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United We'll Stand

Author: Ronald D. Asmus
May 6, 2002
The Washington Post

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The good news is that for the first time in history, the goal of a Europe that is democratic, peaceful and united is within our grasp. With NATO and the European Union (EU) beginning major rounds of expansion later this year, while also pursuing cooperation with Russia, the zone of stability on the continent will be extended to the Baltics and the Black Sea. Although we still face residual problems in the Balkans, the grand strategic issues of the past in Europe -- how to integrate Germany, liberate Central and Eastern Europe and promote democracy in Russia -- have been or are being settled.

The bad news is that America and Europe again face an existential challenge. It is what German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has called a "new totalitarian threat" to Western societies: the toxic mix of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, radical Islam and failed states. That threat emanates principally from a geographic area that extends from Israel eastward to Central Asia and includes the Greater Middle East and the Persian Gulf. The challenge of our time is addressing this new threat. Tracking down Osama bin Laden or toppling Saddam Hussein will not be enough. We must dramatically expand our efforts to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. We must work to lift failed states, from which our enemies draw sanctuary, support and successors.

The problem is more than just terrorism, and the answer must be more than simply a military one. Ultimately, we must support a process by which the greater Middle East is transformed from within -- into more equitable and open societies that no longer produce ideologies and people intent upon killing our citizens. Success may require decades of sustained political, economic and military cooperation, much of it between the United States and Europe.

Europeans have been slower to face this threat than Americans, in part because they were not the immediate victims of Sept. 11. But while America is enemy number one, Europe may not be far behind -- and Europeans increasingly know it. Plots by al Qaeda to blow up the Eiffel Tower in Paris and a historic cathedral in Strasbourg and the realization that future attacks might involve weapons of mass destruction are making Europeans insecure. For example, while European elites may oppose a hard line on Iraq, public opinion polls show majority support in key European countries for using force to eliminate Saddam Hussein's ability to produce weapons of mass destruction.

All this raises a simple but important question: What is NATO's purpose? Should it remain focused on managing peace in an increasingly stable and peaceful Europe -- and risk being marginalized? Or should it focus on the most immediate and dangerous threats to our common security from beyond the continent?

In the early 1990s, the key strategic challenge the West faced was how to stabilize the new democracies in the eastern half of Europe without producing a train wreck in relations with Russia. Prodded by the Clinton administration, NATO took the lead in halting ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, opening its door to new democracies and reaching out to a democratic Russia.

But Bill Clinton also understood that the threats of a new era required a NATO that Americans and Europeans understood and supported. The paradox today is that whereas several years ago it was the Europeans who were averse to recasting the alliance, today the United States is uncertain. The Bush administration's reluctance to work through multilateral institutions -- even those created, led and dominated by Washington -- have caused it to downgrade NATO.

Many conservatives argue that Europe is too weak to make a major contribution in the war on terrorism and that the United States is in any case better off going it alone. Europe is too weak militarily. But the way to fix this problem is not by sidelining NATO and ignoring our allies. That simply encourages them to become free riders.

Rather, the answer is to give NATO a new mission and the tools to combat weapons of mass destruction, along with the capacity to move forces far and fast. In spite of American military superiority, we sometimes need our European allies more than we admit. Whereas the administration initially resisted using NATO in Afghanistan, it now finds itself asking for allied support, as U.S. forces are stretched thin. Today, more than two-thirds of our NATO allies are in Afghanistan, and there are more Europeans than Americans on the ground. And when it comes to the long-term effort to remake the region, Europe's help is even more badly needed.

Obviously Americans and Europeans do not always see eye to eye when it comes to dealing with issues of war and peace in the greater Middle East. But are American conservatives really afraid to sit down and try to hammer out a common approach with our closest allies on the most pressing strategic issues we face? That was hardly the attitude of Harry Truman and his counterparts when they established NATO to meet the dangers of their day.

History occasionally grants leaders opportunities to turn tragedies into opportunities. Sept. 11 has given President Bush such an opportunity in U.S.-European relations. Just as Clinton set a new strategic course for the alliance in the early 1990s, so must this president now decide whether the United States and Europe will, together, face the strategic challenge of our time by reforming NATO to act beyond Europe. Otherwise the Bush administration runs the risk of presiding over the decline and eventual demise of the greatest alliance in history.


The writer, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy assistant secretary of State for European affairs during the Clinton administration.

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