Stephen M. Walt

A new kind of NATO

Sean Kay offers the following guest post on the implications of the new Defense Guidance for the NATO alliance: Last week, the U.S. Department of Defense announced new strategic guidance for force structure and budgets. Buried in the short public document is a single sentence, originally in italics for emphasis, which moves debates over European ...

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Sean Kay offers the following guest post on the implications of the new Defense Guidance for the NATO alliance:

Last week, the U.S. Department of Defense announced new strategic guidance for force structure and budgets. Buried in the short public document is a single sentence, originally in italics for emphasis, which moves debates over European security after the Cold War into a new paradigm: "In keeping with this evolving strategic landscape, our posture in Europe must also evolve." If President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are faithful to their basic assumptions, then it is fair to anticipate dramatic, and highly appropriate, changes in America’s role in NATO.

Three key elements of the new strategy make it hard to escape the logic of a major realignment in NATO. First, there is a clear statement that Asia is the priority for American national security planning. Second, major troop reductions are coming — including shrinking the size of the U.S. Army from 570,000 to possibly as low as 490,000. These cuts have to come from somewhere and Europe is the obvious place to start. Third, the document states that (also with original italics): "Whenever possible, we will develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on exercises, rotational presence, and advisory capabilities." If there is any place in America’s global footprint where this approach is most immediately applicable, it is Europe.

America will not just "walk away" from its NATO allies. Rather, the challenge is to create new incentives for European members to assume lead responsibility for their own security. The strategic guidance asserts that the United States will "maintain our Article 5 commitments to allied security and promote enhanced capacity and interoperability for coalition operations. In this resource-constrained era, we will also work with NATO allies to develop a "Smart Defense" approach to pool, share, and specialize capabilities as needed to meet 21st century challenges."

NATO needs a radical new kind of American leadership if Europe is to be incentivized to assume new responsibilities in effective ways.  For generations, American officials have asked Europe to increase burden sharing and economize defense planning — and repeatedly failed. George Kennan warned about this risk in 1948 when he wrote (in an internal memo for negotiators that were creating NATO): "Instead of the ability to divest ourselves gradually of the basic responsibility for the security of Western Europe, we will get a legal perpetuation of that responsibility. In the long-run, such a legalistic structure must crack up on the roots of reality; for a divided Europe is not permanently viable, and the political will of the U.S. people is not sufficient to enable us to support Western Europe indefinitely as a military appendage." Today, with the Eurozone in extended crisis, to expect "more" from Europe would be delusional.

What, then, might be done to align next steps policy with what the new guidance calls "a strategic opportunity to rebalance the U.S. military investment in Europe?"

First, declare victory! Europe is experiencing unprecedented sustained peace. If there ever was a moment to take advantage of that climate, it is now. The risks of defense re-nationalization are next to zero and potential conventional threats far over the horizon. Meanwhile, austerity programs are incentivizing Europe to economize military spending via deeper integration — as Britain and France commenced in 2010. The European security dilemmas that required a heavy American military presence have long been resolved. As but just one recent example, late in 2011, Polish Foreign Minister Radislaw Sikorski stated that: "I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity."

Second, the United States can, in recognizing this unique opportunity, lead NATO towards a new force structure which puts European allies squarely in the lead. This would be done by:

1. A clear statement from President Obama that over the next 2-3 years, America will work with the NATO allies to help them develop the integrative capacity they need to simultaneously conduct a Libya-style war and a Balkans-style peace support operation — without the United States. Europe must now assume primary responsibility for security provision in and around its area.

2. Make clear that America’s role in NATO will be limited to Article 5, collective defense, contingencies. In the current environment this means placing America’s participation in reserve, as a hedge against great power tensions or shocks to transatlantic security interests. Operationally, this means limiting America’s role in Europe to missile defense and liaison activity for consultation, intelligence sharing, planning, exercising, and base-access and deployment logistics.

3. Logic follows that this approach means major reductions in American military personnel stationed in Europe from many tens of thousands down to very low thousands or even hundreds. Some forces based at home would be allocated as reserves available to European contingencies.

4. Major American bases would be closed or transferred to allies for operation and funding and storage of pre-deployed equipment where appropriate. A symbolic start would be to relocate EUCOM from Germany to the United States with American command structures similar to CENTCOM.

5. Announce a clear time-table for this realignment of 2-3 years, with pooled cost-sharing in the NATO infrastructure fund to pay for associated near-term realignment costs that will eventually yield long-term savings. Additionally review the NATO international staff and determine what areas would be better managed through the European Union and which American positions can be handed over to Europeans, including SACEUR.

There will be incredible bureaucratic opposition to this kind of major realignment. This is, after all, asking America to be a wise great power and discard its jealous hold on primacy in European security matters. But the primary criticism, that Europe is needed as a transit point to other theaters just does not hold like it once did. Even in the Iraq war in 2003, most American troops transited through Shannon Airport in Ireland – a neutral country not in NATO. Where necessary bilateral U.S. strategic partnerships can enhance reassurance in places like Turkey and occasional exercises can reassure new NATO allies as in Poland and the Baltic countries. Other criticisms are emotional and driven by historicisms about World War II and the Cold War, not a realistic assessment of today’s situation. After all, NATO is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself, and as the U.S. now states, "our posture in Europe must now evolve."   

If the United States cannot disengage from Europe now, then from where in the world can it? This is a unique moment to test assumptions about the role of power and international institutions in world politics. Will it be a "Back to the Future" realist scenario of nationalism and anarchy? Or will institutional norms and principles embedded across Europe hold the peace? We have an opportunity to test these assumptions in a benign environment. Success will, however, require a radical rethinking of how America leads NATO. For both America and Europe, the best case is worth going for. A more efficient kind of defense cooperation among European allies that can compliment American power and generate cost savings across the Atlantic.

Sean Kay has written extensively on NATO, including his first book NATO and the Future of European Security (1998). A professor of international relations at Ohio Wesleyan University he is Mershon Associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. His most recent book is Global Security in the Twenty-first Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace (2011).

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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