Yesterday, NATO officially kicked off the process of drafting a new strategic concept for history’s most enduring military alliance. Officials, soldiers, think tankers, and strategists from all 28 member states convened in Brussels to ponder ideas on how to make the Atlantic Alliance fit for its seventh decade in business.


The task is a huge and timely one. The old strategic concept is ten years old. And NATO is an alliance ridden with self-doubt and plagued by serious political and military rifts. But it is neither the demanding military situation in Afghanistan nor the more-dead-than-alive relationship with its most important partner – the European Union – that is most troubling for the alliance. Also neither Russia, nor Iran, nor Al-Qaeda will break up NATO any time soon. The biggest threat is, once again, decoupling. But unlike in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when political leaders in Europe were deeply concerned that a war-weary US could retreat and leave its old-world partners unprotected, today’s threat is real.

Until recently, diverging interests within the alliance could reliably be bridged by the sober calculation that, in the end, confidence in NATO’s practical usefulness topped all other centrifugal forces which drove the allies apart. But now the United States, NATO’s biggest member and its military backbone, is increasingly losing interest in NATO as an instrument of warfare. What began as a mere nuisance in the 1999 Kosovo campaign is turning into an outright problem in Afghanistan.  NATO’s multinational setup makes for slowed-down decision-making and for bloated and unclear chains of command. The recent revamp of the mission’s command structures, intended to resolve the “war by committee” problem, won’t change the underlying problem.  Incongruent rules of engagement, national caveats, and a political unwillingness by some of America’s partners to provide much needed assets don’t help either. The US’s reply to this is quintessential decoupling: by deploying 20,000 fresh troops, President Obama effectively “Americanizes” the war, leaving Europeans sidelined.

At the same time, Europe is getting increasingly dependent on the US’ ability to provide security and serve as the guarantor of peace. A more assertive and less predictable Russia reminds Europeans that their lives would be much less convenient if it wasn’t for the US nuclear umbrella. Issues such as Iran, piracy, and Palestine are of vital interest to Europeans but rely on a strong US to be resolved. Even the European Union’s own attempt to become a producer of security, the European Security and Defense Policy, has proven to be largely dependent on NATO and American assets. If Washington, for a sheer lack of resources, is forced to concentrate its diminished assets on a few select hot issues, Europe, incapable of defending itself, could end up being a significantly less comfy place to live in.

The drafting of NATO’s new strategic concept provides Europeans with a great chance to face these new realities and to stop the slow but steady process of decoupling. In order to seize this big opportunity, European governments need to do two things. First, they need to muster all their creativity to provide policy-relevant input for the upcoming drafting procedure and the ratification process that will follow. Only then will there be the chance that the new strategic concept is going to be a politically meaningful, intellectually strong and strategically far-sighted document. Only then will it be able to unfold the self-binding power that is needed to counter the decoupling tendencies. And only then will the signal be clear enough that Europeans are still serious about what it means to be partners in an alliance. Secondly, European governments must finally get straight with their populations on what’s ahead. Yes, the world is an increasingly insecure place. No, the US won’t be prepared to carry the burden alone any longer. Yes, that means more and smarter spending on unpopular stuff, more engagement, and most certainly more casualties. No, this isn’t war-mongering, this is the 21st century. Say it publicly. Say it now.

This would be a daunting leadership challenge under any circumstance. It is endlessly more difficult in times of economic and social hardship. But it must be done because it is only this frankness  that will buy European governments the political maneuvering space they will need to make tough decisions. And only tough decisions will keep NATO a useful tool, equip the Europeans for their growing role within the alliance, and thereby stop the most threatening trend of our times: decoupling.

Jan Techau is director of the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. This essay was first published in Atlantic Community.