NATO and the EU: Achieving Unity of Effort in a Comprehensive Approach

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Amidst a spate of disturbing reports about Afghanistan and impending deep cuts in the UK, German, and other allied defense budgets and force structures, security affairs cognoscenti could be forgiven for overlooking some positive news about the Euro-Atlantic relationship:  NATO and the EU still enjoy broad support despite their current travails.

According to the recently released “Transatlantic Trends 2010,” the respected annual opinion survey commissioned by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and four European partner institutes, solid majorities among U.S. and European respondents (from 11 EU member states plus Turkey) see NATO as “essential” to their country’s security.  Furthermore, they believe NATO “should be prepared to act outside of Europe to defend its members from threats to their security.”  Support for “strong EU leadership in world affairs” scores even higher on both sides of the Atlantic.  To be fair, the survey indicates significant and growing pessimism here and abroad over “prospects for stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan.”  However, given the other findings, it appears that many respondents are passing judgment on that particular operation while explicitly accepting NATO and EU involvement in future stabilization missions.

There’s a reminder here for leaders on both sides of the Atlantic as they prepare for NATO, U.S.-EU, and EU summits later this year:  results matter more to their voters than which organization gets credit for dealing with the complex security challenges that we are most likely to face.      Fortunately, Americans and Europeans now broadly agree on this point.  The Group of Experts report, for example, makes a strong plea for closer NATO-EU “partnership.”  However, while the report correctly identifies NATO’s requirement to work with the EU and other institutions in a “comprehensive” civil-military approach to crisis prevention and crisis management, it offers few specifics on how this can be done. 

Here, then, is a one practical suggestion:  create an International Community Planning Forum (ICPF) in Brussels.  The ICPF would include experts from the EU, NATO, UN, OSCE and other international and national organizations (such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, or S/CRS), as well as representatives from NGOs active in international relief, development, and civilian institution-building efforts.  The ICPF participants, for example, could:

  • Familiarize and update each other regarding their respective capabilities and crisis prevention/crisis management activities;
  • Exchange “lessons learned” and “best practices”;
  • Identify possible technical tools and cooperative training activities to facilitate communication among participating institutions and NGOs in a pre-crisis and, if necessary, during a conflict or post-conflict situation; and
  • Carry out generic planning to facilitate de-confliction, coordination, and—eventually—effective cooperation in future contingencies.

Why bother?  Simply because the military forces of the Euro-Atlantic community are not alone in operational theaters stretching from the Balkans to Southwest Asia and East Africa.  They must work closely with a disparate array of civilian agencies and NGOs, whether the operations are conducted under NATO or EU or “coalition of the willing” auspices.  Time and time again, the limits of ad hoc approaches that rely on stitched-up arrangements by in-theater military commanders and civilian agency representatives have become clear.  All of these efforts—including the separate U.S., NATO, EU and UN humanitarian assistance to flood victims in Pakistan–arguably would have progressed faster and at lower risk and cost if advance planning had been openly encouraged, conducted in a structured manner, and involved the other international community players from the start.    

“Involved” does not mean “captured.”  An ICPF would not and could not “task” any participating organization to perform a specific role or conduct itself in any specific manner.  Participation in the ICPF would be strictly voluntary and as inclusive as possible, with its partners able to opt into or opt out of specific programs.  (This accounts for the notion of a planning “forum,” which is less constraining than an “organization” but more dynamic than a “capability.”)  While most ICPF activities likely could be made transparent to the public, some of the information shared could be contained within the participating partners using relatively straightforward and mutually-agreed procedures.   In fact, NATO’s Allied Command Transformation has worked cooperatively with several partners to develop prototype tools to facilitate information sharing among civilian and military actors during a crisis to improve their “situational awareness.”

The ICPF would be the natural extension of some existing NATO-EU arrangements, such as the small NATO liaison team that works with the EU Military Staff and the small EU cell residing at NATO’s SHAPE.  A first step might be to integrate those military teams with civil-military planners in their host organizations.  Moreover, the ICPF would not diminish the usefulness of other prospective arrangements, such as closer practical cooperation between the EU’s civilian crisis management structure and the State Department’s S/CRS.  Similarly, the ICPF would complement, not replace, existing UN-NATO and UN-EU frameworks for cooperation.  

Skeptics tempted to dismiss the ICPF idea as a useless “talk shop” might do well to think out of the box.  Consider, for instance, how our militaries now work together to achieve and maintain the interoperability necessary for joint and combined operations.  They do so through cooperation at various levels, including doctrine, planning, technology, equipment, training and exercises.  Interoperability does not imply abandonment of sovereignty; it will always be up to political authorities to decide if military forces will be committed in a specific instance.  But interoperability is an essential pre-existing condition to cooperate effectively if a political decision is made to do so.

Simply put, the ICPF would begin to expand the interoperability concept to the civil-military sphere.  With better mutual understanding, technical tools, and planning capabilities at their disposal, the civil and military actors would be better positioned to cooperate in an effective international response to a real crisis—if and when they decide to do so. 

Of course, faced with already crowded summit agendas, harried officials might reasonably ask not just “why bother” but also “why now”?   

One reason is that NATO’s continuing transformation will involve much more than a new Strategic Concept.  Substantial reforms and downsizing of its civilian headquarters and military command structures are under serious consideration.  These moves, in turn, will have direct bearing on whether and, if so, to what extent NATO develops “organic” civilian capabilities and/or civil-military planning cells to ensure NATO interface with other organizations. 

Meanwhile, the EU is reorganizing its crisis management structures following ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. Important elements of its overall civil-military approach—for example, the role of its emerging European External Action Service–are still a work in progress.  Other ideas are waiting in the wings: recall the suggestion made last year by French General Henri Bentégeat (as he was leaving his post as Chairman of the EU Military Committee) to create an EU civil-military command center to bring together civilian and military experts to do joint planning and direct specific civil-military operations.

As both NATO and the EU acknowledge the importance of developing partnerships with external actor, an ICPF offers both organizations an early and practical opportunity to align their internal changes with that goal.  Moreover, as former EU High Representative Javier Solana recently observed, the resources required for global solutions are “locally owned”.  In other words, the lion’s share of deployable civilian capabilities needed to assist in economic development, justice and police training, and improved governance belong to the member states—not the EU or NATO.  National governments—some of whom are still working out their internal mechanisms to handle civil-military issues–should be interested in a coherent approach across the organizations to which they contribute. 

Another reason:  despite some false starts—for example, their unhelpful sniping at each other’s efforts, in mid-2005, to assist the African Union peacekeepers in Darfur–NATO and the EU have made progress in working with third parties.  The latter can be other international organizations—for example, the UN, OSCE, European Gendarmerie Force, and African Union.  They also can be other countries—for example, China and India, which loosely coordinate anti-piracy efforts off Somalia with EU and NATO naval and air forces through an informal “Shared Awareness and De-confliction” system.   Paradoxically, relations between NATO and the EU might work smoother in the context of dealing with third parties precisely because they are not hamstrung by politically-charged institutional issues–for example, unresolved problems involving Turkey and Cyprus.  Instead, NATO and the EU are operating “side-by-side” with—and, in some cases, on behalf of—someone else. 

Ideally, several partner organizations, to include the UN, would join the EU and NATO in the early stages of setting up the ICPF.  NGOs wary of any interface with the military might react cautiously at first.  However, their interest likely would grow as the ICPF demonstrates its added value in specific areas that benefit NGO operations.

Still, a NATO-EU agreement to launch the idea is essential. If the challenging international security environment is not sufficient incentive to take practical steps, such as an ICPF, to improve their unity of effort, rhetoric about their “strategic partnership” will ring hollow and all of their member states will be the worse for it.     

Leo Michel is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University.  These are his personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense or any other agency of the Federal Government.

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