NATO and the Transatlantic Bargain

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The United States’ recent defense strategy emphasizes a “strategic turning point” and a “broader range of challenges and opportunities.” The NATO Summit, which will be held in Chicago May 20 and 21, will offer the transatlantic countries a first opportunity to respond and two key elements will be “pivoting”—expanding the focus on the larger world beyond the European continent—and “partnering”—enhancing the ability to work with multiple entities in partnership.

The United States cannot accomplish those security objectives on its own; engaging the transatlantic nations will be a key element if the strategy is to be effective. Such a transatlantic bargain will have to rest, as it historically has, on three key pillars between the North American and European countries of NATO: mutual interest, common approaches, and an effective strategy. In each of NATO’s first two phases—the Cold War and the subsequent period of enlargement—these were continuously achieved, albeit subject to some notable contentious dialogues.

In the post-9/11 era, however, meeting the criteria has been far more difficult. The United States and Europe have not always seen eye to eye regarding strategic interests; commonality of approach has been undercut by different views as to the efficacy of force; and the strategies pursued in places like Afghanistan or the Balkans, while perhaps the best available, have not resulted in what most people would deem highly desirable results.

So there are questions on both sides of the Atlantic. From the European perspective, does the United States as the transatlantic leader have a strategic approach that will be effective in the new global world? And from the United States perspective, does Europe have an interest and the capability to engage in and shape the new security environment?

This question is raised most clearly in the context of the very difficult security environment the NATO nations face to their southeast. The Pentagon’s new defense strategy makes clear the importance of this part of the world for the United States. Functionally, when the defense strategy focuses on counter-terrorism, violent extremism and destabilizing threats, including nuclear proliferation, its geographic context is clear: “The primary loci of these threats are South Asia and the Middle East”; “US policy will emphasize Gulf security”; and the “United States will continue to place a premium on US and allied military presence in – and support of – partner nations in and around this region.”

It could hardly be clearer where the United States will center its efforts and a fundamental issue for the transatlantic nations is whether this pivot will become an enduring part of the transatlantic security bargain.

There are good reasons for the Alliance to orient its activities in this direction. One NATO country—Turkey—faces an immediate, very complicated security environment on its borders with Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Likewise, Afghanistan is an obvious continuing high priority for the Alliance. But the reality is that the entire region from Syria to Pakistan is a cauldron of instability, including energy and maritime security in the Arabian Gulf; nuclear proliferation from Iran; the Israeli-Palestinian problem; internal instability in Iraq; insurgency and civil war in Syria; and, as noted, Afghanistan plus Pakistan, presenting overlapping but differentiated challenges. In terms of “active threat, right here, right now,” it is the issues of instability in the Greater Middle East that present the most clear set of problems to Alliance countries.

It would be fair comment by at least some European nations that these issues have not been overlooked. There has been serious engagement in Afghanistan, multiple nations participated in the Libya operation, Iraq has benefitted from the NATO training mission, the Alliance has agreed to missile defense (and its members to economic sanctions) in light of Iranian actions, and a number of countries participate in naval task forces in and around the Gulf. But, while those points are entirely valid, the real issue is the future—both with respect to intentions and capabilities—and, on this score, there is a great deal of skepticism in the United States as to Europe’s staying power with respect to the region, and in Europe, as to whether the United States can propose a strategy that is more effective and less costly in terms of time, resources, and lives toward accomplishing its ends than has been the case in, for example, Iraq or Afghanistan.

The NATO Summit offers an opportunity to solidify the transatlantic bargain for this part of the world. In theory, this has already been done. The NATO Strategic Concept agreed to at Lisbon provides a framework on which a transatlantic effort in the Greater Middle East, and South Asia can be built. The concept provides that the “Alliance is affected by, and can affect, political and security developments beyond its borders [and] . . . will engage actively through partnership with relevant countries.” It goes on to state that “Instability or conflict beyond NATO borders can directly threaten Alliance security, including by fostering extremism, terrorism, and trans-national illegal activities.”

The words of the Strategic Concept are entirely congruent with, though not as explicit as, the United States defense strategy. But just as the earlier Cold War concept of flexible response needed periodic enhancement, the words of the current Strategic Concept —while only sixteen months old — are no longer enough. It will be important to establish that NATO and United States defense strategy are, in fact, congruent. To do so, the Alliance should take three steps.

The first action would be to issue at the NATO Summit an appropriate political declaration focusing on the Greater Middle East and South Asia. Second, as a mechanism to give substantive strategic content to the declaration, the Alliance should support the formation of a Strategic Consultative Group for the region. A Strategic Consultative Group will not displace bilateral activities nor would it be the only multilateral venue. What it would do, however, is focus the Alliance on a key theater in which its interests are at risk. And it would be an affirmation of the transatlantic bargain in the context of the most immediate challenges for both Europe and the United States. Third, the Strategic Consultative Group should be tasked to propose a longer term strategy utilizing all elements of national power for this arena, including the theater involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Central Asian countries; the Iranian problem and the issues of deterrence and potential containment in the Gulf; and the issues raised by Syria.

Franklin Kramer is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Assistant Defense Secretary for International Affairs. This piece is part of a series of New Atlanticist pieces on NATO’s 2012 Chicago Summit.

Related Experts: Franklin D. Kramer

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