BITS Briefing Note 02.5
November 2002
English Translation

Quo Vadis NATO? - Quo Vadis Europa?

Angelika Beer & Otfried Nassauer

German Version

Big events cast their shadows. This held true for the NATO Prague Summit on November 21st-22nd. Even the choice of place was symbolic. At a summit, hosted by a new NATO member state, additional states were to be invited to join the alliance. But one year after the terrorist attacks in the U.S. it wasn't NATO-enlargement which took the centre stage. Instead, the restructuring and repositioning of the Alliance dominated the event. The "enlargement summit" changed into a "transformation summit". A summit, which may have altered the transatlantic alliance in a much more fundamental sense than any previous summit.

1. NATO in crisis

NATO is in the midst of a fundamental crisis. Pierre Lelouche, a prominent French security politician, sees NATO in its most fundamental crisis since its establishment. Months ago Lord Robertson, Secretary General of NATO, thought NATO to face the choice between "modernisation" and "marginalisation". Robertson believes the reason for the present crisis to lie in the widening gap between the U.S. and Europe regarding equipment, armaments, technology and military capabilities. He fears that soon the armed forces of the allies will be unable to conduct joint operations, and thereby, from an American view point, reduce NATO's future relevance. Some commentators on both sides of the Atlantic disagree. They believe the crisis to be more fundamental. They see a continental shift, a movement of tectonic plates. Depending on the point of view and origin of the observers, either the lacking of European will to exercise tough power politics is being identified as the primary reason for this shift; or it is being attributed to the American way of conducting power politics, which rests primarily on military means.

However, all observers agree on one aspect of the crisis: NATO is historically a regional alliance for collective defense. This makes it difficult to suddenly think and act in categories of global military action – even more so, since many Europeans fear that a global NATO copying the American model and following its lead, will force them in the future to face all the problems which the U.S. is dealing with at present: using military force without a mandate from the United Nations; preventive and pre-emptive military strikes, not easily discernible from wars of aggression; or – in this context - even a joint responsibility for the employment of weapons of mass destruction. In short, a fear for situations where NATO would violate its own set of basic values – which still includes the adherence to the rule of international law.

The decisions at Prague made the summit a success for George W. Bush, who continued his strategy of demanding more in order to receive the maximum possible. The crucial summit initiatives were launched by the U.S. and the European NATO-states offered no serious alternatives. Since they solely tried to avoid the worst, Washington was able to move forward with some previously heavily contested proposals. NATO again became more American in design and as collateral damage the Common European Security and Defense Policy fell victim to "friendly fire".

2. New global tasks

Even though NATO invoked Art.5 of the Washington Treaty only one day after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, Washington demanded only some minor military contributions from Brussels. The U.S. avoided to involve the Alliance in the decision-making process on possible military reactions. NATO doesn't have a voice in strategic decisions. Instead, NATO is mostly kept informed and occasionally consulted.

For months, Lord Robertson vigorously tried to fight this loss of relevance and influence. According to him, NATO needs to treat the war against terrorism as one of its core activities. Countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is becoming increasingly important too. Progress already has been achieved, his proof: the alliance has already shelved the "sterile 'out of area' debate" at the foreign ministers meeting in May 2002. The passage of the communiqué, which states, that the alliance needs armed forces which can be quickly moved to "wherever they are needed", was interpreted by Robertson as a global mandate to conduct operations "as and where required".

While the German Foreign Ministry in September still considered such an interpretation as invalid, it meanwhile became common ground: NATO can act globally. The Prague Communiqué emphasises: NATO must possess the capabilities to "meet the challenges to the security of our forces, populations and territory, from wherever they may come". And: "NATO must be able to field forces that can move quickly to wherever they are needed, upon decision by the North Atlantic Council (...)". The "full range of its missions" now includes the "threat posed by terrorism and by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery". Furthermore, for the first time the Alliance will be charged with a global task: When the Dutch-German Corps will soon take over the lead of the ISAF-Mission in Afghanistan, NATO will be involved – a global precedent for the Alliance. For months now, Robertson has pointed out that NATO is ready to take a "lead role" in fighting terrorism and could offer its military capabilities to other international organisations and coalitions on a case-by-case basis. Consequently, a "Military Concept for the Defense against Terrorism", prepared by the Military Committee, was adopted at the Prague Summit.

However, new tasks create new problems. The U.S. have substantially changed their national strategy – latest through a new National Security Strategy. While fighting terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, a U.S. attack before any attack on the U.S. occurs is not ruled out anymore. This is illustrated by terms like "pre-emptive strikes" and "defensive intervention".

The American term "pre-emptive strikes" has a twofold meaning. It stands for preventive action, such as the destruction of enemy missile launchers immediately before these are about to be used in an attack. But it also means, launching a precautionary, pre-emptive attack to avoid the build-up of a long-term threat, like the construction of weapons of mass destruction. An example would be Israel's very controversial attack on the Iraqi nuclear power plant at Osirak in the 1980's. But Washington goes even further: The use of nuclear weapons in such strikes is not ruled out anymore by the Bush administration. This became evident for the first time at the beginning of 2002 when the secret Nuclear Posture Review was leaked. Already for some years now, U.S. national nuclear target planning was not limited to states anymore. "Non-state actors" like terrorists, religious extremists or transnational corporations, which attempt to acquire weapons of mass destruction, could become targets for a nuclear attack.

So NATO is about to face a serious dilemma. Like on numerous occasions in the past, NATO is adapting its strategy with a certain delay to match changes in U.S. strategy. How far this mirroring will go, remains unclear for the time being – at least in public. One thing though is clear: serious problems concerning the legitimacy of future NATO military planning in regard to international law are bound to crop up. Neither pre-emptive attacks nor the use of nuclear weapons (against targets in non-nuclear states) – possibly even with recourse to NATO's Nuclear Sharing arrangements - are covered by international law.

Imagine: Washington wants to destroy an existing or emerging potential for developing and maintaining weapons of mass destruction of a state or non-state actor. The Pentagon staff is convinced that only the use of nuclear weapons will guarantee the destruction. Since this approach would be heavily contested on legal grounds and by public opinion, the U.S. decides to ask NATO for solidarity and collaboration. Being a community of 19, and soon 26 democratic states, NATO support would provide a better justification of such an attack. The attacking aircraft will take off in one NATO-state, a second state will supply air-to-air-refuelling, a third will provide fighter aircraft to escort the bombers and a fourth non-nuclear country will even supply the carrier aircraft for the nuclear weapons. This scenario shows, which serious problems could arise for the European NATO-states.

NATO would run risk to actively weaken the United Nations monopoly on the use of force. The consequences for the Non-Proliferation-Regime would be disastrous. The Alliance would actively collaborate in the deregulation of international relations initiated by the Bush administration, even though the European NATO-states are already complaining about its consequences.

This points to an almost insoluble dilemma which can only be temporarily avoided through wordy and vague compromises or intellectual self-censorship. The seriousness of the problem was proven recently when NATO's CMX02 exercise was terminated early on in spring 2002 after political controversies about pre-emptively attacking a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. None of the public summit documents provides a clear answer to this dilemma, since such sensitive questions usually aren't addressed publicly. Instead, those questions are dealt with in confidential papers like that of the Military Committee. Therefore the adopted "Concept for the Defense against Terrorism" deserves highest attention on the political level.

German Defense Minister Peter Struck still believes that NATO will continue to reject a preventive or pre-emptive military approach in the future, arguing that decisions of the Alliance will be made by consensus. However, looking at the growing number of member states, the principle of unanimity in Alliance decisions is bound to become even more questioned. The argument goes that if the Alliance wants to remain relevant, it should allow those willing to act alone accordingly. There are also European voices which consider pre-emptive military action, among them Wolfgang Schäuble and Klaus Naumann, former chairman of the Military Committee of NATO. Shortly before the Prague Summit Naumann assumed that "NATO will therefore take at Prague the first steps towards a new strategic concept which has to include prevention and pre-emption as options but not as guiding principles". "NATO needs to decide at Prague on new ways to counter chemical, biological or nuclear attack on our armed forces and on our populations. This is more than homeland defense. This means to meet the threat where it emerges. It means that NATO has to be prepared to intervene where necessary without abandoning its general orientation to be a defensive alliance." Prague did confirm Naumann's expectations. The Communiqué tries to soothe the public: No, NATO's new tasks "should not be perceived as a threat by any country or organisation, but rather as a demonstration of our determination to protect our populations, territory and forces from any armed attack, including attack, directed from abroad". All this "in accordance with the Washington Treaty and the Charter of the United Nations". But the Communiqué refrains from answering how this is to be achieved.

3. New military means

Since the military means from the Cold War period were not sufficient to master these tasks, a variety of decisions were taken at Prague in order to apply a quick remedy.

In September U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, presented his idea of creating a NATO rapid reaction force for world wide interventions to his NATO colleagues – the NATO Response Force (NRF). It was subsequently adopted at Prague. This force of about 21.000 soldiers is supposed to include the best which NATO-states have to offer: army units at brigade level, fighter aircraft for up to 200 sorties per day and navy forces the size of one of NATO's Standing Naval Forces. They should be deployable world wide within five to 30 days, specialised in high-intensity warfare – a prerequisite for conducting such interventions like in Afghanistan. They should be capable to fight autonomously for up to 30 days. With units like this, NATO could then participate in U.S.-led operations. The NRF is supposed to be fully operational by 2006. At Prague the NATO-states agreed to create the NRF. In spring 2003 a first report, outlining the NRF, will be presented to the defense ministers.

A second initiative adopted was termed "Prague Capabilities Commitment" (PCC). Here primarily the European NATO-states made politically binding commitments to provide military capabilities in core areas such as strategic air and sea lift, defense against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats and command&control systems at specified dates. Contrary to the broader earlier "Defense Capabilities Initiative" the PCC focus on NRF requirements and therefore on global military deployments for high-intensity warfare. Presently, working groups deal with increasing the individual capabilities.

Not every NATO-state is obliged to contribute to every capability. Division of labor and role-sharing are the magic words expected to bring future progress. Spain chairs the air-to-air-refuelling group, the Netherlands deal with stand-off weapons. Germany chairs the working group on strategic air transport. It remains unclear, if this primarily reflects the interest of the Bundeswehr to justify the procurement of 73 (or perhaps "only" 60) military transport aircraft A400M. But it is certain, that already first, exorbitantly expensive offers to lease American C-17 air-lifters reached Berlin, with which Europe could bridge the time span until deliveries of the A400M begin in 2009. A possible and much cheaper option would be to lease a sufficient number of Antonow 124 air-lifters, presently used by the Bundeswehr to supply the troops in Afghanistan reliably and at very modest costs.

A third initiative adopted at the summit strengthens NATO capabilities against attacks on the armed forces and territories of the member states with biological, chemical, radiological and nuclear weapons. This initiative, which at a first glance seems like a logical response to the risks of terrorist attacks and behind which one envisages primarily a strengthening of the NBC-protection capabilities and civil defence planning, instead has a much broader thrust. It includes NATO plans regarding missile defense for deployed forces as well as for populations and territories of NATO-states. For the first time NATO goes beyond the studies for a tactical missile defense. Now, the means of defending against missiles with a reach of more than 3.000 km are to be included. The Alliance can even address the question, whether parts of the American ballistic missile shield, including interceptor missiles, should be fielded in other NATO-states. It remains open if this initiative hides an additional facet of the discussions on preventive and pre-emptive military operations of the Alliance: Working on means to pre-emptively neutralise weapons of mass destruction, its carrier vehicle or the production sites.

Fourthly, the Prague Summit provided the outlines for a new, leaner, more flexible and more mission oriented command structure. A delicate task, since for every NATO nation this touches issues of influence, its share of representative positions and the future of NATO headquarters on its territory. The Military Committee is tasked to present a final proposal by summer 2003 for how NATO can achieve a significantly higher military flexibility with significantly fewer headquarters and command posts. The Military Committee is not to be envied. Any reform of the existing command structures must also anticipate the demands of future NATO member states – running counter to the goal of trimming the structure.

Furthermore, a reform of the U.S. national command structure has caused serious concerns in Brussels. NATO lost its most important headquarter on U.S. territory, SACLANT. SACLANT, being on the same level as SACEUR, commanded the maritime forces in the Atlantic and additionally in times of war the NATO-assigned strategic nuclear submarines – the core of NATO's nuclear deterrence. Washington now argues, that one operational strategic command suffices. But: SACLANT is also a symbol for NATO's commitment to participate in the defence of the U.S.

Is this a signal, that NATO is no longer considered necessary for defending the U.S.? Washington, confronted with European resistance, has offered to turn SACEUR into the sole operational supreme command of NATO – a Strategic Command for Operations. SACLANT is then to be transformed into a strategic "functional" Supreme Command, responsible for future NATO operational concepts and responsible for equipment and armaments planning – a Strategic Command for Transformation. Even though some Europeans feared this compromise to be a Greek gift, such a decision was taken at Prague.

Additional changes to the command structure are primarily aimed at improving the efficiency and speed of exercising operational command. The operational Supreme Command will be supported by two Joint Force Command headquarters, each able to provide a multinational Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) headquarter and a smaller sea-based mission headquarter. The number of other NATO headquarters and the Combined Air Operations Centres will be reduced significantly.

4. Europe's reservations

Even though the Europeans welcomed most American initiatives in principle, some substantial reservations were voiced. German Foreign Minister Fischer listed them in a statement before the German Bundestag shortly before the NATO Summit. Regarding the NRF he formulated three prerequisites: Firstly, the decision about force deployment should rest with the NATO-Council and therefore be made unanimously. Secondly, national participation should be depending on national decision-making procedures, e.g. a German participation must be based on a prior decision by the Bundestag. Thirdly, the initiative has to be compatible with the creation of European crisis response forces. Only under these preconditions would Germany agree to develop a NRF-concept.

At the root lay concrete German worries. Fischer wanted to prevent NATO-troops from being deployed without a vote of the North Atlantic Council after receiving a request by the U.S. or another NATO state – even though NATO's decision-making process can sometimes be time consuming. He wanted to safeguard the German parliamentary provisions. At the same time though he indirectly accepted that pressure on the German government to pass a "deployment law" in order to speed German decision-making would rise.

Finally there is the issue of compatibility with the European Crisis Response Forces (ECRF): The communiqué postulates, that this is to be safeguarded, but reality could look very different.

If a NRF would really be put into place, it would need at least 60.000 of the best soldiers – due to the necessary rotation. Soldiers, which are envisaged to be part of the ECRF. This would touch the core of the future ECRF. For instance, Germany plans to allocate troops for both from a single set of forces - a reservoir of 18.000 soldiers. If the NRF were to be in great demand or would be on stand-by, they would most likely not be available for EU-operations. However, this is likely to happen. The global fight against terrorism and the world wide support for Washington could easily become a permanent job for the NRF.

Furthermore, to guarantee the interoperability with US troops, the NRF forces would need to be modernised along U.S. standards. In other words: in order for the NRF units to remain interoperable with other parts of the ECRF, all other ECRF units also would have to be modernised along these standards too. Mockingly the Prague Capabilities Commitments were already coined BAC: Buy American Commitments. Likewise, NATO's future Strategic Command for Transformation can be regarded as a sales and public relations agency for transformation "the American way".

The establishment of autonomous European capabilities would definitely become more expensive, the process potentially even being completely absorbed by NATO. Even worse, Europeans might face a unwanted division of labor: While NATO specialises on global combat missions under U.S. leadership, EU crisis reaction forces have to take over those tasks, which are of no interest to the U.S.: peace-keeping missions and the unloved – since extremely tedious and long-lasting – nation-building missions after an intervention.

Despite all these concessions to American desires Europeans would still have no guarantee, that the U.S. will take its European NATO-partners more serious regarding the core question for them: Will Washington give Europe a strategic say in how to handle future crisis situations?

5. NATO summit and ESDP

The 60.000 soldiers strong force of the European Union was supposed to be operational at the beginning of 2003, designed to enable the EU to conduct military crisis management operations. But: No chance. Even the first mission – taking over the peace-keeping mission in Macedonia – has been postponed. NATO will stay for another six months. February will see a reassessment of the situation. Why the delay?

There still is no agreement between NATO and the EU if and under which conditions the EU will be permitted to draw upon the planing capacities and other military assets of the Alliance. The scheduled EU-NATO Summit at Prague was cancelled. Responsible was a bizarre Turkish-Greek dispute – or rather: Turkey turning on the heat for the European Union.

Turkey threatens to use its Veto-powers in the Atlantic Council, where any agreement with the EU has to be decided by consensus. Ankara has already laid down the preconditions for the its consent, focussing on two issues. For one thing there is the NATO-EU-Treaty, which is to guarantee EU-access to the planing capacities of NATO and thereby prevent a duplication of NATO capabilities by the EU. In principal, both sides reached an agreement in regard to operations drawing on NATO assets. In that case, all NATO states will have a say in EU-operations. Things look different, if the EU acts autonomously without recourse to NATO assets. Here Turkey insists on becoming involved too – among other aspects because of the continuing disputes in the Aegean Sea and on Cyprus. Greece in return threatens to use its Veto should the Turkish demands be fulfilled. A time proven game which theoretically could be played forever on.

The second area concerns the Agreement on the security arrangements between NATO and the EU, designed to protect the military secrets of NATO. Finalisation of this is the precondition for the take-over of the Macedonia mission by the EU, since this would involve cooperating with the NATO command centres in drawing upon NATO intelligence. Again, this arrangement is threatened by Turkish Veto. Ankara demands that the agreement will be limited to the present EU member states. Its applicability to EU candidate states should remain subject to NATO consent. Turkey, not only had Cyprus in mind, as a EU candidate state, but also wanted to be offered a clear timeline and perspective for its accession to the EU.

Though France repeatedly demanded the EU to take over the Macedonia mission despite Turkish obstructions, and set up limited independent planning capabilities, the EU states couldn’t reach a consensus on this issue. Great Britain supports the creation of EU crisis reaction forces, but wants to keep their tasks limited to traditional peace keeping and peace enforcement operations. Combat missions and interventions are to be conducted through NATO. Other European States – among them Germany – argue, that independent EU capacities, i.e. a duplication of NATO-capabilities, would cost time and money. For them "one set of capabilities" from which NATO and the EU draw their forces would be the best solution. Lacking the political will to circumvent the Turkish Veto, the EU chooses to resort to wishful thinking, hoping that eventually Turkey will yield.

In the meantime three actors can lean back. As long as this dispute prevails, the British Prime Minister Blair can rest assured that the spectre of a European Army and Defense including political limitations for British sovereignty is banished from the near future. The General-Secretary of NATO can be sure that the primacy of NATO for European security issues remains untouched. And both can revel together with U.S. President Bush on the results of the Prague NATO summit. The summit guaranteed that in regard to European security nothing goes without NATO.

The European Security and Defense Policy remains toothless. EU crisis reaction forces still can’t be deployed. Probably, George W. Bush couldn’t help a smirk as Europe's nations pledged their most capable crisis reaction units for the NATO intervention forces and promised to use the scarce funds available for these. Now he can lean back. Military support for Washington is secured. What will come of an autonomous European crisis management and the claim to not only join the fray but also co-decide, remains to be seen in light of scarce funds. Even if the money can be dug up, European modernisation is likely to follow American preferences.

6. NATO-Enlargement

Ten candidate states stood at NATO's gates, seven received the invitation to join the Alliance: the Baltic republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the Balkan states Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania. Croatia, Albania and Macedonia will remain at the doorstep for the moment. The "big bang", the large version of NATO expansion will be executed. In spring 2004 the new admissions will become full members at another summit in Washington – at about the same time as the expansion of the EU.

It is surprising, how smooth the second enlargement of the alliance progresses. No extended argument with Russia, no public discussion on the question, whether the Baltic states could actually be defended, no strategic debate on giving perhaps too many or too weak candidates an assurance for territorial defense.

Again, some explanations can be found in Washington. The Bush administration ascribes NATO a changing role. NATO’s relevance for European security is increasingly defined as political and less and less through its military role. It is becoming more and more unlikely that Alliance territory has to be defended in a classical war. Even though on a global scale the Alliance can offer Washington some limited support, it is not the strategic partner, which the U.S. would allow a voice on how to handle crisis situations. Cooperation among important NATO-states can always be secured bilaterally.

Instead, NATO is to safeguard the final integration of Central-, South Eastern and Eastern European nations into Western institutions and to prohibit renewed open hostilities in the Balkans. In addition, NATO is supposed to secure U.S. influence on European security politics - in a much wider geographical frame.

Especially Romania and Bulgaria possess strategic significance, because their integration would improve the pursuit of Western interests around the Black Sea. The Balkans received a signal that the long-term stabilisation of South-Eastern Europe is a common task for the Alliance. The admission of seven new member states in a single move also secures Washington's influence, since their new elites often have been trained in the U.S.

And finally, it is obvious after this second larger round of enlargement that no further controversial expansion will be scheduled in the near future, which could have caused tensions in the relationship with Russia. Thus, it will not be necessary to again think about a compensatory deepening of cooperation with Russia. The Permanent Joint Council, established in 1997 for consultations, was remodelled and upgraded as the NATO-Russia Council in 2002. Now it can take joint decisions – with the consent of all 20 states, for example in respect to fighting terrorism. Commentators already hold - partly joking, partly in earnest - that the next step could only be to offer Russia full membership – a step which should be considered only at a much later date.

Even though NATO is to remain open for new members, specific measures to bring other states into NATO are loosing some of their urgency. Instead, the cooperation in the fight against terrorism is to be broadened inside the framework of the Euro-Atlantic Cooperation Council. Many states for whom a NATO membership is presently out of reach are playing an important role as host nations for NATO forces during military interventions – like the states of Central Asia.

7. Iraq, an item on the agenda or not?

In the run-up to Prague there was much guesswork "if Iraq would be on the agenda of the Prague Summit or not?" Washington made it an item. President Bush asked for political support of NATO for the next steps against Iraq and received it. After intense negotiations it became clear: NATO endorses the recent UN resolution concerning Iraq, threatens Saddam Hussein with most serious consequences, declines to issue a direct military threat, but also fails to mention explicitly that in case of Iraqi violations against the UN resolution the UN Security Council is to have the last word. Almost at the same time the U.S. government bilaterally confronted its partners with the question, what they want to contribute to a new war at the Gulf.


Otfried Nassauer is free-lance journalist and director of the Berlin Information-center on Transatlantic Security (BITS). Angelika Beer (Bündnis90/Die Grünen) was until recently defense spokeswoman of the Green Faction in the German Bundestag. At the time this article was written, she worked as a senior consultant to BITS. Shortly thereafter she became elected as chairperson of the party Bündnis 90/Die Grünen.