European Affairs




On the face of things, collaboration between NATO and EU is logical: 21 of the EU’s 27 members are in NATO and five of the others are associates in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program.  Most of the 28 nations in NATO belong to the EU (with more on the way such as Croatia) and, significantly, France has re-emerged as a major NATO player since Paris rejoined the integrated military command. Among these countries with overlapping memberships, there are only one set of defense budgets and one array of forces and capabilities. Warfare in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia have demonstrated that cooperation is possible, and now the certainty of severe constraints on defense spending across the transatlantic community gives urgency to the need to make maximal use of resources.

In a positive development, according to the prevailing view among speakers, the attitude in Washington towards an enhanced EU security role has evolved. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac agreed in December 1998 at St. Malo that the EU should have a capacity for autonomous action, Washington’s reaction was “distinctly chilly,” especially because this step came at time prior to France’s subsequent action in rejoining NATO’s integrated military structure. Some alarmist statements made in Washington at the time “almost killed” the development of European defense.

U.S. concerns, as laid out under the Clinton administration by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, focused on worries about “the three Ds”: decoupling [of Europe from NATO]; duplication [of NATO investment by Europe-only expenditure]; and discrimination [against NATO members who were not also members of the EU, notably Turkey].

These concerns began to subside in the latter years of President.

George W. Bush’s administration, giving way to a pragmatic approach along the lines of statements now recalled as “too much European defense capability was not a problem, so let’s stop fighting it” and, in a similar vein, “if the Europeans would take security, meaning defense, more seriously because of things that were happening in terms of the creation of a stronger EU, then so what if there was some duplication.” (This evolution of views occurred against the backdrop of debate and finally transatlantic agreement, ultimately baptized “Berlin plus,” that European allies could borrow “NATO assets” such as U.S. airlift, intelligence and precision guidance for NATO operations that the alliance wanted to undertake without direct U.S. involvement. The limitation of “Berlin plus” for the current situation is that it only applies to NATO partnership with a united EU: absent EU consensus on action, as was the case in Libya, “Berlin plus” does not provide a basis for autonomous European-led cooperation and action.)

Within NATO, too, concerns have subsided about potential rivalry from the EU. At the Institute seminar, participants noted that “the ideological heat in the ‘90s debate about EU-NATO relations is not there any more.” “In NATO, there is no doubt that the EU having its own security and defense policy, and spending more on defense, is of benefit to the alliance.” NATO’s “new strategic concept”  that emerged from allied leaders’ summit meeting in Lisbon in November 2010 envisages conflict prevention and crisis management as future alliance missions to be undertaken in cooperation with partners, specifically the EU and UN.

Citing collaboration in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Libya, one panelist said: “Cooperation is going pretty well in theater” during military operations. But, another panelist pointed out, this outcome has required leaders in capitals and on the ground to find “a lot of workarounds with individual countries and commanders” to overcome the caveats and other forms of reticence that have undercut the real-world combat effectiveness of some allies’ contributions. In Brussels, cooperation is actually quite close at the staff-to-staff level and “informally at the political level” – thanks to “a lot of meetings” with informal dinners every six months.

At senior levels, when NATO foreign ministers met in early December 2011, the talks included Catherine Ashton, the EU Foreign and Security High Representative. Now NATO anticipates that Ashton and European Council President Herman van Rompuy will attend the NATO summit in Chicago in May. EU leaders are reported to have “encouraged” Ashton to consult with her counterparts in NATO. All this reflects a “pragmatic mode,” a speaker said.

The EU is also working to create some institutional scaffolding for its security policy in the form of a political security committee, a military committee, a (still embryonic) military staff, the pursuit of a strengthened European Defense Agency (EDA) – along with greater attention to civilian support work in combat and post-combat planning and contingencies. NATO has noted “where the EU is going in operations and capabilities.” As a panelist noted, the EU has recognized, “rightly or wrongly,” that the capacity of the EU to conduct or collaborate in actual missions is increasingly seen as a bellwether for the evolution of the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy.

In a current initiative, the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council approved efforts at its December 2011 meeting to explore ways of generating the capabilities needed for a “package” of potential future tasks: maritime missions off the Horn of Africa; a possible mission in the Sahel; and a possible mission in Libya (concerning water management). The meeting also approved a document listing the operational requirements for these and other contingencies: battle groups, force generation, financing arrangements, better crisis-management mechanisms, a rejigging of the Brussels decision-making machinery. Progress on these points is to be assessed by the European Council at its meeting in June. “It’s going to be very interesting to see in the next six months what comes out” of that initiative, a participant said.

The EU is even involving itself in the thorny but inescapable task of seeking to rationalize European defense procurement. Inescapable because the “three D’s” of initial U.S. skepticism have given way to what one panelist recalled as former NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner’s labeling of “the three C’s” as: capabilities, capabilities, capabilities.

France has marked its return under President Nicolas Sarkozy to NATO’s command structure by a characteristically Cartesian analysis of its own, and by extension Europe’s, defense needs. Under its rubric -- “how to be strong together”-- France has identified a dozen capabilities from satellites, sensors and drones to carrier battle-groups and fast attack submarines whose preservation, one panelist said, is seen by France as basic to its “own security, European security, transatlantic security if you will, and contributing to a broader [Western] commitment if necessary.”

From this list, some systems have been identified – at least in France -- as priority needs revealed by the Libyan campaign: specifically, an upgrading to surmount Europe’s “known shortfalls,” particularly in airborne intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities, the lack of which prevented NATO aircraft from striking “dynamic” as opposed to fixed targets. More broadly, the list highlights the need for investment in “key enablers” such as drones and air-to-air refueling capabilities.

A panelist was optimistic: “I really think [the list] is fully affordable even in an age of austerity in defense spending.” Others were not so sanguine or, at best, felt that the list could be afforded only by joint endeavor. This approach is the latest buzzword – in the EU, “pooling and sharing” and in NATO, “smart defense.” Both efforts are aimed to promote pan-European weapons development and procurement. The NATO process can be defined as top down: under the Alliance Command Transformation (ACT), capabilities have been identified that the alliance has proposed to member states for multi-national collaboration. In the EU, the process is bottom-up: EU political reality dictates that nations espouse projects and search for partners.

As a step toward coordinated efforts in Europe toward procurement designed to overcome high-priority collective shortfalls, the European Defense Agency (EDA) has drawn up a “capabilities development plan” listing 11 priorities --- most of them in accord with the French list. It remains to be seen how successfully the EDA can act as arbiter and broker of this process. The EDA is a small organization, with an annual budget of only 30 million euros and no strong legal mandate – especially in light of the fact that the EU’s single market rules don’t apply to defense. The EDA does apparently have political backing, though, and the financial crisis has given impetus to its efforts.

Dovetailing with NATO objectives is part of this prioritizing bid by the EDA. The agency’s plan is that its list of “collaborators-wanted” for weapons projects should be so aligned with NATO’s requirements that the EDA solicitations could be “bread on the table” at the summit.

None of the panel questioned the view that “there is a deficit in capabilities in NATO on the European side, a deficit confirmed most recently in the Libya air campaign.” On paper, the nations of Europe have “an amazing inventory” of military assets “so it’s not a question of inventory,” a panel member asserted. A retort came from another panelist: “It’s true that if you stack them up side by side, there’s lots of equipment and personnel on the table. But for operations it’s not deployable; it’s not sustainable; it’s not ready; it’s not financed; and the political will to use it is not there. So you do have this lack of capabilities still.”

Against the logic of concerting EU and NATO decisions on defense investments – or any other collaboration -- the unresolved Turkey/Greece/Cyprus issue remains the most intractable institutional barrier. (One everyday example cited as “ludicrous” by a panel member: because of Turkey’s stipulations as the price of its consent to the Afghan operation, an item of NATO intelligence in Afghanistan has to be sent back to a national capital, there transferred into an EU channel and sent back to the Afghan theater.) No panel member foresaw a swift resolution of the issue. “The status of Cyprus is more important to Cyprus and to Turkey than the ability of the EU and NATO to work together,” one speaker pointed out. Thus, last May when EU and NATO ambassadors met to informally discuss Libya for the first time, Turkey insisted meeting like these should be convened on an ad hoc basis.

When Cyprus takes the presidency of the EU as scheduled in the second half of 2012, Turkey has said it will freeze relations with the EU. No panelist claimed to foresee what implications that may have for EU-NATO relations. Still, day-to-day workarounds are apparently possible: Turkey has always been “very willing to work on practical matters,” said one panelist with experience of the issue. His counsel: “Let’s just not make either side compromise on an issue of principle that would affect their position vis a vis the standoff in Cyprus.”

NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen has made a “personal proposal” which, if accepted, would open the door to, at least, more public EU-NATO cooperation. Dubbed “the Majorca proposal,” it suggests that Turkey and Cyprus be allowed to sign security agreements with the EU and NATO and, in Turkey’s case, with the EDA too. Meanwhile, the panel heard, Turkish sensibilities dictate that steady progress in un-dramatic but useful improvements in EU-NATO collaboration should prudently stay “beneath the radar.”

Doctrinal issues remain to be resolved in EU-NATO such as the question of whether to create a permanent EU operational headquarters. In favor of that step, panelists heard a practical argument (it would help overcome a situation in which “the EU at the moment is not fast enough to react to emerging crises”) and also a political one (“capacity to command and control an operation is key to re-enforcing a sense of responsibility” among Europeans for sustaining defense capabilities”). Skepticism was voiced about the practical argument: “We’ve been down this road a lot from St. Malo onwards [to the effect] that people will not develop capabilities and use them if it’s for NATO, [but will do so] if we put [command & control] into the EU [i.e. that] if we create a new process, a new structure, then people will create the capabilities. It just hasn’t happened that way. And in fact there are operational HQs available under the EU that can be Europeanized if anyone cares to use them,” according to a participant who reflected a view among many that this is no time to add new spending on new EU facilities alongside the sunk costs in existing NATO structures.

Another potential doctrinal divide is the allocation of responsibilities between NATO and the EU. “There is only so much you can do with people in uniform,” was the briskest formulation of the issue. A more emollient assessment was offered by another panelist: “Recognize that there are complementarities here: some things NATO is ideally suited for; some things the EU may be suited for.” In this context, the EU is pursuing what it calls a “comprehensive approach” to security challenges, defined by a panelist as “a comprehensive civil-military approach to dealing with crisis prevention, crisis management and stabilization operations.” This division of labor got some support: “NATO should not be involved in the ‘comprehensive approach’ business. It doesn’t do it well. And it shouldn’t try to replicate things the EU can actually do -- a lot of non-military things -- better than NATO can.”

A good example is counter-piracy operations, according to a participant, who said: “Of course the EU is better organized to be involved because it’s not purely a military problem. If you block a vessel and arrest the pirates, what do you do with them if you have no court” in which to try them. A skeptic pointed out, however, that the EU has a record of over-promising and under-delivering in such situations: “NATO got involved in counter-piracy [operations in the Indian Ocean] because the EU wasn’t doing counter-piracy when it said it would…After months of nothing happening, the UN wrote to NATO and said, would you please help.” In Afghanistan, “the EU had taken on the responsibility for police training and mentoring, but again it wasn’t happening on any kind of scale that was necessary.” NATO had to launch its own police mission “to fill a void.”

Crisis management was seen as another mission calling for the EU’s skills. This too received some support: “NATO can only do stuff once it becomes a crisis and you’re talking about military effort…Kosovo was a forbidden topic until it got to the point of actually having to do things…NATO didn’t even talk about Libya until it got too far down the road [for the conflict to be ignored]…NATO doesn’t even talk about Iran…but crisis-management means actually thinking about issues before they become crises.” The EU, it was argued, was better suited to do this than NATO.

Again, however, a skeptical voice argued against too rigid a distinction of roles. “If the assumption is that NATO is only for military things and the EU is for things that go beyond military, that’s a wrong way to think about the two organizations. NATO has a great deal of [capabilities] that go beyond the military area --and should.”

Two perceptions found broad agreement among the panel. The first is that EU-NATO coordination issues, while demanding action, are not the core problems. “NATO and the EU have bigger problems than their ability to sit down together,” one panelist warned. The larger challenge, this participant said, was that NATO members are no longer bonded by shared perceptions of current or future threats – nor on agreement about appropriate responses. Thus, over Libya, “eight countries took part in the air operations, out of 28; many didn’t take part at all [in the overall campaign], or played very, very limited roles.” Another panel pointed to the incoherence on this and other security issues within the EU, noting that -- despite the existence of a formal European Security Strategy -- “there is no finality as to where EU security and defense policy goes.” The upshot, by this account, is that security debates within the EU tend to default to a quest for “comparative advantages” over NATO, which leads in turn to a debate about what value-added the EU’s “comprehensive approach” might contribute in particular instances.

Both organizations, in other words, are hamstrung by a want of strategic direction.

The panel’s second shared perception was that underlying this failure is a fading of the historic security relationship between the U.S. and Europe. “The core of the problem is the US/Europe relationship. The key to the lock is here,” one panelist said. More surprising, perhaps, was the judgment of another: “I would say that more of the problem lies on this [American] side of the Atlantic right now.”

Two reasons were advanced for this. One is mounting American frustration at Europe’s reluctance to fund adequate defense budgets – a disenchantment, one panel member recalled, brutally spelled out by the Gates farewell appearance in Brussels in June and now commanding mounting political salience as the U.S. confronts deep budget cuts.

The other is that the U.S. “is not seeing the main problems to [its] security as being fundamentally in Europe” Instead, the Obama Administration is touting its “pivot to Asia.”

Two panel members questioned the likelihood of Obama’s initiative producing a comprehensive multinational alliance equaling, still less supplanting, NATO. Such ideas are “a bunch of nonsense” in strategic terms, according to a panel member who pointed out the absence in Asia of the multiple political, social and historical concordances that are the visceral underpinnings of the transatlantic relationship.

The other pointed to economics, with its growing immediacy of importance in today’s world: “The transatlantic community is still the biggest thing going. The EU is the biggest economy in the world. The U.S.-EU relationship is the biggest economic relationship in the world. When you look at what is going to affect the U.S. --- whether it’s the economy, [the preserving of] international markets, our security, or international contributions to deal with other challenges in the world -- it’s going to be the Europeans” who will be the U.S.’s indispensable allies.

Yet, the same panelist said, “The U.S. doesn’t have much vision for how to make this transatlantic community vital and effective in dealing with this agenda.” By contrast, President Obama’s tour round the Pacific Rim in November was “brilliant”: “You didn’t have to look very carefully to see the vision, the strategy, the concrete steps for execution…[on the message that] that the U.S. is a Pacific power and we’re here to stay.” So, he asked: “Where is the vision, the strategy, the execution” in U.S. policy towards Europe?  “That’s exactly what’s missing in U.S. thinking about the transatlantic community right now.”

Paris, according to a panelist, takes a more analytical view in which the U.S. is understood to be looking at Europe and asking a fundamental question: “Ten years from now, with whom will we be capable of doing what?” France is asking itself the same question, he said.

In fact, this question can be fleshed out as several questions, according to a panelist who offered a list of them: “The U.S. is looking for partners, and France is doing the same. Will [France] be able to do something [by itself] in ten years time? Will [France] be able to do something with partners? If so, which partners?”

Vastly expanding the “list of questions” for these players who are all confronting a deeply uncertain future, one panelist made an impassioned case that defense and security are only sub-sets of wider tasks calling for revitalized US-Europe collaboration. As this person put it: “There is a desperate need for the transatlantic community to work together to deal with the major strategic challenges that we are facing, all of our nations, today. Financial, economic, political security in our own neighborhood, security in the wider neighborhood, ideology, rising powers, energy supplies, green technology and climate change. There’s a whole agenda out there.”

In sum, “we need to work together and we’re not doing that very well.”