Errant European

With the just-completed NATO foreign ministerial meeting and Hillary Clinton’s “twofer” openings to both Russia and Iran, Transatlantic diplomacy is back, and it’s about time. In the conduct of Transatlantic relations in the political-military realm, NATO has one big advantage over the European Union: the U.S. has a seat at the table, instead of across the Pond. It knows where it sits at NATO.

Whither NATO, what-is-NATO… the debate over the nature of the Alliance continues unabated. Last weekend, it was the “Defence Without Borders?” conference, organized by several leftist peace organisations, including the CNAPD and Vredesactie. For such groups, NATO is a military – if not “militaristic” – organisation, full stop.

The expected collection of professional activists were present, but the conference also included several academic experts from Brussels universities and think tanks, as well as elected officials from the left. Though often critical of NATO and of things military in general, these were reasonable critics in that they admit that collective security (preferably, in their eyes, through the EU, or even better via the United Nations) is a fact of life.

Not good enough for some on the far left, who castigate anyone taking a moderate, even moderately critical, stance. For these “pros of protest,” climbing fences and getting themselves arrested is preferred over other forms of discourse. They plan such a protest – “NATO Game Over” – at the Alliance’s Brussels Evere HQ on 21 March.

Enter the centrist, free-market “liberal” view. Wednesday, the Brussels office of the “Friedrich Naumann Stiftung” organized, with the Transatlantic Institute, an equally well-attended review of NATO’s achievements and challenges on the eve of the 60th anniversary summit. NATO was represented by Dr. Stefanie Babst, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy Strategy, and veteran journalist Brooks Tigner of Jane’s Defence Weekly provided an independent view.

Much of the discussion centered around competing views of NATO as a defence alliance, and NATO as a forum for every conceivable threat ranging from illegal immigration to combating climate change. Rather than another dry theological debate on the desirability of NATO’s continued existence – the audience did not need to be convinced of that – the debate was over the achievable versus the desirable.

  • Sure, it would be nice to have an agreed strategic vision between NATO and the EU, but both organisations function by consensus, and beyond problematic matters like Turkish membership in the former but not the latter, there is the matter of the neutrality of certain EU members like Ireland and Austria, not taken lightly in either country.
  • Yes, NATO could discuss the impact of climate change in the Arctic north and how sea lanes and maritime borders will be affected, but let’s not make it sound like the defence alliance is now going to go all environmental.

To be fair, those calling for Alliance focus on non-traditional threats (cyber warfare, piracy, terrorism) are not advocating abandonment of nuts-and-bolts collective security of the kinetic type. There was interest in building on NATO’s comparative advantage in some areas – cyber security for example – that touch on legitimate non-traditional areas of security concern.

But for every call for branching out into sometimes esoteric subject areas, or transforming itself into “Global NATO,” there will be member states ready to say, “not us, that’s the other guys’ job,” as one NATO veteran put it. Other guys, as in the European Union or the UN. That’s the beauty of consensus, and it should comfort the pacifists.

NATO’s game, despite the fence-climbers’ fondest wishes, is not over. But “global NATO” has begun to show its limits, which may be somewhere between Tora Bora and Waziristan.

But this brings us back to US engagement with Europe. Clinton’s inaugural visit to Brussels as Secretary of State may signal a “NATO-first” commitment, or it may just be an accident of the NATO calendar, which always has periodic foreign ministers’ meetings. For the “70% of the Transatlantic agenda which is US-EU,” as former Clinton Administration official and current head of the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels office Ronald Asmus likes to say, there is an institutional gap.

Yes, the US does have its Mission to the EU, and this Brussels diplomatic delegation does the legwork of a growing list of issues that bind – or bother – both sides of the Atlantic. Yes, the European Union and the United States conduct annual, formal consultations. But is that enough?

No answers yet, but it is clear that NATO, though not purely military, is nevertheless a defence alliance, and cannot tackle everything that links the largest trading blocs in the world. And the EU, while its genesis was economic and those subjects dominate in talks with the US, needs a wider forum to bridge the Transatlantic gap. To discuss and decide joint approaches to climate change, energy sustainability, illegal immigration… the list goes on.

Instead of “whither NATO,” the new question is “what forum for relations between Europe and the US?”

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