March 17, 2014
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sharply interrupted a transatlantic debate over the utility of NATO amid the declared US “pivot to Asia” and the winding down of the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan. As NATO governments grapple for an immediate response to Russia’s aggression, they also must prepare in its wake to answer a more basic question about transatlantic security cooperation.

The question, which NATO leaders will have to answer at their summit conference in Wales in September, is this:  Which European and North American national interests are involved in transatlantic cooperation and what needs to be done to update and enhance that cooperation?  The answer should include a strong and balanced approach that reinforces the economic, political and military foundations of NATO and its relationship with the European Union. Here are four elements that such an answer should include:

First, the thorough interdependence of transatlantic financial and economic relations makes their health a vital interest for states of both sides of the Atlantic. Ensuring their health means completing the negotiations for a new Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). These negotiations aim to remove residual barriers to open and dynamic trade across the Atlantic. An agreement will require difficult concessions by both sides, but would add new dynamism to economic growth in the transatlantic area, and would stimulate growth globally.

Second, healthy political relations across the Atlantic provide the foundation for common approaches to security problems. The Obama administration therefore needs to continue working with European allies to restore the mutual trust that was seriously wounded by the revelations of the spying by the National Security Agency (NSA) on allied leaders. The reality is that American and European interests will be enhanced by improved intelligence sharing rather than more spying on each other, (a practice that political realists understand has always been a two-way street). National collection of intelligence, even on allies, will continue. But greater transparency as well as improved sharing of information on terrorist activities, Middle Eastern instability, and turbulence elsewhere in the world would help repair damaged trust.

Third, the NATO allies must forge a new collective approach to defense programs. The end of the main Afghan security operation will provide respite but also tempt governments to reduce cooperation with other allies. To counter it the Alliance has promised both greater rationalization (through its Smart Defense initiative) and new training standards (via the Connected Forces Initiative), but it has not provided sufficient strategic guidance.

The Crimean crisis suggests a renewed political emphasis on collective defense, but does it also suggest a heavier conventional force than the one now emerging from a decade of Afghan warfare? Does it imply that NATO must again build up rather than reduce its collective command structure and notably its regional headquarters? And finally, does it suggest that US tactical (air-delivered) nuclear weapons must remain in Europe, or rather that they can be offered as bargaining chips in an effort to create a tolerable balance of forces between NATO and Russia? NATO’s need for conventional expeditionary forces is not in doubt, but NATO must address the shape and size of these forces in light of its security requirements, now influenced by Russia’s aggressive behavior.

Finally, transatlantic community governments must flesh out what their “comprehensive” approach to security involves.  The last strategic concept approved by the NATO allies (in 2010) envisioned the cooperative use of a broad range of political and economic as well as military instruments of national power.  A comprehensive approach to security, peace, and stability is widely accepted also in the European Union and among the other partners that NATO works with, including the United Nations. However, the practice of comprehensive engagement lags well behind the theory.    

One obstacle has been that NATO’s mandate does not include coordination of so broad a task.  In Europe, many of the tools required for comprehensive security approaches are coordinated through the EU, some members of which have been unwilling to subordinate that organization to NATO.  A perceptive British analyst, Julian Lindley French, has provocatively observed that the EU-NATO Strategic Partnership is neither strategic nor a partnership.  That needs to change.

Rather than starting with the institutions, as most approaches do, it might be more productive to start with a political commitment by all NATO and EU member states. Such a commitment could be embodied in a “Comprehensive Transatlantic Security Compact” to get all members of the transatlantic community to agree that their future security will be enhanced by cooperation that is not limited to military ties in NATO or the EU. Indeed, at its summit in September, NATO should invite the European Union to join in preparing such an accord.

This transatlantic compact would not be intended to replace or limit either NATO or EU functions. NATO would remain the primary forum for the transatlantic military cooperation essential to deal with future threats. Military forces that do not work together on a continuing basis in peacetime are ineffective and even mutually dangerous in working together under fire. As for the European Union, a “Comprehensive Transatlantic Security Compact” would recognize the EU’s important role in providing essential non-military security instruments, and hopefully helping to enhance European military capabilities.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine makes crystal clear that transatlantic solidarity remains a vital interest for the United States and its NATO allies. Had a comprehensive security approach, embracing both NATO and the EU, been in place, the transatlantic community could have mounted a clearer, more comprehensive response, including  diplomatic, economic, and military measures.

Stanley R. Sloan, author of Permanent Alliance?  NATO and the Transatlantic Bargain from Truman to Obama (2010) is a visiting scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont.  Professor Sten Rynning , author of NATO in Afghanistan, The Liberal Disconnect, directs the Center for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark.

RELATED CONTENT