Should Obama Abandon NATO for the EU?


Paul Hockenos, editor of Internationale Politik-Global Edition, asks “Is the EU Better for Obama than NATO?”

His answer, not surprisingly, is Yes.

  He argues that we Atlanticists “reflexively designate the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as the institution for trans-Atlantic cooperation” despite the fact that it “remains a US-dominated military alliance with a Cold War mindset. Not only is NATO ill-equipped to confront the plurality of new challenges in the post-Cold War (and now post-American) world order, it has become counterproductive to the task it was originally created to do — namely to guarantee security in Europe.”  Instead, he contends, “The new American administration would be well served to rethink the United States’ relationship to Europe: It should move toward a strategic partnership of equals with the European Union and entertain the possibility of new fora to address global security threats.”

Hockenos provides a snapshot history of the Alliance which, he concedes, “helped the West win the Cold War without firing a shot.”  In his view, though, NATO should have declared victory and closed up shop afterwards.  Instead, he believes, “by transforming the alliance into an agency for addressing international crises of all kinds, NATO’s advocates have only called greater attention to its inadequacy for the 21st century.”

The war in Afghanistan is only the most egregious example of NATO’s dilemma. Whether it is cyberwar, peacekeeping, international terrorism, or energy security, NATO is invoked by Atlanticists as the go-to institution, overburdening it with new responsibilities. In late January, NATO’s secretary general even proposed an alliance presence in the Arctic as global warming melts the northern ice cap and major powers scramble to lay claim to its energy resources. Others see NATO patrolling Gaza’s borders in a new Israel-Palestine peace deal.

As the Dutch political scientist Peter van Ham argues, “NATO’s instruments have become blunt and outdated in the light of today’s non-traditional security challenges and techniques.” Yet, he notes, contrary to expectations its portfolio has only expanded: “Whereas not too long ago the main question was how the European Union could use NATO’s military tools … the debate is now how should NATO draw upon the resources of the European Union, the United Nations, the World Bank, as well as non-governmental organizations.”

Worse yet, he continues, NATO no longer even serves its putative purpose of ensuring U.S.-Europe cooperation.

It is questionable whether this new NATO is still a trans-Atlantic institution worthy of the label. Despite its multilateral structure, NATO has become a clearing house for US-led “coalitions of the willing,” which alliance members — and non-members — can join on a case-by-case basis. For all intents and purposes, it is a group of like-minded democracies that Washington can call upon á la carte. The Europeans bear none of the roles and responsibilities of even junior partners as they did in the past, but rather serve as occasional helpers, as was the case in the invasion and pacification of Afghanistan. The more nations there are in the alliance, the larger the possible constellation for these pick-up coalitions. This is one reason the Americans above all push for NATO’s expansion. And since the mandate of the umbrella organization is no longer restricted to Europe or collective security, it is not surprising that there is talk of opening up membership to the likes of Israel, Australia, and Japan. Those that opt not to be on board for a given mission are simply left behind.

Moreover, he contends, there is “a lingering question of whether NATO is up to the job of keeping the peace in the North Atlantic area, its original raison d’etre.”

Today, the threats to European security are strikingly different from those of the Cold War years. They include ethnic conflict on Europe’s frontiers, mass migration and refugee flows, energy crises, nuclear proliferation, and transnational terrorism. Particularly in Europe, many experts see security challenges in global warming, international trafficking, resource scarcity, and failing states. A recent EU study concluded that increased tensions over falling water supplies in the Middle East will affect the continent’s energy security and economic interests. In addition, global warming will exacerbate poverty and spur mass migration from Africa. Neither NATO’s instruments nor its framework is right for these kinds of problems.

Indeed, he believes, by antagonizing Russia by its very presence, NATO could actually be hindering even the narrowest version of its primordial mission.

By contrast, the EU is a vibrant, modern, multi-purpose institution which “has global interests and a sense of responsibility that goes beyond narrow self-interest. Its size and international economic might alone make it globally relevant, especially since much of the Union’s power comes from its conditionally linked trade policies.”  Further, the EU possesses “legendary soft power.”

With the leverage of incentive and reward, the European Union has nurtured democracy in former right-wing dictatorships on the Mediterranean and formerly communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. This transformative power is presently the driving force of reforms across the Western Balkans and in Turkey as well.


The European Union’s soft power also reaches into a vast periphery stretching from Morocco and Egypt through Jordan to Armenia, Moldova to Ukraine. These countries may never join the European Union, but are nevertheless willing to make compromises and meet basic European Union norms to take advantage of aid and preferential trade, as well as the perks of training for justice officials, environmental projects, and new roads and infrastructure.

These arguments are powerful, indeed.  The problem, however, is that he presents a false choice.  Yes, it makes sense for the United States to work closely with the European Union — which is why the United States works closely with the European Union.  But it also makes sense to continue working within NATO.

Unlike the EU, NATO is a transatlantic body.  The United States traditionally holds the military command through the position of Supreme Allied Commander while the Europeans traditionally hold the civilian command through the office of Secretary General.  (The Canadians, alas, are left out of that mix, a situation which should be corrected.)  Both the political and military institutions are transatlantically integrated, a situation that will be even more true once France rejoins the military command and takes over Allied Command Transformation.  By contrast, the United States is on the outside looking in at the EU. 

Further, since NATO has a strong working relationship with the EU, being part of NATO gives the United States a strong mechanism for managing its relations with Brussels that would otherwise not exist.

Perhaps one day we’ll merge NATO and the EU, creating a North Atlantic Union or some such.  It only makes sense to have the two largest economies remove barriers to trade and travel within their zone and there would certainly be an efficiency created by the merger.   Of course, that only makes sense if the EU decides to pull back from its ambitions to be a United States of Europe and instead decide that it’s better off as a cooperative among sovereign nation-states who share common values and interests but yet sufficiently distinct cultures to make full merger undesirable. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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