European Affairs

NATO at 60 – Not Yet Retirement Age     Print Email

Bruno TertraisIn the run-up to the 60th-anniversary summit meeting of NATO – to be held in Strasbourg, France, and Kehl, Germany in early April – the transatlantic political atmosphere has rarely been better since the end of the cold war almost twenty years ago.

In the first years after the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, the new situation in Europe was rife with questions about NATO’s future, including the question about whether it even had a future. Granted, it was the longest-running, most successful military alliance in history. But had it aged beyond its normal shelf life? Had it outlived its usefulness? The West had prevailed in the cold war, so what mission, if any, remained for the alliance?

Those questions about NATO possibly being obsolete soon gave way to new facts. The allies turned to NATO as the vehicle for handling new crises emerging from the integration of a new Europe, starting with the break-up of Yugoslavia. By the mid-1990s, NATO was deeply engaged in new challenges, including combat for the first time in the alliance’s history. All the subsequent facts attest to the organization’s continuing vibrancy. In the intervening two decades since the demise of the old Soviet threat, the alliance has expanded its membership from 16 countries to 27 – an increase of more than 50 percent. In addition, beyond the periphery of Europe, NATO has established partnerships with numerous states from North Africa to Central Asia. Threats of a new nature, many nurtured by the multiplier effect of technology for asymmetric warfare, have confirmed the relevance of the alliance’s core mission: the collective defense of its members through the implementation of Article V of the Washington Treaty of 1949. And far away from the borders of the old “treaty area” of the cold war, the alliance has embarked in its most ambitious mission so far – security-building and nation-building in Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world and the grave of several empires’ ambitions. The resilience of NATO has been extraordinary. For all the (largely justified) talk of a bureaucratic and cumbersome organization, it has proven surprisingly adept at adapting, adjusting and reinventing itself. And France, once the turbulent member of the Atlantic family, has announced its willingness to come back into the alliance’s integrated military structure, thirty years after its departure.

The election of Barack Obama is also an important contributing factor to the good pre-summit atmosphere. Since his election, the White House incumbent has pushed all the right buttons to usher in a new era of transatlantic cooperation. His announced intentions – to close the Guantanamo detention facilities, restrict harsh interrogation techniques, withdraw from Iraq and focus on Afghanistan, get involved promptly in reinvigorating the Middle East peace process and to explore nuclear-arms reductions through negotiations with Russia – have won him immediate praise from almost all quarters in Europe, both among elites and in popular opinion. His signals that Washington will tackle the challenges of climate change more seriously than in the past has been widely applauded in Europe. This new context has raised expectations for transatlantic cooperation over the next four years to unusually high levels.

A more measured assessment would be in order. U.S. security policies will not undergo a 180-degree about-face. Even with a more multilateral approach, Washington remains the dominant military power on the planet – and also a country that considers itself “at war against terrorism” (even if the formulation about “global war on terrorism” disappears from the official vocabulary under the new administration). As a Democrat who would not want to be depicted as “soft” on security, Obama cannot afford to appear weak on military issues or hesitant to use deadly force to protect U.S. interests if need be. The traditional U.S. reluctance to embrace instruments of international law that would supersede American law or constrain its defense options will not disappear overnight: Europeans should remember that it was under the Clinton administration that Washington refused to join the Ottawa convention on landmines, the Rome treaty instituting the International Criminal Court or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. True, Obama enjoys a comfortable majority in both houses of Congress, but he does not have a large enough Senate majority to guarantee ratification of treaties.

A lucid stock-taking about the overall outlook for transatlantic cooperation reveals some disturbing elements. Long-standing disagreements remain significant about trade practices, including the rules for defining “monopolistic practices,” the disputes about subsidies for airplane manufacturers or the subsidies and non-tariff barriers on food imports. There is scope for major disagreements stemming from the plans on different sides of the Atlantic for reforming the global economic and financial governance system. Transatlantic trade and financial flows remain the most important ones in the world, so the Atlantic is still the center of the economic world. But Europe, it seems, has yet to accept that it is no longer at the forefront of Washington’s worldview.

NATO itself is not exempt from tensions. The challenge of winning of the Afghan war is a source of heated transatlantic debates. The NATO operation there is increasingly unpopular in Europe, and Obama’s call for reinforcements has so far been met with strong reluctance among the European allies. Nor is there any end in sight for another bone of contention – the numerous “caveats” that many allied nations have included in the rules of engagement for their military forces in NATO operations in Afghanistan. The question of how to deal with Russia and Iran, which loom as the most important potential military threats for NATO in the coming decade, is a dual source of divergences in the alliance. Diverging views about Russia and Iran seem bound to exacerbate tensions about missile defense and the new sites for the U.S. system: already, the debate has moved from being a bilateral issue to a NATO one since some member states now would like to see Europe benefit from it. A consensus on the next steps for NATO enlargement seems elusive at best. Finally, the continued deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe is criticized in some NATO countries – notably Germany and Belgium, where many politicians argue that the alliance’s reliance on nuclear weapons will jeopardize the outlook for the Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference in 2010. The long-overdue revision of NATO’s 1999 Strategic Concept, which will be announced at the Strasbourg-Kehl summit, will not be easy.

To ensure NATO’s safe passage into its next decade, there are some recommendations to be borne in mind. The incoming U.S. administration should refrain from dramatic initiatives without prior consultation of its European allies on major issues such as Iran, Russia, nuclear weapons or missile defense. Europeans, for their part, should accept that the U.S. military predominance legitimizes a greater say for Washington than for other alliance capitals in the management of common security issues. If European governments find themselves unable to increase the strength of their forces in Afghanistan (because of economic or military constraints), they should at least reduce their “caveats” curtailing the use of their national contingents and also increase their contribution to non-military assistance to the Afghan mission (such as police training or counter-narcotics work).

On Ukraine and Georgia, the alliance will have to find a compromise about how to proceed. On the one hand, it must signal to Moscow that it is unacceptable for Russia to impose an exclusive “sphere of influence” around its borders. But, equally, it is impossible for these two countries to become members of NATO while they still have unresolved territorial or sovereignty disputes. One option would be for the alliance to state clearly that while not covered by a security guarantee of the sort provided by Article V of the NATO founding treaty, their security is of great concern – even paramount importance for Europe and the United States.

Most importantly, member states should refrain from overburdening the alliance with “new” issues such as energy security, cyber-security or bio-security. Article V missions – implying military action – are likely to become important and real in the early 21st century (in contrast to the late 20th century when peace support operations dominated the alliance’s agenda). On top of the critical Afghanistan mission, NATO faces a triple challenge: jihadist terrorism, Russian resurgence and Iranian ambitions. Taken separately and together, they point to a testing decade for the alliance and its member governments. New issues or missions should only be added to NATO’s portfolio if they meet the “subsidiarity” test: it must be demonstrated that NATO can better manage them than other institutions or organizations.

A historic moment is likely to come at the Strasbourg-Kehl summit meeting in the form of an announcement by France that it will return to NATO’s integrated military structure. President Nicolas Sarkozy stated in the summer of 2007 that he was planning to make this move, and he has explained on several occasions that he considers France’s absence (since 1967) to be an anomaly in light of the fact that France belongs to the “Western family” and has constantly been a major European contributor to NATO operations since the early 1990s. He conditioned France’s return to NATO with an insistence on parallel progress on European defense, but the pace on this front has been slow in the past 18 months. French reasoning on this point is that a return to NATO would put an end to constant suspicions in many alliance countries that Paris sees the European Security and Defense Policy as an alternative to NATO. (The same logic was present during the abortive attempt by France to return in 1996, and French strategic circles argue that this reasoning is even more valid today, given the increasing convergence between NATO and EU membership.)

Sarkozy also expects that France will be given positions in the military structure commensurate with its role and contribution to NATO – apparently in the form of French command of the Norfolk-based Transformation Command, one of the two major NATO commands.

The quid pro quo is important politically. There is no hostility to NATO in France, and reintegration will have little if any domestic political cost for Sarkozy. (There will be a financial cost, estimated to more than €400 million in the next five years, due to the need to train and send a high number of English-speaking officers in the military structure.) But Sarkozy could face criticism from the Socialist opposition and even by parts of his majority if he gives the impression that French re-integration of NATO – laying to rest a Gaullist political taboo – was not properly appreciated by the alliance.

Even as late as 1999, a decade into the post-cold war era, few would have expected that NATO would remain the dominant Western security organization ten years later. Today, it can safely be assumed that the alliance will celebrate its 70th anniversary in 2019.

Bruno Tertrais is a Senior Research Fellow at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique in Paris.

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 10, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2009.

  • Organized Labor in U.S. and Germany—Will it Survive?

    By Michael Mosettig

    To the union leaders who occupy offices inside, the big white building just north of Lafayette Square in Washington is known as The House of Labor. Encased on marble, with a view of the White House, it exudes the power that once belonged to leaders of American labor unions to help pick and elect Democratic Party presidents and push their agendas through Congress.

    Read more ...

UMD Jean Monnet Research Project

Infrastructure Planning and Financing: Lessons from Europe and the United States

The University of Maryland has received a Jean Monnet grant from the EU to conduct a series of policy exchanges between Europe and the US on filling infrastructure needs and the utility of public/private partnerships as the financing mechanism. If interested in participating in or receiving more information about these exchanges, please contact Rye McKenzie (

Read more ...

New from the Bertelsmann Foundation

The Bertelsmann Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit think tank in Washington, DC with a transatlantic perspective on global challenges.

"Edge of a Precipice" by Nathan Crist

"Newpolitik" by Emily Hruban


Summer Course