NATO at 61: Bear Trouble, and More

NATO members preparing for a new "strategic concept" to be issued at the November summit will have to both hash out serious differences about how NATO forces should be deployed and determine how best to gain Russia’s cooperation, says William Drozdiak.

March 1, 2010

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

On the heels of a meeting in Washington last month of NATO military officials, preparatory to a NATO summit in November to issue a new "strategic concept," William M. Drozdiak, president of the American Council on Germany, says there are significant differences between Europe and the United States on issues like Afghanistan that could make it difficult to agree on a new accord. Moreover, despite the end of the Cold War, tensions continue between the United States and Russia, says Drozdiak, who is also part of the advisory committee for a new CFR study, "The Future of NATO." Drozdiak says that "in terms of getting Russia to see that its own security interests need to be strengthened by building a better relationship with the West, there hasn’t been much progress."

The Council on Foreign Relations has issued a new Special Report on "The Future of NATO," written by James Goldgeier. Is there any particular reason for the timing of this report?

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Yes, the timing is related to preparations for issuing a new "strategic concept," which will be agreed upon at a summit in November in Portugal, which will bring together the twenty-eight heads of government within the alliance. Besides that, there’s the Group of Eminent Persons chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that has been assigned by the secretary-general of NATO to come up with recommendations. Many of the issues that are cited in the CFR report are similar to those being looked at by Ms. Albright--namely, should NATO be looking for partners beyond Europe, such as Australia, New Zealand, and Japan as it tries to deal with the transnational, global threat. How can it cooperate further with other institutions of the European Union, and also what is the nature of the twenty-first century security threat? While there is no longer a risk of a Soviet-led invasion across the land territory of Europe, there are many new forms of concern, such as terrorism, cyberattacks, and bioterrorism. So there are all sorts of new threats that need to be considered.

NATO was set up some sixty-one years ago to deal with fears of a Soviet land invasion of Western Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, there’s been an assumption that Russia, the United States, and Europe would cooperate with each other. But isn’t there still tension between Russia and the United States?

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There has to be [a] way to encourage Russia to change its thinking from the old Peter the Great czarist fear of encroachment … toward a new way of thinking that Russia needs to cooperate with the West, because its real concerns lie on its eastern and southern borders with encroachment by China and Islamic radicalism.

Relations have gotten worse in the last few years as Russia has used its oil and gas reserves to try and rebuild itself into a resurgent power. And it still nurtures resentment toward NATO and the United States for pushing expansion of NATO membership toward its own borders, and incorporating not only the Baltic States, which formerly were part of the Soviet Union, but states from the former Warsaw Pact. One of the big challenges that needs to be addressed at the NATO summit is how to build a more cooperative relationship with Russia. The last NATO summit triggered alarm bells in Russia because they feared that bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance would be a direct threat to Russia’s borders. There has to be some kind of way to encourage Russia to change its thinking from the old Peter the Great czarist fear of encroachment or encirclement of Russia toward a new way of thinking that Russia needs to cooperate with the West, because its real concerns lie on its eastern and southern borders with encroachment by China and also by Islamic radicalism.

You’d think fears of terrorism in both countries would lead to closer relations between Russia and the United States, but so far that hasn’t really happened.

No, there’s been an effort to "reset" the relationship that Vice President [Joe] Biden announced in Munich last year, and there’s been a change in the nature of the missile defense program that Russia initially objected to, which is that it moved its focus closer to the Middle East against the possible deployment of missiles by Iran. There’s been progress toward a follow-up treaty on strategic weapons, and that should be finalized in the weeks to come. But in terms of getting Russia to see that its own security interests need to be strengthened by building a better relationship with the West, there hasn’t been much progress there. And it’s unfortunate because the longer Russia seeks to ensure its own security by destabilizing its neighbors, it will perpetuate these misunderstandings with the West.

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What do you make of the recent speech by Defense Secretary Robert Gates saying that NATO is in a "state of crisis" and listing a number of issues, including the Europeans not paying their fair share?

There’s great consternation in the Pentagon that the European allies are not contributing enough to the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In addition, there are some caveats that Germany and other countries have imposed on their troops that prevents them from going into the most difficult areas, such as Helmand Province. What Secretary Gates was pointing to was the risk of a two-tiered alliance, in which some nations like the United States, Britain, Canada, and a few others who have participated fully in the fight are willing to use arms in different places around the world on behalf of NATO values; and then there are other countries that are not willing to fight. It’ll see some very difficult discussions leading up to the NATO summit this year to make sure that everybody is participating fairly.

What is the reason for the NATO countries’ view of Afghanistan which--with the exception of Britain and Canada, as you mention--is so diametrically opposed to that of the United States?

There is strong public opinion, reflected in the attitudes of political leaders, which suggests that the more the fighting goes on, the more this creates more terrorists that side with the Taliban. The European attitude was shaped largely by their own experience--having fought two world wars--and they believe that military fire power that takes us into the deepest parts of Afghanistan is not the way to bring peace in the long term. So there’s a real difference of strategy, and, at best, Europeans are reluctant to engage their own soldiers in this fight.

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The European attitude was shaped largely by their own experience--having fought two world wars--and they believe that military fire power that takes us into the deepest parts of Afghanistan is not the way to bring peace in the long term.

In criticizing Europe for not paying its share of NATO’s costs, Gates said NATO troops don’t have enough helicopters, tanks, and other equipment. Is this because of the budget crisis through the world?

It’s because in Europe there is no security threat on the horizon, while there was one during the Cold War days, so it’s harder to get voters to accept that they need to spend more on defense. Europeans now spend about 1.7 percent on average of their gross domestic product on defense, with the United States spending 4 or 5 percent. But the real problem has been the concern within Europe that continuing the war against the Taliban is not going to bring about a long-term peaceful solution and that European politicians have a hard time convincing their public that fighting on behalf of the regime of President Hamid Karzai--which is widely viewed as corrupt--is a worthy cause.

At the end of January, President Obama made clear that he would not attend a planned European Union-U.S. summit in Spain in May. This was read as a "snub" and led some to conjecture that Obama found these summits unproductive. The implication was that the EU is weak and unfocused. Is there a crisis between the EU and NATO?

The European Union after eight long years finally passed the Lisbon Treaty, which was supposed to streamline its decision-making institutions by creating a new president of the European Union and giving more powers to the foreign policy chief Lady [Catherine Margaret] Ashton, who succeeded Javier Solana. But this has just come into effect, and the Europeans are still struggling to get these new institutions off the ground. President Obama felt that there was not a sufficiently important agenda that would require him to attend one of these summits with twenty-seven other leaders, because he was very disappointed with the last one that took place in Prague. He felt basically it was a waste of his time and with so many other pressing domestic and foreign policy priorities, he didn’t want just another ritual summit. But the NATO summit is certainly one that will be more important because it will decide on the new strategic concepts and priorities for NATO.

Now you mentioned the relationship between the European Union and NATO. Given the broader nature of our security problems and the challenge of getting Europe to do more, the best solution would be to create a stronger partnership between NATO and the European Union. We now have a greater overlap in membership than ever before. There are twenty-seven nation-members that vote in the EU. France has just reentered as a full member of NATO, so there are opportunities to get the European Union to contribute more in terms of economic reconstruction, police training, civil society development--all of these things that require money and personnel but are not necessarily capable of being performed by a military army.

Will the NATO summit in November be very important?

It could be. It is supposed to set the ground for the future development of the alliance and how it will deal with the changing nature of security threats. It’s going to take a lot of creative vision and strategic thinking, and I’m not sure that’s what is being done right now--particularly when you have the euro crisis taking up a lot of energy and time for leaders in Europe. And, of course, President Obama may be more concerned with his own domestic priorities like healthcare, as well as Afghanistan and the Middle East--so whether this is just going to be another summit that is the ritual meeting of Western leaders or whether it actually agrees on important new criteria for the future alliance remains to be seen.

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