Transatlantic Partnership: Withering Strength?

Walter Schilling, Colonel, retd.



Despite the historic success of the Atlantic alliance during the Cold War the future of the partnership between the United States and its European allies seems to be uncertain. Following the dramatic changes in the international system after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, increasingly different interests have begun to pull America and Europe apart.

Obviously, different American-European estimates with regard to the current and emerging security-political threats and the ideas about an adequate answer to the new challenges have caused already a remarkable loss of the alliance's decisiveness and flexibility. In addition, the European disunity with respect to a realistic security and defense policy and to the future role of the alliance makes it more difficult to find an American-European consensus on vital questions. The accelerated efforts of the European Union to develop its own defence capability cannot solve the problem. Rather, this step could even further undermine the alliance in the future. If the current trend of different political thinking and decision-making prevails, the strength of the transatlantic partnership might wither.

Just in our days, as the first post-Cold War decade has come to its close, and the world's most successful alliance already looks back on its 50th anniversary, the future of the transatlantic partnership seems to be uncertain. This does not only result from the fact that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) lost its formerly powerful adversary. The main reasons for this uncertainty are rooted much deeper. No matter how many new states might join the Atlantic alliance in the years ahead, and no matter how many diplomatic reaffirmations emerge from further NATO summits or other transatlantic meetings, important structural changes in the international system and differences of interests have begun to pull America and Europe apart. But contrary to the former expectation that the post-Cold War mood in America might be inward-looking and isolationist, the United States is not the principal cause of the problems in the transatlantic partnership. Rather, it seems to be the Europeans' political thinking and decision-making that resulted in an unambiguous deterioration of NATO's decisiveness and flexibility, two characteristics which are especially important at a time of emerging new challenges.

New Challenges

Indeed, against the background of the dramatic changes in the political environment and the controversial debates on the role of the Atlantic alliance there is no reason for complacency about the future of a partnership that was created more than half a century ago, in a different world. The Cold War is over, the bipolar stability it encouraged is gone. But who can tell with more confidence than we predict the daily weather where the times are leading us? A vast multiplicity of events and developments happen everywhere, at every instant, close by and far away, within our reach and beyond our grasp. Moreover, historical experience teaches us that the conjunction of countless indeterminate variables, the frequency of fallibility and chance, the great variety of possible human behaviour, and undiscoverable causes and events make it difficult even to predict the nearest future.

However, some conditions may help us to overcome this weakness and not always render prediction a fool's errand: these are concrete facts, on the one hand, and the willingness to acknowledge the facts, on the other.1 Accordingly, it is a matter of fact, that regional conflicts on, or little beyond, European territory, pose serious new challenges for the Atlantic alliance and the European Union as well. Russia, despite its current state of weakness, in many cases counteracts Western security political interests. With Vladimir Putin in office as President there are some indications that Russia will get back on its feet and once again return to traditional power politics which is quite normal for a great nation. The new Russian leader has already embarked on a foreign policy that clearly asserts Western European nations, mainly Germany, as Russia's principal partners-something which caused consternation and serious concern in Eastern and Central Europe.2 In the longer term, this strategy will be calculated to encourage tensions within the Atlantic alliance, especially between the United States and their European counterparts.

Additionally, many ethnic and religious conflicts in the Balkans, in Africa and in Asia pose serious concerns and threaten the stability in areas of great importance to American and European interests. Especially in the Middle East and in other key regions of the world there are a number of states already possessing chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons together with far reaching ballistic missiles, or striving for these capabilities. Currently, the danger appears confined to states with relatively simple technology and long-range weapons with minimal penetration capability. But in the next 10 years such states-like Iraq and Pakistan-will find it easier to obtain such weapons and the means to deliver them.3 With respect to this development it is most worrying that ballistic missiles with ranges of less than 3000 km will increase significantly in number, accuracy and destructiveness.

Some Islamic regimes (e.g. Pakistan and Afghanistan) and highly motivated terrorist groups, like Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda, are not only engaging their fighters in the Near East, in the Caucasus and in Kashmir, but they are also scouring the commercial market for useful military technology, such as most modern electronic systems, and the know-how to handle weapons of mass destruction. They act on a greater variety of motives than ever before, and their behaviour is not constrained by international norms. The fanatic adversaries of the United States and its allies are employing weapons of increasing sophistication and lethality, portending death and devastation on an unprecedented scale. They also seem determined to aim at the natural weaknesses of Western societies, including the highly vulnerable network for distributing energy and information, by engaging in new forms of terrorism.4

In this environment, where the nature of risks and threats has changed dramatically, classical deterrence policy and strong diplomatic efforts might not be sufficient to secure peace. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise, that in the decade ahead there will be a greater chance of military conflicts than there was during the Cold War. Even in Europe a war is possible, as the developments on the Balkans have taught us. It would be fatally wrong to argue that future conflicts are likely to be of low-level-intensity. Those conflicts often initiated and driven by non-governmental actors could be harder to handle than we presently foresee.5

The United States of America is ahead of Europe in adapting to these new challenges. This is not only because of its armed forces' global reach, but also because the enormous size of its defense budget has permitted the American government so far to avoid the most awkward choices. In preparing for future conflicts, the Pentagon is buying traditional weapon platforms, such as aircraft, ships and battle tanks. In addition, the armed forces of the United States have already adopted what is called revolution in military warfare that not only promises to use information technology to provide commanders with almost perfect knowledge of the battlefield, but even changes the character of military conflicts fundamentally. Obviously, America has the political will to defend its national interests in the increasingly dangerous international environment emerging before our eyes.6 But at the same time the world's only superpower is looking for a serious and self-confident partner.

The United States still hopes that its European allies might set off to keep the peace at least on the old continent and not always wait for massive American help. Moreover, Washington does not rule out the necessity to act beyond NATO's current geographical boundaries according to the fact that the structure of the United Nations Organization does not in any case meet the requirement to protect ethnic minorities or to stop the policy of aggressive regimes and non-governmental forces. This must not mean that the United States wishes to take the allies all over the world where conflicts might arise.

However, while international law generally has to be respected, the alliance should be able to respond to the new challenges, and not feel comfortable with a function and military structure that was aimed at warding off conventional threats which no longer exist. In Europe, such ideas about transforming the old alliance for a new role are not always falling on fertile soil, and even the intention to provide the European Union with a common security and defense identity seems to be very difficult.7

European Disunity

Despite the fact that the new geopolitical realities and some clear estimates from Washington might have thrown many Europeans into a state of shock, European governments are more or less beginning to realise that American taxpayers will develop little enthusiasm for an alliance designed to deal with yesterday's threats. Likewise, America's interest in transatlantic engagement will be proportional to Europe's willingness to face new challenges.

Until now, only Great Britain seems to be convinced of American good faith and consequently decided to take over its part of the responsibility. The willingness of Great Britain to side with the United States has been reinforced during the long-running conflict with Iraq, particularly during the bombing raids in December 1998, when almost the entire anti-Iraq coalition melted away. The British government has consistently been prepared to commit itself, with actions as well as words, to follow America in striving for global stability. Thus, before the historic summit meeting in Washington in April 1999 Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed clear support for the U.S. campaign to give NATO a new mission to project power beyond the alliance's borders. Now, with the changing realities Great Britain also commits itself for the creation of a credible European security and defense identity in order to prove to Washington that the Europeans were serious about increasing their contribution to burden sharing within the Atlantic alliance.8

Other European countries, for their part, assured the US that they understand Washington's concerns with respect to future conflicts and American worries about ballistic missiles and chemical or biological or nuclear weapons in the hands of some regimes or terrorist groups. But most of them are digging in their heels and refuse to adapt. In a broader context, France and others within the European Union do not share exactly the same vision as the United States and Great Britain. Thus, powerful forces in Western Europe object to the "Anglo-Saxon" free market economics and especially to America`s global supremacy. They sometimes oppose the American policy in the Persian Gulf and hold different positions on the Arab-Israeli peace process. Additionally, many Europeans criticise a renewed US counterforce buildup, coupled to development and construction of a National Missile Defense, to reduce the consequences of nuclear proliferation for global stability. With the exception of Great Britain and France all other European governments until now refuse to look at this question in a pragmatic and constructive way. They express the fear that the American move might initiate a new arms race and especially provoke the Russians to build up their nuclear forces. However, these governments overlook the fact that Russia in any case will strengthen its military capabilities, whether or not the United States proceeds with its plans for National Missile Defense.9 Moreover, they neglect the experience that for US policy-makers, a safe and secure homeland is a prerequisite for an active and determined America abroad.

Some European allies, like the German government, which took over power after the September 27 elections in 1998, even announced different views on a 'self-mandated' greater role of the Atlantic alliance and NATO's strategic policy. Thus, the Germans are still advocating a change in NATO`s strategic doctrine and the adoption of a no-first-use policy regarding nuclear weapons.10 The government only beat a tactical retreat after the proposal that NATO renounce the first use of nuclear weapons was dismissed as unrealistic even by France and Great Britain. Fortunately, the French and the British believe that nuclear weapons have a positive role to play in the post-Cold War world and should remain an integral element of security policy.

The Social Democrats and the Greens who are now ruling Germany have long requested a change in security policy. However, the principal ideas of this change do not always coincide with the realities of the current international environment and with the needs of the Atlantic alliance. Indeed, the German support for the air campaign and the dispatch of aircraft in the Kosovo conflict has to be regarded as an exception to the rule. This time the German government could not turn its back, especially because the alliance acted under the label of humanitarian intervention. However, a similar German engagement in the framework of a self-mandated military mission might not happen again. With regard to this special question one should not underestimate the deepness of the political shift in Germany and the determination of a new class of politicians who do not share the unswerving dedication to the transatlantic partnership, that their predecessors in office showed at any time.

Like Germany, but driven by different motives, France also does not always agree to a new, more interventionist, policy for the Atlantic alliance. France's strong military participation in the Kosovo conflict served to demonstrate that it could be a loyal ally while taking independent views on special issues. Thus, the French are still calling for United Nations approval for military missions beyond NATO borders. For France, independence from external powers and an elevated global rank is an essential part of the national identity. Bound to the fundamental goal of grandeur and the continuing emphasis on the French exception, France principally pursues a policy against what its political élite sees as American hegemony.11 Despite the fact that France has demonstrated a willingness to consult and cooperate with the United States when their interests converge, the French government remains determined to wield its political power in international affairs by creating a counterweight to stop the United States from dominating the world. With respect to this national interest, France urges the other European governments to stress the need for independent military capabilities for the European Union and even uses its position in the UN Security Council as a means to maintain an elevated level of global influence. Accordingly, the French government is rather critical of any sign of American dominance or even unilateralism, and insists on its view that the Western countries should operate on consensus.

Apart from transatlantic differences over theory, there have also been disagreements about practice, especially with respect to Kosovo-type conflicts on European soil, and in a much wider context-regarding American operations against Iraq. The events in the international arena and the discussions on the future role of NATO testify that with regard to the current state of transatlantic relations the differences are very serious. Of course, the diplomatic language over the alliance's role and strategic concept reached during the summit meeting in Washington in April 1999 preserved the essentials of NATO's freedom of action.12 But the main issues of controversy,

- extending military interventions outside the traditional NATO region,

- changing the character of the NATO mission to address proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism,

- the legitimacy of NATO actions taken without United Nations authorisation, as the member countries exercised on Kosovo,

- strengthening the European 'identity', meaning creation of an autonomous European 'pillar' and a change in command structure in Europe's favour, remain unsolved. On most of these questions the Europeans are still divided.

Widening Gap between Europe and America

The United States already has a firm and increasingly credible policy that responds to the new challenges whereas the Europeans are clearly lagging behind. The fundamental difference between Americans and Europeans lies in the fact that with regard to finding concrete answers for the new security challenges US decision-makers are thinking in terms of "substance" and political "results" whereas the Europeans are underlining the importance of political "processes". America, because of its confidence in technology, its pre-eminence as the only superpower and its geographical position, often favours technical solutions-such as National Missile Defense-to the threats that it faces. Accordingly, whatever scepticism or objections the Europeans may have about this approach and the general American strategic thinking, Washington will go ahead insisting on its belief that the world can be kept at bay. Moreover, this belief has even increased America's reliance on tools - military threats and actions-which, in Europe, are state responsibilities. Yet aggressive regimes or modern terrorists might not wait until the Europeans principally change their mind or feel self-confident enough to help create a more balanced and healthy transatlantic relationship. The conflicts in former Yugoslavia and in the Middle East show that security policy cannot be run at the lowest common denominator of risk. Sooner or later there have to be clear choices.

Whatever arguments about the function of the Atlantic alliance or the creation of a defense dimension for the European Union will be exchanged in the further political and strategic debate, and however deep the American-European divide may be in practice, both underline the central reality that the transatlantic partnership will survive only if Americans and Europeans come to grips about the need to meet the new security challenges and a fair division of labour. For Europe this is becoming more and more a question of credibility.13 The United States will not indefinitely engage for the security of wealthy countries whose military budgets are a fraction of its own, and still falling-let alone if those countries are constantly criticising America for its unilateralism and are unwilling to adapt to the new security challenges. Until now, the European partners of the United States have been unenthusiastic about matching their rhetoric with their money. The United States fears that if Europeans fail to spend enough money to reshape their armed forces for the growing non-traditional threats the alliance could drift into a two-tier system with the Europeans focused only on low-intensity situations, leaving the Americans to handle the most complex and expensive work at the top end of the conflict spectrum.

Where the United States spends $280 billion annually on defense, the other NATO countries together spend only $190 billion (in 1999 US currency terms). The amounts reserved for research and development (R&D) even underlines this disparity. In Fiscal Year 1999 the United States invested $37 billion on R&D, while the European allies collectively spent only $4 billion.14 Moreover, the small European funds are distributed on redundant company overheads. The European members of the alliance spend about sixty percent of what Washington does on defense, yet they can only project a small fraction of the military power over the long distances that America achieves.

The Kosovo conflict has revealed the shortcomings of European national and collective military capabilities. In launching 78 days of air attacks, including 38,000 combat sorties with no casualties, the alliance forces demonstrated unrivalled military prowess. However, we had to learn that the United States carried the overwhelming military burden of the Kosovo campaign. It cannot provide satisfaction that the United States not only dispatched about 85 percent of the air attack missions in the Kosovo conflict, and 90 percent of the allied reconnaissance capability, but moreover made certain, that the alliance did prevail and that the terms of victory did underline NATO's unique role as guarantor of security and stability at least in Europe.15 Even more, the successful military intervention in Kosovo has become a symbol for the enormous and still growing imbalance in the military capabilities between the United States and its European allies. Against this background, it seems quite understandable when the American government and U.S. senators demand that the Europeans pay 'their proper share' in exchange for stability.

Of course, the historic decision of the European Union at the Helsinki Summit in December 1999 to create an intervention force of 60,000 men that could be dispatched within 60 days, and capable of undertaking military operations autonomously at least for 12 months might be regarded as a step in the right direction.16 The target is to have it operational by 2003, complemented by civilian crisis management resources. In fact, Great Britain could justifiably claim to be in the driving seat of this European Union attempt to develop a military capability. However, it remains to be seen if the Europeans will really manage to execute this decision, and if the public in various European countries is willing to pay the costs. Additionally, the strategic rationale for the operation of the intervention force remains still unclear. In this context one should bear in mind that the planned size of the force would be modest for the sorts of operations that can occur, and the response time seems rather long, considering the speed at which international crises can develop. So far, the European effort does not reflect the historical experience that alliances are not just for crises, summoned into action when the fire bell sounds. History teaches us that the proper instruments must be at hand.

Realistic answers would not mean in any case increasing numbers of troops and weapon platforms; but it does mean restructuring the armed forces according to the new tasks, providing professional, highly mobile, air-transportable, multi-purpose units, trained in the different aspects of the demanding tasks of peacekeeping and peacemaking, acknowledging the dramatic change and making maximum use of information technology, strengthening the ability to project power within a very short period of time across long distances. Although the members of the European Union have nearly two million troops, some members' defense policies-like Germany for example-have traditionally been configured around territorial defense. The personnel in uniform are often conscripts who have only undergone basic training and served for just a few months. This makes it difficult to find even minimal numbers of experienced and trained personnel for politically sensitive peacekeeping duties, such as in Kosovo. Thus, the European states must be prepared to remedy some of the most serious deficiencies in their capabilities.17 Until now, only Great Britain and France have a modest capacity to meet the new requirements and make serious efforts to harness the latest information technology. But even the French armed forces still lack some information systems which they need to cooperate with their American and British counterparts. The rest of Europe remains far behind sitting on an arsenal and a force structure that were designed to meet quite different challenges. None of these deficiencies reflect an inferiority of European know-how; it is a matter of the unwillingness of European governments to take the necessary decisions.

It should not be expected that the United States might compensate in one way or the other for the backwardness of the Europeans' forces. Already, there is evidence that growing American superiority in information technology and other sophisticated military equipment has made coalition warfare more difficult. The technical disparities have been a continual focus of countless bilateral meetings between high-ranking American and European government officials during the last years, but nothing has happened so far. If Europeans refuse to modernise their arsenal and restructure their troops very soon, this gap will increase further. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation would in this case not disappear overnight, but the formerly successful alliance might not be able to respond to fast changing events, and could even stress the necessity for the Americans to further build up their armed forces and to act unilaterally.

The expectation that Europe's quest for a common security and defense identity could solve the problem in the foreseeable future seems to be unrealistic if we look at the various agendas of many leading European politicians. It is in the second Balkan crisis-in Kosovo-where we can see how far away the Europeans are from their declared goals. Although NATO leaders indulged in considerable self-congratulatory rhetoric following the successful air campaign, the conflict in the Balkans is far from over.18

More than a year after NATO went to war and forced the Serbian troops out of Kosovo the peacekeepers themselves are now in greater danger of being attacked by the Kosovar Albanians who appear to be disappointed about the fact that they are not in control of their own territory. Likewise, many of Belgrade's destabilising policies remain largely unchanged. Against this background the Europeans are still unable to develop a common position with regard to the complex question of Kosovo's status and how to create stability for the whole region. Most governments also in this sensitive political area reserve their national prerogatives which makes it even more difficult to achieve the necessary European-American consensus. Thus, with the prospect of having to keep peace between the two deeply divided and increasingly hostile communities in Kosovo, the long-term consequences of NATO's intervention for the transatlantic partnership seem very troubling.

Despite the current efforts of the European Union to develop its own security and defense capability-after the Europeans had become aware that the American forces had outstripped their partners in the Kosovo air campaign-a strengthened cohesion of the alliance is not in sight. The obvious tendency of some European leaders to assume a new responsibility for European regional stability that is independent of the United States has even caused considerable concern in Washington. Theoretically, a better integrated and militarily capable Europe is not invariably adverse to the interests of the United States. Also, such a development could be consistent with NATO politico-military decision-making. But with respect to different thinking on both sides of the Atlantic it cannot be ignored that the aim to align the security and defense policies of the European Union's members into one shared and uniform approach in the majority of European countries is at times motivated either by a desire to distance themselves from American influence or, in some cases, by openly anti-American sentiments. If this trend of European political thinking and decision-making should prevail in the years ahead the transatlantic partnership might further crumble.



1. Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Andrew J. Goodpaster, "Advice for the Next President", Foreign Affairs, vol. 79, no. 5, September/October 2000, pp. 158-160.

2. The Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press, vol. 52, no. 30, August 23, 2000, pp. 1-3.

3. Paul Bracken, "The Second Nuclear Age," Foreign Affairs, vol. 79, no. 4, July/August 2000, p. 152.

4. Gavin Cameron, "Nuclear Terrorism Reconsidered," Current History, April 2000, pp. 154-157.

5. Colin S. Gray, "Deterrence in the 21st Century," Comparative Strategy, vol. 19, no. 3, July-September 2000, pp. 255-261.

6. Frederick Barnes, "US Defense Spending is Back on Track," Strategic Policy, August 2000, p. 14.

7. Emil Kirchner and James Sperling, "Will Form Lead to Function? Institutional Enlargement and the Creation of a European Security and Defence Identity," Contemporary Security Policy, vol. 21, no. 1, April 2000, pp. 23-45.

8. Philip H. Gordon, "Their Own Army? Making European Defense Work," Foreign Affairs, vol. 79, no. 4, July/August 2000, p. 13.

9. Mikhail Tsypkin, "Military Reform and Strategic Nuclear Forces of the Russian Federation," European Security, vol. 9, no. 1, Spring 2000, pp. 22-40; Mark Galeotti, "Russia`s Military Reforms?", Jane`s Intelligence Review, September 2000, pp. 8-9; and Anatoly F. Klimenko, "Russia`s New Military Doctrine," Military Thought (Moscow: March 2000), pp. 27-40.

10. K.Michael Prince, "The Berlin Republic," The Washington Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 3, Summer 1999, p. 127.

11. Sophie Meunier, "The French Exception," Foreign Affairs, vol. 79, no. 4, July/August 2000, pp. 104-116; and Guillaume Parmentier, "Après le Kosovo: pour un nouveau contrat transatlantique, Politique Étrangère, January 2000, pp. 9-32.

12. NATO Review 48, Spring/Summer 2000, pp. D1-D6.

13. Zbigniew Brzezinski, "Living With a New Europe," The National Interest 60, Summer 2000, pp. 17-29.

14. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (London), The Military Balance 1999/2000, p. 37; before the background of the real figures Zbigniew Brzezinski holds an even more sceptical view. See Zbigniew Brzezinski, "Living With a New Europe," The National Interest 60, Summer 2000, p. 24.

15. Daniel L. Byman and Matthew C. Waxman, "Kosovo and the Great Air Power Debate," International Security, vol. 24, no. 4, Spring 2000, pp. 5-38; and Bryan Bender, "The Kosovo Legacy," Jane`s Defense Weekly, February 23, 2000, p. 21.

16. Philip H. Gordon, "Their Own Army? Making European Defense Work," Foreign Affairs, vol. 79, no. 4, July/August 2000, p.12; and Francois Heisbourg, "Brussels`s Burden," The Washington Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 3, Summer 2000, pp. 127-133.

17. Peter van Ham, "Europe`s Common Defense Policy: Implications for the Trans-Atlantic Relationship," Security Dialogue, vol. 31, no. 2, June 2000, pp. 215-228.

18. Chris Patten, "A European Vision for the Balkans," NATO Review, Summer-Autumn 2000, pp. 13-15; and NATO Press and Media Service, "Statement on the Situation in the Balkans," Press Communiqué M-NAC-D-1(2000) 63, June 2000.