Despite their importance, key European allies cannot sustain a vigorous and effective NATO without an involved and committed United States.
The United States remains the ‘essential’ power in Europe and the only country capable of providing effective leadership of the Atlantic Alliance. For Europe to take its full place as a global partner of the United States, the United States will have to remain at the forefront of leading NATO.
The United States has been a European power since World War II. The farsighted decision by President Truman and his successors to commit to Europe’s long-term future helped to transform Europe into the world’s most peaceful and prosperous region. At the end of the Cold War, visionary leaders including George H.W. Bush, Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand, and Margaret Thatcher set the goal of building a Europe “whole, free, and at peace.” While important work remains to be completed in the Western Balkans and Europe’s East, their vision has in large part become a reality.
Despite this transatlantic triumph, America cannot declare ‘mission accomplished,’ pivot to other parts of the world, and walk away from Europe. Some American political leaders, however, believe the contrary—that Europe is too wealthy, too secure, or too feckless to merit further American investment. This attitude is shortsighted and self-defeating.
Many American leaders complain that Europe and Canada are not doing their fair share militarily to strengthen NATO. The truth is, however, that the Alliance has always been unbalanced; since 1949, NATO has never enjoyed military equilibrium among its members. The United States has always been stronger, always spent more, and always been more capable. And it will remain that way—that is the reality of an alliance with a superpower as its core leader. When Washington abdicates that role, Europe flounders. The same is true for NATO as well.
While European leadership during the Libya campaign was impressive, the reality is that NATO would not have succeeded without key air and intelligence support from the US military. Europe still depends on American military power. More often than not, the United States and Europe will have to act together. That demands continued American leadership. Rather than seek to “hand off” responsibilities to NATO, the United States must remember that there will be no capable Alliance without persistent US attention, commitment, and leadership. The United States is the essential member of NATO. It cannot “lead from behind.” American leadership should leverage greater European and Canadian contributions, but they are not substitutes for American involvement, purpose, and power.
The United States must also continue to recognize Europe’s importance to US security in the aftermath of the announced ‘pivot’ to Asia and the Middle East. Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Panetta travelled to the February 2012 Munich Security Conference to reinforce the primacy of Europe as America’s go-to partners. This was a helpful development. But as former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband noted in consultations to inform this report, ”the US pivot could have been more powerful if it had been done with the European allies.” This would have reassured allies nervous of flagging US commitment to the Alliance.
The United States can back up its words with concrete deeds by acting on calls from key European leaders to establish a single transatlantic marketplace. Both Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Cameron called for such an agreement at Davos in January 2012, and other European governments have shown interest as well. A transatlantic single marketplace would serve as the economic counterpart to the security pillar embodied by NATO and would bring much-needed growth to the transatlantic economy. Moreover, a major project such as a single transatlantic marketplace would dispel doubts among European allies about the importance of the transatlantic relationship in light of the ‘pivot.’
A robust American investment in Europe’s security and prosperity will prove to be an investment in American security by strengthening Washington’s relationships with its most capable and effective allies. The essence of the transatlantic bargain today is that the United States must recommit to European security and, in turn, America’s NATO allies must recommit to partnering with Washington on global challenges. Therefore, in the wake of the withdrawal of two brigade combat teams stationed in Europe, and despite its lofty price tag, the United States must make the investments needed to rotate US forces into Europe for exercises to maintain interoperability with European forces.
Finally, the United States can only lead the transatlantic community if its own political leadership is willing to make difficult choices at home. While America’s allies do not question its intentions, they do worry that political gridlock has weakened the United States and undermined its ability to think and act strategically. Neo-isolationist views expressed by some American political figures have also left some European allies fearful of a US turn inward and away from its traditional role of global leadership. Just as US political leaders brought a reluctant United States into a role of global responsibility after World War II, today’s generation of politicians must convince the American people of the value of leading the transatlantic alliance in a globalized world. Isolation and disengagement from world affairs would weaken the United States and undermine its interests.
R. Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and a board director of the Atlantic Council. Damon Wilson is executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. Jeff Lightfoot is deputy director of the Council’s International Security Program. This piece is adapted from the Atlantic Council publication “Anchoring the Alliance.”