Guest Post by Sean Kay: Time To Get Real on NATO


This is a guest note by Sean Kay. Kay is Chair of International Studies and Professor at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is also the author of NATO and the Future of European Security and Global Security in the Twenty-first Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace.
This post was originally published at Stephen Walt’s blog
at Foreign Policy.
Recently in Washington, D.C., a group of experts met as part of an ongoing review to develop a new “strategic concept” for the NATO allies to approve at a heads-of-state summit to be held in late 2010. Key speeches were presented by the NATO Secretary General Fogh Rassmussen, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The result, however, has been an exercise in NATO “group think” with little relevance to real strategic thinking about America and its core national security interest.
This NATO review process is failing to account for three fundamental contradictions.
First, NATO Secretary General Rassmussen stated that: “We must face new challenges. Terrorism, proliferation, cyber security or even climate change will oblige us to seek new ways of operating. And in a time of financial and budget constraints, we need to maximize our efficiency within limited resources.” However, all of these issues are challenges far better suited for the European Union (EU) and a special US-EU relationship to manage rather than NATO.
Second, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that: “This Alliance has endured because of the skill of our diplomats, the strength of our soldiers, and – most importantly – the power of its founding principles.” Yet, one of NATO’s core founding principles was to create a circumstance in which Europe could stand on its own two feet. This is, effectively, NATO’s last unfulfilled mission after the Cold War and it is now hindered by an institutional framework allowing Europeans to free-ride on American security provision.
Third, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated: “The demilitarization of Europe – where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it – has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st.” The demilitarization of Europe, however, means that NATO has succeeded in its fundamental mission – that Europe no longer fights wars is a good thing. Moreover, Europe has no incentive to contribute to global security missions so long as America takes the lead. Europe has every incentive to free-ride on American power and NATO perpetuates that.
Secretary Gates did provide his audience with a dose of realism, noting that: “Right now, the alliance faces very serious, long-term, systemic problems.” What he fails to appreciate, however, is that these problems are not going to be solved by berating European allies for pursuing obvious benefit to their national interests. Rather, the solution is to change the strategic dynamic by beginning to reduce American military commitments overseas and realigning – including cutting – defense spending to reflect new security realities.
Recently, Secretary of State Clinton testified to Congress that: We have to address this deficit and the debt of the U.S. as a matter of national security, not only as a matter of economics.” Indeed, the most serious threat to America’s geostrategic position in the world is its $12 trillion national debt. Yet, the United States has increased its commitment to Afghanistan, seems unlikely to be able to disengage from Iraq anytime soon, faces a growing confrontation with Iran, and is simultaneously increasing its defense spending. Meanwhile, the American public is in its most isolationist mood in decades. It is in this context that NATO’s “group of experts” seeks to add missions to the alliance, rather than rethink the role of the alliance itself.
The Department of Defense recently published its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) which states rightly that the United States must “increasingly cooperate with key allies and partners if it is to sustain peace and security” (interestingly in a December 2009 draft version of the QDR, the language read “rely” on key allies). Yet the QDR and the new defense budget both show a United States seeking to hold onto a primacy in global security that is no longer sustainable. The QDR notes that the US seeks to prevent and deter conflict by: “Extending a global defense posture comprised of joint, ready forces forward stationed and rotationally deployed to prevail across all domains, prepositioned equipment and overseas facilities, and international agreements.” This is not a strategy that reflects wise prioritization by a country $12 trillion in debt.
The QDR typically emphasizes NATO as part of this global presence – and understandably points to Afghanistan as an essential component of this global partnership in a transformed alliance. While it is increasingly said that Afghanistan is a crucial test for NATO – the reality is that NATO has already failed in Afghanistan. In his assessment from summer 2009, General Stanley McChrystal noted that the operational culture of the NATO mission in Afghanistan would have to be fundamentally transformed. This critical step, however, is not happening. While the Europeans are contributing, there is nothing inherent in the ISAF command structure that requires it to be a NATO-engaged coalition. In fact, Brussels currently has very little to do with operations in Afghanistan and Europeans might contribute more if their reputation in Afghanistan was more closely linked to the future of the European Union.
A strategic concept for NATO need not be very complicated. There are basically two missions left for the alliance.
First, NATO should be kept as a reserve capacity built around the traditional Article 5 mission of territorial collective defense as a hedge against future geopolitical rivalry at the global or regional level. This, however, need not require costly new initiatives to keep NATO busy, but rather should be seen as a reserve fund of alliance power – political in nature with operational doctrines available on the shelf. NATO should continue its process of reaching out to engage Russia and abandon its provocative and self-defeating discussion of further enlargement or “global NATO” operations which are not realistic or sustainable but which create strategic costs in the US-Russian relationship.
Second, NATO’s staff should be given a clear mandate to work themselves out of a job – with their final mission being to hand over full lead responsibility for regional security to the European Union. The most fundamental missions of NATO are achieved – Europe is integrated, whole, and free. The challenge now is to ensure that this is sustained via the European Union. By jealously hanging onto an irrelevant dominance over European security policy, the United States hinders effective EU security integration and ironically damages America’s own interests. If the United States can’t hand over lead authority in Europe where can it?
Before committing to a strategic concept driven by NATO groupthink, President Obama should convene a policy review that brings into the process a broader range of strategic thinking than a self-motivated Washington-Brussels network which habitually seeks new missions, new budgets, and continues to drain the United States of scarce resources. Europe is not yet capable of standing alone – and these strategic shifts will not happen overnight. However, they certainly will never happen if the United States does not make the building of the European Union, not NATO, its primary strategic goal in the transatlantic security architecture. A fundamental and lasting alignment of the transatlantic security dynamic can be a vital legacy for President Obama – but it will require a much greater application of realism to the role of NATO than is currently being considered.
— Sean Kay


8 comments on “Guest Post by Sean Kay: Time To Get Real on NATO

  1. mike mosettig says:

    A nit-pick but a bete noir for me, to mix metaphors terribly.
    But unless the Queen of England or of the Netherlands or the Presidents of Germany and Italy are coming to the late 2010 NATO summit, it should be labeled a heads of government summit.


  2. frenchconnection says:

    “Europe has zero security interest in
    bull, I say : Europe has a great security interest that a state (Afghanistan) squeezed between nuclear countries among whom one of them is unstable and one probably to become isn’t really a model of democracy doesn’t turn into a failed state. That besides the spreading of one of the most disgusting religious terrorism that has ever existed.
    And Europe (NATO) at least at the level of individual states engaged in Afghanistan 2001 for that reason and for a chapter 5 obligation (even if it was initially turned DOWN by the irresponsible Bush adminstation – talk about pressure)…


  3. frenchconnection says:

    Schröder isn’t the “CEO of GASPROM” but became 2005 the head of the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream A, a consortium for the building of a Baltic pipeline between Russia and Germany. Besides Schröder isn’t “Germany”. The “dependence” of Germany on Russian gas is as much annoying than the US dependence on Saudi oil and probably less. So let keep that debate into some factual limits.
    The “former German NATO officer” is right that the picture of NATO “freeriding” on the US is mostly wrong even if it is a common belief in the exceptionalistic US. NATO is funded to 75% by European states, the US part is round 25%, including bases. It is true that the US contribution has been greater in the afterwar period but a lot of the investments had to be made anyway due to the US global military strategy. So the US whining is a bit like if the French and the Brits were saying to the other EU members “look we developed roughly 600 350 megaton MIRV, launchable from very expensive vectors like nuclear submarines, cruise missiles, hypersonic missiles and dedicated bombers so you are freeriding on our nuclear umbrella”.
    To better exemplify this one could say that the US is “freeriding” on the EUFOR, KFOR, UNIFIL etc.. missions in Chad (Darfur), former Yugoslavia (where the US ground troop participation was a token and unexposed), Lebanon, Somalia (Atalante) and specially places where it would be dynamite to even propose US troops.
    The USA and EU have a similar size of armies (1.2 million) and deployable forces for oversea operations(350 000 men) not including base presence The European deployment overseas (not including French/UK bases) the last 10 years has varied between 90 000 – 70 000 men every year. The US one is today of roughly 200 000, BUT HALF OF IT IS IN IRAQ. That is to say that if the US had acted responsibly in its role of “peacekeeper” the US/EU involvement in troop presence abroad, been friggingly similar.
    It is true that the US can put more means in form of projection capacity and materiel (tanks, planes etc…) but that’s really there that the difference resides.
    finally I doubt about the representativity of the opinion of the “former German NATO officer” if he is indeed one. Germany isn’t “losing” about the presence in Landstuhl etc… the base is a great facility for everybody and we Frenchies have used it to repatriate severe casualties needing urgent treatment. If I was him I’d be more concerned about the caveouts for the German troops in A-stan and try to post stuff to demoralize the Talibans insteda of our troops, for a change. This war isn’t unwinnable. It’s only a matter of strategy, as in all wars.


  4. Charlemagne says:

    Mar says: “Europe has zero security interest in
    Afghanistan but has troops from a lot of countries
    there only to please the US”
    I guess Russian efforts to turn Germany to an
    anti-american state is working well.
    ex German Chancellor Gerard Schröder is now CEO of
    RUssian Giant Gas company Gasrprom.
    Germany is becoming more dependent on Russian oil
    and gas.
    For Russian propaganda war which was intensified
    recently :
    I think First of all Germany should be emancipated
    from Russian dependence and then Germany should
    have the right to have its own military.
    Otherwise Russia will continue to expand towards
    Europe as it is already doing economically.


  5. b says:

    1. Europe is NOT freeriding on NATO – it is the U.S. that is freeriding:
    – My country, Germany, actually pays a high price (financially and in other currency) “for the U.S. troops stationed here but can not get rid of them because of pressure from Washington
    – Piracy: Europe hat its anti-piracy operation Atalanta up in mid 2008 while the U.S. was freeriding until it, out of shame, started its small ITF-151 in January 2009.
    – The U.S. was freeriding on European troops in Afghanistan who had to hold out because the U.S. was to commit its own troops to the bloody adventure in Iraq.
    – Europe has zero security interest in Afghanistan but has troops from a lot of countries there only to please the US.
    2. Gates is using Orwellian speak when he talks of European disarmament as endangering peace. It is great nonsense. Of course Europe has disarmed, but that is because the potential enemies also have disarmed. There is zero sound reason to put more money into military stuff if there is no enemy at all. (Besides – as the real numbers show, European countries are, after the U.S., still the top world spenders on weapons.)
    3. What the U.S. actually wants is a NATO it can press into service whenever it is assumed to be useful for U.S. aims. That will hopefully end when NATO dissolves after the defeat in Afghanistan.
    A (former) German NATO officer.


  6. Charlemagne says:

    The academic article below absolutely contradicts
    the article of Sean Kay:
    PS: if Cold War ended and its long gone, what was
    the attempt by USA to deploy long range anti
    ballistic missles to Poland and Czech Republic
    last year?
    And Romania agreed to receive those missiles from
    Why Tajikistan was a subject matter that was
    considered as a competition area between Russia
    and USA?
    I was just wondering


  7. John Waring says:

    I think Mr. Kay’s article is a rational prescription for American retrenchment. The Cold war has been over for twenty years.
    Here is another voice on the subject.


  8. Charlemagne says:

    As if NATO’s main target was ONLY to restructure
    How about George Kennaan and his Containment Policy?
    This article looks absurd when comparing the NATO’s
    core targets and objectives.


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