Stephen M. Walt

NATO, Bicycles, and Training Wheels

While Walt is taking a break for two weeks, others are guest-blogging. The following guest post is from Yale University’s Jolyon Howorth: NATO’s future is once again up for grabs. The fall of the Berlin Wall robbed the alliance of the enemy against which it had initially mobilized. Ever since, it has been in search ...

By dadblunders [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By dadblunders [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

While Walt is taking a break for two weeks, others are guest-blogging. The following guest post is from Yale University’s Jolyon Howorth:

NATO’s future is once again up for grabs. The fall of the Berlin Wall robbed the alliance of the enemy against which it had initially mobilized. Ever since, it has been in search of a new role. It has published three successive "strategic concepts" in a bid to explain its purpose. It has experimented with geographical expansion and with crisis management. It has dabbled in disaster relief and helped police the Olympic Games. It has engaged in multiple partnerships. And it has launched three major military operations: in Kosovo, in Afghanistan, and in Libya. None of these proved to be straightforward, and all of them exacerbated internal tensions. There remains widespread uncertainty as to what the alliance is actually for.

Americans and Europeans have differed sharply over NATO’s purpose. The traditional U.S. view has envisaged a "global alliance," an association, around NATO, of the world’s main democracies, linked by shared values and a joint commitment to preserve them. During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, this became the "League of Democracies" promoted by then-candidate John McCain. The global alliance idea implies European payback for 40 years of American protection. An alliance initially forged to guarantee U.S. commitment to European security would morph into one designed to encourage European commitment to American global strategy. The Europeans, for the most part, have rejected that notion.

European member states having borders (or historical involvement) with Russia value, above all, the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 5, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all. Thus Latvians, for instance, can believe that if Moscow cut up rough, Uncle Sam would step up to the plate. Belief is reassuring. Other Europeans feel a debt of gratitude to the United States and believe that shared values require shared commitments. But after the generally unsatisfactory experience of Kosovo and the bitterly divisive experience of Afghanistan, Europeans are in no hurry to repeat the experience of far-flung adventures. So what is NATO for, post-Afghanistan?

The Libyan crisis in 2011, followed by events in Mali, offer a way forward. In Libya, the United States claimed to be "leading from behind." President Barack Obama set the administration’s face firmly against high-profile military missions, especially in Muslim countries. The U.S. position was that Libya was the responsibility of the Europeans. But the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) proved inadequate to the task. There was neither the political will nor the military capacity to tackle the Libyan crisis. Eventually, the Libyan mission fell to NATO. Despite the mantra of "leading from behind," the mission depended crucially on U.S. military inputs. But the model was established. Leadership of the mission was assumed by France and Britain, with the United States supplying key "enablers."

This past January, we saw a repeat of this model in Mali, where France took overall responsibility for Operation Serval, driving Islamist insurgents north into the Sahara desert, with key enabling support from the United States.

What do these examples tell us about the future of European security arrangements? Ever since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been urging the Europeans to assume responsibility for their own regional security. That is why the EU member states, in 1999, launched their CSDP project, which has subsequently carried out almost 30 overseas missions, some of them militarily significant, like the ongoing anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa. The "Greater European area," for whose stability the EU might reasonably assume responsibility, covers the entire eastern and southern neighborhoods, the latter extending from the Red Sea, through the Sahel, to the Atlantic.

For 15 years, CSDP strove to remain "autonomous" of NATO. The idea was for Europe to develop its own strategic culture, based on a judicious mix of soft and hard power, and not simply replicate the muscular profile of the U.S. military. This has severe limitations. Most EU missions have been overwhelmingly advisory and civilian in nature (police missions, border control missions, security-sector reform missions). When real crises have arisen (the Balkans in the 1990s and North Africa in the 2010s), the EU has proved unequal to the task. Meanwhile, NATO continues to exist alongside CSDP. Both struggle to define their purpose and their mutual relationship.

The answer is progressively to move closer together and even, eventually, to merge. The merged entity would progressively assume responsibility, in conjunction with other regional actors (Russia, Turkey, the Arab League), for the "Greater European area."

NATO is like a bicycle that has only ever been ridden by the United States, with the Europeans bundled behind in the baby seat. Now the United States is urging the Europeans to learn to ride the bicycle themselves. The European response has been that they prefer to design their own, rather different, bicycle. It is smaller, slower, and fitted with large training wheels. It is useful for the sorts of missions CSDP has undertaken, but simply inadequate for serious crisis-management tasks. The Europeans need, sooner or later, to master the adult bike. In Libya, the message from the United States was: "Look, you have to acquire the confidence to ride a big bike. Just try. We will supply some large training wheels (air-to-air refueling, logistics, intelligence), and we’ll follow along behind to steady you if you start to wobble. But you must do the pedaling, and you must hold the handlebars."

This is the way forward. The Europeans can become autonomous via NATO. Once they have mastered the adult bike, the United States can progressively fit smaller and smaller training wheels. And eventually, perhaps, there will be no need for any at all. The United States and the European Union would finally become true partners and allies in a world of power transition.

Jolyon Howorth has been visiting professor of political science and international affairs at Yale University since 2002. He is professor emeritus of European politics at the University of Bath in Britain.

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