new members should be viewed as a key sign not only of its robustness but also of its compatibility with ESDI. There are two reasons for this. First, the strong desire of Eastern European nations to join NATO is a demonstration of ongoing confidence in the Alliance’s collective security guarantee. That confidence is a powerful currency that NATO must keep strong and must validate. The desire to join NATO has led nations from Estonia to Romania not only to fashion their political systems and civil-military relations in the image of NATO members but also to pursue security policies that are deliberately advantageous to NATO’s interests. During the war in Kosovo, for example, Romania resisted pressure from Russia for ground or air transit to Serbia.

Second, NATO membership must remain ahead of EU membership if the security and defense dimension of European integration is to remain credible. An EU that includes Estonia or Romania, for example, would in effect offer a security guarantee to those nations via ESDI. If those same nations were not members of NATO, however, the European security guarantee would be decoupled from the transatlantic guarantee.

Indications are mixed regarding NATO’s likely expansion in the coming decade. It is very unlikely that further expansion will occur before 2003. A major expansion later in the decade will depend on US leadership and on the conviction in Europe (which does appear to be growing) that the EU and NATO defense commitments should expand on parallel tracks.

Scenarios for the Next Decade

Our examination of the future of ESDI-NATO relations should not focus on exaggerated "conflicts" between the two institutions but on whether or not the EU and a US-led NATO will, each unto itself, meet the requirements for success. That has been the purpose of the preceding exercise. Reviewing the requirements of a robust ESDI and a robust NATO yields these major concerns:

What, then, are the possible institutional outcomes in the next decade? In the most straightforward terms, there are four possibilities:

Scenario Likelihood through 2003 2010

Scenario 1: Robust ESDI – Robust NATO 3 3

Scenario 2: Robust ESDI – Weak NATO 4 4

Scenario 3: Weak ESDI – Robust NATO 1 2

Scenario 4: Weak ESDI – Weak NATO 2 1

Most observers would agree that Scenario 1 is the most desirable outcome, combining a meaningful European defense pillar with a strong transatlantic security guarantee and linking the destinies of the traditional transatlantic allies to continued stability in and around Europe. However, this analysis suggests that Scenario 1 is not the most likely outcome though 2003 or 2010. The shortcomings of European military forces probably will remain too great in the period under study to permit an ESDI that can be described accurately as "robust." In the short term through 2003, Scenario 3 seems the most likely outcome, combining a nascent ESDI with a fairly robust NATO (deployed in the Balkans if anxious to disengage). In the longer term through 2010, unfortunately, Scenario 4 becomes the strongest possibility, combining a weak and still divided ESDI with a NATO deprived of constant US leadership on the ground. If the US sustains or even enlarges its role in the Balkans, however, then Scenario 3 – a stable scenario – becomes possible through the end of the decade. A worsening security situation in Macedonia during the coming months and years may provide the answer about which path the US (and therefore NATO) takes.


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