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NATO's Course

The recent dispute has not ruptured NATO

17.02.2003 · Wolfgang Bücherl


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The recent stalemate in the North Atlantic Council in the question of dealing with the US bid to support Turkey, that was settled Sunday night, went to the heart of the alliance. The question of allied solidarity is the core of the Alliance, but is this really what was on the table? Was it imaginable that France, Belgium or Germany would turn their backs on Turkey in the case of an external attack?

The real dispute between France, Belgium and Germany, on the one hand, and the US, Britain, Turkey and some more, on the other, concerned NATO's future direction, Europe's role for the US and the ability of the Europeans to speak with one voice.

The NATO summit in Prague in December 2002 had been a powerful demonstration of the United States' resolve to set the Alliance on its course. The Bush administration set the agenda and made it quite clear that - in line with its philosophy that there is no neutral ground - the allies had to decide whether NATO would adjust to suit America's battle against new threats - or become irrelevant. The outcome was quite impressive in these terms: Seven countries, that are known to give unconditional political support to the United States, were invited to become new members. The Alliance tacitly abandonned the traditional territorial limitation to its geographical outreach (the 'Euro-Atlanic Sphere' had always been a controversial term) and European members committed themselves to building up capabilities that would supplement American military means for global power projection.

In Prague, it was not hard to see France's consternation, whose concept of NATO has always been somewhat contradictionary to that of the United States. Since the early nineties, France had been resistant, and later hesitant, to agree to a NATO expansion. France never really embraced the concept of NATO going out of area, especially out of the 'Euro-Atlantic Sphere'. And France never wanted to give NATO a global role, as long there was the possibility of such a NATO becoming a tool of Washington. It is unnecessary to add that such a NATO would hinder France's intentions for the EU to promote the defense policy aims of Paris.

Thus, the "NON" in Brussels, in concert with Belgium and also Germany, was an attempt to water down the results of Prague: Iraq should not set a precedent for future scenarios where the US would ask NATO to deal with the consequeces of its own security policy.

In this regard, the dispute in the NATO-Council also touched upon the question of Europe's role for the US. Since the end of the East-West-Conflict, Europe has watched its stakes fall in Washington. There is no longer a need for the Europeans to refuse American claims for a seat at their table, as there was with Kissinger's challenge in the early days of European Political Cooperation in the early 1970s. The Americans themselves came to the conclusion that Europe was no longer the top-priority on their agenda. Consequently, it took the Europeans quite some time to convince the US - and also themselves - that the Balkan crises could not be resolved without American diplomatic and military engagement. Today, Europe could again become relevant for the US. That is if it plays a supportive role in America's struggle against terrorism, tyrants and lethal technology, i.e. Weapons of Mass Destruction. So far, the Europeans have come to differing conclusions about the degree in which they would like to play that role - if at all.

Finally, NATO internal dispute sheded light on the ability of Europe to play a role as a unified foreign policy actor. The dividing line in transatlantic relations is not only the Atlantic, its is the British Channel, the Oder-Neisse-Line, the Alps, the Pyrennies and so on. Europe as a whole and the EU, in particular, host a number of different national strategic visions and foreign policy priorities that do not seem to be reconciliable at this point of time. One reason for this impasse may be the lack of a common strategic culture. The other, probably more imminent, reason is the weakness of institutions and procedures that help, and if necessary, oblige the national governments to find common ground. The fact that the presidency of the European Union recently learned of a common declaration of solidarity with the US from a number of present and future EU members, by taking a look in the paper, tells a long story.

The recent dispute has not ruptured NATO. The alliance has been through many internal struggles - Suez, De Gaulle's Challenge, SDI - simply to dismantle itself foolishly. But after the dust settles in Brussels, one may remember this dispute as a critical landmark for the course of the EU's Foreign Policy, the North Atlantic Alliance and transatlantic cooperation at large.


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