Summary of the town hall “Can the United States Afford to be a Superpower? Can Europe be an Effective Ally?” at the 2011 Annual Members’ Conference.


General Brent Scowcroft, USAF (Ret.),**^ Chairman, Atlantic Council International Advisory Board; former National Security Advisor
General James L. Jones, USMC (Ret.),** Chairman-Designate, Atlantic Council Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security; former National Security Advisor
Moderated by George Lund,** Chairman, Torch Hill Investment Group; Vice Chairman-Designate, Atlantic Council Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security

The effects of the joint financial crises in the United States and Europe and the sovereign debt crises that have followed in their wake have forced leaders in the Atlantic community to confront two uncomfortable questions: Can the United States still afford to be a superpower and can Europe remain an effective ally of the United States?

To address these questions, Atlantic Council President and CEO Fred Kempe brought together former National Security Advisors General James L. Jones and General Brent Scowcroft for an opening plenary discussion to the Council’s annual membership conference.

The discussion began with a focus on a current source of debate and discussion in Washington – the prospects for the Deficit Reduction supercommittee and the possible impact its decision or lack thereof might have for the future of US defense budget. The discussants expressed concern over the lack of non-government representation on the committee and emphasized the need for a bipartisan approach to what are viewed as inevitable cuts to defense spending. While savings can be found in acquisition reform, it is imperative to avoid formulaic ‘across the board’ reductions that do not take into account their impact on America’s future defense requirements. The United States must preserve the anchor points that cement its global power, most notably its forward presence. Properly restructured unified commands will be key to cutting costs and maximizing American influence abroad, and the United States must maintain its capacity to surge its forward presence in the face of a threat.

The panel put the discussion of America’s superpower status in a historical context by noting that the United States made drastic cuts to its defense budget during the demobilization phase of World War II. These cuts ultimately left the United States military badly unprepared for the outbreak of war in Korea just years later. The Soviet Union and its ill-transparent intentions in Europe and in Korea catalyzed the United States to significantly increase its national security budget and forge an Atlantic alliance with Europe which exists to this day.

The discussion of defense cuts today obviously exists in a much different strategic context. The interlinkages of the world economy and the borderless nature of current challenges have reduced the power of the nation state. As a result, the Atlantic community must find new ways to address crises. Today, national security challenges must be viewed in a more holistic and multilateral fashion that incorporates non-government actors and new global partners. Security, economic revitalization, and strong governance and rule of law will prove to be essential elements of any campaign to bring security to post-conflict societies. Addressing these types of challenges will require a new type of leadership from the United States and a more balanced set of tools in the foreign policy toolkit.

Libya was viewed as a success for NATO by demonstrating the Alliance’s ability to take rapid action and quickly sort out challenging issues of command and control. The mission might prove to be a template for future action by using NATO as a forum for integrating allies and partners for ‘coalition of the willing’ operations. The panel rejected the notion that the United States provided leadership from behind.

Despite the success of the Libya campaign, NATO must undertake significant reforms in the months ahead of the May 2012 NATO and G-8 summits in Chicago if it is to remain relevant in the face of significant defense cuts. NATO should play a larger role in addressing the strategic challenges facing the Atlantic community through a reinvigoration of the North Atlantic Council that would enable it to return to its former status as a primary forum for strategic discussions. NATO should not seek to expand its membership in an era of enlargement fatigue, but can be much more creative in how it engages its partnerships around the world. The Alliance should also look to revitalize the NATO Response Force as a means of engaging in conflict prevention.

The discussants ultimately view Egypt and not Libya as the key to future developments in the Arab awakening. The Atlantic community and the European Union in particular can play a major role in shaping events in North Africa and the Arab world, but speed of decision making will be essential. The emerging revolutions in the Arab world will have no shortage of enemies, and the interaction between the wealthy and the poor in these societies will play a critical element in the future outcome of the unfolding political turmoil.

Ultimately, the panel concluded that while cuts to defense on both sides of the Atlantic are inevitable, the Atlantic community can remain the essential catalyst for global action – but only if thoughtful and creative reforms are taken. Political leaders within the transatlantic community must forge new approaches to address the global forces affecting the Euro-Atlantic community if the United States is to remain a superpower and Europe an effective ally.