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David MacMichael

On May 6, 2005, in Washington DC, the German Embassy and The Atlantic Council of the United States jointly sponsored a conference called, "Germany and NATO: The Next 50 Years." The occasion marked the fiftieth anniversary of (then West) Germany's accession to the North Atlantic Treaty, its transition from the occupied World War II enemy to full member of the Cold War alliance against the Soviet Union and eastern European Warsaw Pact. The conference, attended by numerous European and United States current and former foreign service officials, military and naval officers, academics, politicians, journalists and assorted pundits, was intended to celebrate NATO's success-the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact no longer threaten, indeed, no longer exist-and also to discuss what should NATO's role should be in the next half century.

It is more than a little ironic that one of the subtexts of the discussion was the rise of the European Union as an actual and potentially even greater counter-balance to the United States in global international affairs. Certainly, none of the speakers-even those unenthusiastic or sceptical about this possibility-even hinted at the startling rejection by voters in France and the Netherlands only a month later of the European Union constitution. Now both Europe and the United States-and NATO--are struggling to reorient themselves in the face of the new reality that a European Union as a quasi-federal political entity with its own supra-national foreign policy, military and economic institutions may never come into existence. Indeed, observers wonder if the current European economic and monetary union can survive.

Inevitably, given the overall congratulatory tone of the affair, most of the speakers-especially, but with important exceptions, those representing the United States-insisted that NATO is more necessary now than ever as part of the crucial partnership between North America and Europe (no longer just western Europe) defending western values and interests against terrorism, rogue states, and other dangers. Nevertheless, many of the European participants expressed doubts about NATO's current and future utility or relevance, especially for a presumably increasingly self-conscious and confident European Union which has a different world view than that of the United States. Frequent references were made to German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's remarks in February that seemingly had cast doubt on Germany's, or Europe's, future commitment to NATO. Most speakers were at pains to assure the audience that there was no German intention to abandon the alliance, just that under current circumstances NATO needs re-examination and perhaps some change. However, anyone paying close attention over the nearly four hours of discussion could not help wondering whether the strains on the alliance produced by current American unilateralism, mentioned by more than one speaker, as well as the difficulties arising from the admission of new member states, some of whose foreign policy and domestic agendas have different emphases than those of the core European nations of the alliance (Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Benelux)-the "old Europe" disparaged by Washington not long ago-might not make it difficult for NATO to remain as the centrepiece of the trans-Atlantic relationship. By the same token, the inclusion in the European Union of those same eastern European states and current NATO member Turkey, as the aforementioned rejection of its draft constitution by French and Dutch voters made clear, is not popular in western Europe.

These matters were touched on by German Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger in his opening address. He was at pains to explain that Chancellor Schröder's seeming doubts about NATO and Germany's role in it had been misunderstood and that, in his own opinion, NATO would remain as the central forum for trans-Atlantic debate and decisionmaking, if for no other reason than bureaucratic inertia. After all, several generations of German political and military leaders have made their periods of service in Brussells important qualifications in their resumes, and he sees no indication that this "institutional setup" will change.

Comments from the audience expressed some disagreement with Ischinger's conclusion, noting that he had paid insufficient attention to recent and emerging differences between Germany and the US. A central fact is that while for the US, Europe (NATO) is just one important theatre, for Germany, and, by inference, the other NATO nations, Europe is the main area of concern. What, one questioner asked, was the relevance of NATO to the new European security environment? How would NATO deal with the question of European relations with Russia, with the Balkans, with relations with former Warsaw Pact states which are in or seeking to enter both NATO and the European Union? Other issues were NATO policy on the Middle East, nuclear proliferation and terrorism where the positions of many, even most, European NATO countries were at odds with those of the US.

The following speaker, Jörg Schönbohm, Minister of the Interior in Brandenburg and a former German Deputy Minister of Defense, elaborated on those comments, and was far more blunt than Ambassador Ischinger, as he introduced four points to be kept in mind when looking to the future of German-and European-relations not just with NATO but with the United States.

The first of these was to preserving the stable, peaceful, and unified Europe that had been created during the past 50 years. He stressed that Europe was unified for its own benefit and not as an alliance against Russia.

His second point was that NATO and the European Union must acknowledge that they have important differences and that these need to be clarified. The US should not see a strong and unified Europe as necessarily opposed to Washington or to NATO, but all parties must work harder to coordinate policies.

Thirdly, Schönbohm believes one of NATO's major weaknesses is its lack of attention to global economic developments, especially the rise of China and India as significant competitors for both Europe and the US. And finally, he asked, how do Europe, NATO, and the US cope with "threats" when the parties' viewpoints are so divergent? During the Cold War all parties more or less agreed on the "threat" posed by the Soviet Union, but over the past few years there is no agreement on the nature and seriousness of the "threat" posed by Afghanistan, Iraq, terrorism in general.

He concluded on much the same note as Ambassador Ischinger. Since NATO exists and people are used to it, it will probably, for good or ill, continue in its present form for an indefinite future. More or less damning the institution with faint praise.

Quite a different note was sounded by Karl Kaiser, a Harvard University Fellow. NATO, he declared had functions just as important as its Cold War containment of the Soviet Union. The most important of these is contributing to maintenance of world order both through its military (including nuclear) power and diplomatic dialogue with actual or potential opponents. While acknowledging that great progress has been made on the integration of the militaries of NATO's member states he believed much remains to be done to complete this "vital process." He believes it rather unfortunate that post-Soviet Union, many European leaders hoped for ending NATO, the withdrawal of US troops, and relying for security on European forces integrated into the Organization for Security and Cooperation OSCE. This, he believes was a mistake. NATO and OSCE have been moving in "concentric circles" ever since, essentially wasting scarce resources.

NATO, he believes, as Kosovo shows, can act independently of the United Nations. It was unfortunate, in his opinion, that NATO did not take military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan because of its human rights violations. He was emphatic that "the democracies" must intervene militarily and by other means in support of human rights. This is an important role for NATO, and if the organization itself does not act in such cases then its member nations must act alone.

Following this fervent endorsement of NATO's essentiality and promotion of a more pro-active role for it the audience was quite unprepared for the analysis presented by James Thompson, president of the RAND Corporation, a US think tank closely connected with the Pentagon. Thompson stated unequivocally that NATO, far from being an essential element of the US-EU relationship, aka "the Trans-Atlantic Alliance" was an obsolete Cold War relic. He asked rhetorically whether, if NATO did not now exist, its current members would create it, and responded to his own question with an emphatic, "No!"

There are not, he pointed out, enough "commonalities" among the European countries and the US. The US views itself as a global power with vital concerns in the Middle East and Asia; not so Europe or its constituent countries, like Germany.

NATO, as an institution is only kept alive by inertia. Its bureaucracy, like all bureaucracies, just goes through its accustomed motions. Current NATO activities in Afghanistan or the Balkans demonstrate neither the necessity nor the utility of the organization. The alliance is being used there simply because it happened to be in existence. Thompson even suggested that its directors, both US and European, seized on these opportunities to make a case for their significance.

Having said this, he did acknowledge some positive aspects. NATO's leaders and staff are first rate people who can and do contribute to the definition and resolution of issues of interest to both the US and Europe, and, not unimportantly, NATO provides a venue for US and European leaders and potential leaders to work together and get to know each others' points of view. Especially significant for the Europeans, NATO helps keep alive the US tradition of Eurocentrism.

Still, he insisted, the inertia is slowing noticeably. For one thing, fifteen years of US unilateralism have taken their toll on Europe's view of NATO. Moreover, Europeans, who, after World War II, defined their region in terms of solidarity with the US against the Soviet menace, now define themselves in terms of the European Union rather than NATO. Moreover, the Alliance, he points out is, in numerical terms, only a shadow of its former self. In 1989 there were 380,000 US troops in Europe. Today there are only 100,000, and that number will soon be reduced to 40,000. As a consequence Thompson predicted that the EU will continue to develop its own global strategy independent of the US, and as that trend goes on Europe will develop its own non-NATO military force to support its international policies.

The following speaker, Washington Post international affairs editor Jim Hoagland, expressed outrage at Thompson's apostasy, declaring that NATO is by definition a success. After all, there have been (ignoring the Balkans) no European wars since its establishment. Case closed.

On the other hand, Hoagland acknowledged many of Thompson's points. There are important differences between the US and Europe, the most significant being that the US considers itself a global power and Europe does not, confining itself essentially to Europe. More specifically, the US under the current and past three or four administrations sees the Middle East and East Asia as areas where war is highly possible and that the US would necessarily be engaged in them. Europe at both the official and popular levels does not share that view. A military alliance with the US, such as NATO, while perhaps offering tangible advantages is not vital.

Nor, he believes, is today's Europe prepared to go to war for economic reasons, for example to gain access to oil. As the US experience in Iraq demonstrates, that approach is uneconomic. And, almost contradicting his earlier claim about NATO as the reason for and guarantor of European peace, he notes that Europe does not wholly accept the US view that it was NATO that played the key role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. For it, it was the Helsinki Accords that deserve most credit.

Joined by Dr. Karl Kaiser of Harvard, Hoagland went on to opine that Europe and the US are psychologically distinct. Europe today is not convinced that war is a historical inevitability and rejects entirely the idea of pre-emptive war, seeing Iraq not only as a pre-emptive war but one rationalized on false premises. As for terrorism, while Europe agrees that this is a major issue requiring closer international cooperation it is, essentially, a police, not a military problem. Indeed, European security officials believe that the US, by responding militarily to terrorism has made the coordination of NATO's European forces with US forces increasingly difficult. On these points they agreed with Thompson.

If Hoagland had differed with Thompson, Robert Bradtke, assistant secretary in the State Department's Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, was almost apoplectic at the idea that NATO was passe. He argued vehemently that NATO had been almost transformed over the past four years and that even more remarkable changes were coming in the future.

Specifically, he pointed to the alliance's currrent operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan. In the latter country NATO will take control of all security operations in 2006. Moreover, NATO's recent agreement to assume a military training mission in Iraq while increasing its political and military role in Africa demonstrates that the Alliance is an appropriate means for Europe to address global and not just European security challenges. However, he also made it clear that the US has to become more involved in and have a greater voice in the NATO decisionmaking process. There is, he charged, far too much delay getting NATO forces into the field.

Bradtke also discussed NATO's expansion to include more former East Bloc states, mentioning specifically Ukraine and Croatia, while acknowledging that this may cause problems with Russia. Very critical, in his opinion, was the relationship that develops between the EU and NATO. The tone and context of his remarks on this left little doubt that the US considers a European Union capable of defining and executing security policy independently of NATO as something not entirely to be welcomed.

As the morning continued most other speakers put forward views that fell somewhere between Thompson and Bradtke, but most of their remarks tended to support a conclusion that NATO today is not so much an organization carrying out a mission as one seeking a mission. Bradtke raised more than a few eyebrows when he declared that the time had come for NATO and the EU to change their security focus from Europe, where the possibility of armed conflict is remote, and turn it to areas like Iran, the Taiwan Strait, Korea, or even a Sino-Japanese crisis.

The opening speaker for the day's second panel, Germany's Vice-Admiral Reiner Feith, a former Deputy Supreme Commander Europe (SACEUR) who most recently served with the NATO force in Macedonia was another who tempered praise for NATO with serious criticism.

An underlying problem for the alliance, in his thinking, was the very different perceptions of NATO in Europe and the US. The problem has become more complex with the addition of new members whose concepts vary widely. Looking specifically at Germany, the Admiral said that while the aging Cold War generation still tends to see NATO as the guarantor of its security, the younger members of the population have a very different attitude. Many of them resent what they see as not a true alliance of equals but as a sort of club dominated by the US, not much different from the Warsaw Pact behind whose façade was the fact of Soviet control.

Nevertheless, he sees real progress and potential in the "Partnership for Peace" as a joint German-US initiative which has, in his words, "exported peace" to Eastern Europe while recruiting the former East Bloc nations into NATO. This achievement, though, embodies its own problems. Over the past ten years NATO has deployed over 400,000 troops to the Balkans at considerable financial cost to the countries involved. When ongoing and planned new missions into Kosovo, Macedonia, Afghanistan and Iraq are added the economic burden is increasingly worrisome. NATO is having to beg its member states for additional funds, and, as he put it, "donor fatigue" is setting in.

These operational costs come at a time when NATO is having to transform its military forces to meet post-Cold War demands, most of which are not well-defined or agreed upon among the members. The recent Prague Conference produced many promises regarding goals, but the followup has been disappointing as the majority of member governments, facing competing social demands, refuse to increase military budgets. The situation is exacerbated by the rise of the non-NATO EU forces in the Organization for Political Security Europe (OPSCE). Not only are the two forces drawing on the same limited military budgets but they find it hard to coordinate operationally, as in Bosnia. OPSCE and NATO meet, he says, but only to talk and not to decide. The EU-and this can only be a greater future problem in view of the now doubtful future of the EU constitution-cannot make its member states meet their military obligations.

Overall, Feith's was not a particularly optimistic assessment of NATO' current condition or future.

Again, especially when interpreted in light of the recent voting on the constitution in France and the Netherlands, the public opinion survey results presented and interpreted by Professor Sigmund Eisenberg of Tufts University, were thought provoking. In his analysis, whether NATO has a future or not depends on whether Europeans see themselves as in a relationship where Europe's concerns and priorities dominate or whether their interests are subordinated to those of the US. Echoing Admiral Feith regarding German public opinion, he showed that where Germans until recently have accepted acquiescence to the US as the senior partner in the alliance, this is changing.

Polls over the past few decades about NATO's value have been relatively stable. The UK routinely has 75% of respondents declaring NATO "essential." In Germany two-thirds usually agree while in France those saying "oui" to NATO's essentiality has been 55 to 60%. Eisenberg suggests that this long term majority view is because the average European associates being a NATO country with being part of "the West."

On the other hand, when polls ask whether NATO or the EU should be responsible for Europe's military security, more than two-thirds in France and Germany favor the EU. A slight majority in the UK favor NATO. Eisenberg stressed that these polls about NATO track closely with overall public opinion about the US. While majorities in France, Germany and Italy continue to view the US favorably, those majorities have been sharply reduced during the period of the current US administration. The same phenomenon was noticeable during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush years, but then recovered during the Clinton era.

Eisenberg concluded that Germany is currently emphasizing its "European" side and downgrading its "Atlantic" character.

Karen Donfried, a State Department policy planning office staff member, followed Eisenberg to the microphone. Of all the US official speakers she showed perhaps the greatest degree of pragmatism. She acknowledged at the outset that the majority of Europeans reject the idea that NATO should be the primary venue for discussing and deciding issues of European security or the impact on European security of non-European developments. And, she further acknowledged, the United States still wants NATO to have that role. This disagreement, she believes, is the main challenge to NATO's continuance. However, since Europe and the US share a generally similar world view, the problem need not be life threatening for the Alliance.

On questions about NATO-EU cooperation, like others she pointed to Bosnia as a case study of success and cites Colin Powell as saying it doesn't matter whether the EU or NATO leads. It's the result that matters. Looking to Africa she said that it is of no significance to the State Department whether NATO or the EU assumes responsibility for dealing with situations such as Darfur.

All in all, Donfried seemed to be singing a hymn to multi-lateralism. NATO must be coordinated with the EU military forces-a constant theme during the conference. As to the acknowledged open disagreement between the US and the majority of European nations over Iraq, she expressed the belief that despite this Europe wants the US to be "successful" in Iraq and very non-unilaterally insisted that the US very much needs Europe's cooperation to deal with the Middle East. However, to a question from the audience about European unhappiness with American unilateralism, she responded sharply that while the US would prefer consensus with its allies it would always act in its national interest with or without agreement.

Another US panelist, retired Marine Corps General Carlton Fulford, was bullish on NATO's future. It has a strong record of accomplishments, isn't broke, doesn't need much fixing, and should expand its areas of activity, to Africa, for instance. In response to audience questions, he did acknowledge problems. One, the most serious in his opinion, was the role of nuclear weapons in Europe. A second was the admission of Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Cyprus. He called for more transparency in NATO decisionmaking and strongly recommended that any EU military forces be incorporated in NATO, resolving the problem of unity of command raised by many speakers.

Admiral Feith responded strongly to the opinions expressed by the American panelists. US unilateralism, he stated, is a real problem for Germany and NATO. German desire for a permanent UN Security Council seat expresses the nation's wish to have a greater voice in global decisionmaking. Specifically, there is genuine public anger in Germany that the US decision to invade Iraq was not discussed with NATO.

To questioners criticizing the European NATO countries for not spending enough on their militaries, Feith retorted that even the US, which lavishes enormous sums on its armed forces, acknowledges and demonstrates shortcomings. Overall European defense spending is rather high and the readiness of EU forces will improve drastically once a system of pooling military appropriations is adopted. He looks forward, he says, to the day when a German fighter plane can land on a French aircraft carrier.

The meeting closed with a thoughtful, and in view of recent events, prophetic address by Hans-Ulrich Klose, the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Bundestag.

Hans-Ulrich Klose, MP, SPD (Social-Democrat)

The US, he stated, missed a real opportunity for reviving NATO after 9/11 when it ignored the NATO council's resolution that an attack against one NATO member was an attack against all and decided unilaterally to invade Afghanistan.

The key for him in evaluating NATO was simply European disunity. The UK and Spain dramatically demonstrated this on March 8, 2003, when they jointly informed the US that they supported the proposed invasion of Iraq. Their reason, in his opinion, was that they opposed Franco-German policy leadership for Europe.

What, he asked, is the European Union today? It is bigger, wider, and weaker. There are big differences among the member states, especially with regard to one of the underlying rationales for the EU-to create a viable economic, political and even military counter-balance to US global hegemony. Having said the unspeakable, Klose then commented wryly, "Don't be afraid; we are far from that."

In fact, Klose argues that closer European unity is not inevitable. What he sees is a wave of re-awakened nationalism. Since the end of the Cold War the states of Europe are tending more and more to act in accordance with their own perceived national interests. This is especially true in the former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact nations. They are very reluctant to cede their newly recovered national powers to any regional organization.

This tendency can even be seen in reunited Germany, a Germany possibly weaker than before reunification because of the enormous transfer of funds to the former DDR. There is even, Klose remarked with some surprise, a revival of traditional German patriotism, something rarely observed in post-1945 Germany. The country is now more inclined to act as a big power in Europe, although it eschews acting globally as a big European power. An interesting concept.

Thus, Germany is in a transitional phase. To take the leading role in the EU to which it aspires, it will have to recover economically-"to put some muscle on its bones." Also, Germany needs to build confidence in it among the smaller EU states, to consult with them on policy and "let them know they count." And finally, Germany, like the other EU states, has to establish a reliable cooperative relationship with the US. This, he says, is just as important as strengthening the EU itself.

Turning his attention to NATO, Klose asked how should Europe, or Germany itself, work with an alliance in which the US is predominant and in which there are as many points of difference among its European member states as there are shared values. Clearly, NATO doesn't provide Europeans with as great a sense of identity as does the EU, and for individuals identification with the nation is greater still. We need, he said, to rethink NATO, as Chancellor Schröder suggested in his comments of last March. The NATO Council of Ambassadors needs to be revised to accommodate the fact that there are now many more members.

Most directly he argued that there are really two NATO strategies today, one European and one US. The European approach says no military action without UN approval. The US obviously rejects this. The European strategy excludes pre-emptive strikes which the US employs. Can these basic differences be resolved?

Klose strongly recommends that all decisions on the use of military force by NATO be made by majority vote in the NATO council. This is the only way to avoid future "coalition of the willing" faceoffs. He stated flatly that if Donald Rumsfeld's strategy prevails he is not sure NATO has a future.

After some discussion of the complex problem of Iran's possible nuclear weapons ambitions where the US seems to prefer the tactic of military sticks and Europe wants to rely on diplomacy and carrots, and of the ongoing situation in Iraq, Klose concluded by saying that he was less than optimistic about either a continuation of NATO or the successful creation of a true European Union.

Klose, a realist, would probably agree that the whole concept of the Trans-Atlantic Relationship needs to be rethought and redefined.

June 16, 2005

David MacMichael, PhD, is a historian and a former analyst for U.S. government agencies and lives near Washington, D.C. He is currently a steering committee member of "Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity" (VIPS).

He regularly contributes to We're happy to forward
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David MacMichael/ 2005
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