NATO Fading Away by 2010, Says Council’s Europe Studies Director Charles Kupchan

NATO Fading Away by 2010, Says Council’s Europe Studies Director Charles Kupchan

November 20, 2002 2:22 pm (EST)

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.

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Charles A. Kupchan, the Council’s Director of Europe Studies, says that by the end of the decade, “the U.S. will have very little business left in Europe.” As the NATO summit meets in Prague, Kupchan argues that another round of NATO expansion will complete “the process of creating a Europe whole and free,” paving the way for a dramatic restructuring of Europe’s security infrastructure— and leaving the United States to focus elsewhere.

Kupchan, who is also a senior fellow at the Council and an associate professor of International Relations at Georgetown University, made these comments in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for the Council’s website,, on November 19, 2002.

Q. We’re talking with Charlie Kupchan, who’s written a new book on Europe and the U.S. called The End of the American Era. Let’s focus today on the summit meeting of NATO countries taking place in Prague and President Bush’s trip, which will take him also to Russia and Romania.

What is your feeling about the prospective enlargement of NATO? It has already been enlarged to include three former members of the Warsaw Pact: the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. The press reports that NATO is going to be enlarged by another seven— Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia— all from the former Soviet bloc. Is it a good thing that NATO become so big— bigger than the European Union?

A. I think this next wave is a logical next step in the process that began in the mid-1990s, with NATO deciding to start integrating states from the former Soviet camp into its military infrastructure. The idea here is that as many of the new democracies that want to should be allowed to join. The upshot, however, is that these changes are fundamentally changing NATO. It is turning from a military alliance focused on territorial defense to much more of a loose talking shop— a political body which will, in some circumstances, perhaps coordinate military action, but probably more often than not be a place for consultation, putting together coalitions of the willing and really losing its identity as the premier security institution in Europe.

Q. I guess the question goes back to 1989 through 1991, when communism fell with a thud in Europe. The Warsaw Pact dissolved because its members wanted out. The question then arose: should there be a NATO?

A. The debate that emerged after those events focused on whether NATO should expand formally, giving new security guarantees to neighbors, or do something looser. It was at that time called the Partnership for Peace. That was a program of military cooperation short of a formal military alliance. What is happening now is that after the first round of NATO expansion to include the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland— which was more military in its orientation— we are sort of cycling back to a looser Partnership for Peace orientation. The Central Europeans have been chafing at the bit to get in, because it is their ticket to the West. They see it as rectifying the historical injustice which left them on the wrong side of Europe’s divide. But in some sort of strange, ironic, and perhaps remorseful fashion for them, the NATO they are going to be getting into isn’t what it used to be.

Q. Isn’t the reason they wanted to get into NATO to be close to the United States, while they were rather dubious of the European countries?

A. That’s correct, and the track record of European guarantees to Central Europe is not auspicious. And they have good reason to say, “We want Uncle Sam, we don’t want the EU.” They are getting into NATO because they want America, but they are going to get Europe instead. Europe is more or less at peace. Russia is democratizing. America really doesn’t have any business anymore to take care of, and so it is going to focus on terrorism, Iraq, Northeast Asia, the Middle East. And little by little, Europe as the strategic focus will disappear from America’s radar screen.

I also think we are seeing a kind of drift in the political relationship between the EU and the U.S. over America’s unilateralism, over America’s defection from the Kyodo protocol, the International Criminal Court. And in return the Bush administration is beginning to see Europe as more of a nuisance than a partner. The administration certainly continues to smart from the rhetoric that accompanied the election campaign in Germany in September— which was not overtly anti-American, but certainly beneath the surface, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was tapping into anti-American sentiment.

Q. Of course you are right; the American public is totally uninterested in things like NATO or the European Union because there are no threats around from Europe.

A. Remember, President Bush was talking about pulling out of the Balkans, saying that this is Europe’s problem, not our problem. A lot of assets were taken from southeastern Europe to Afghanistan during the war to topple the Taliban. We have the First Armored Division still in Europe, but my guess is that in a matter of weeks, it will be redeployed to the Middle East. So even though in symbolic terms we are still a European power, in practical terms we are becoming distracted by other areas, and my guess is that we will ultimately see the drawdown of America’s military presence in Europe.

Q. Is the EU in any position to unify or at least coordinate the military forces of the individual countries of Europe?

A. It’s heading in that direction, but it’s not there yet. And that’s why I think it is fair to say we have a timing problem; the U.S. seems to be checking out, focusing on other areas, before Europe is quite ready to pick up the slack. And that’s why if I had a piece of advice for the EU, it would be to speed up the process. Get more collective in your defense policy. Spend more for defense. You don’t want to end up in a situation a year down the road where something bad happens— in, let’s say, Montenegro. The U.S. says, “Sorry, we’re not coming to the party.” And the EU doesn’t have the wherewithal to take care of the mess.

Q. Is that what happened in Bosnia?

A. Yes, we came in and cleaned up and used our aircraft and our coercive diplomacy to bring the parties to the negotiating table. And the same thing happened in Kosovo. I doubt that’s going to last. I think the Clinton administration was fundamentally ambivalent about intervening in the Balkans, while Congress was passing resolutions one after the other disapproving of the military operation. Europe has correctly looked over here and said, “America has fought its last war in Europe, so we should step up to the plate.”

Q. Do you think the aftermath of 9/11 has changed the attitude of Congress or the American public to be more willing to take risks?

A. It has fortified certain types of internationalism but intensified the sense that we have more important fish to fry elsewhere. We now have to go after al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein. Maybe we will have operations in Indonesia, the Philippines. The last thing we want to do is to take care of Europe, where, after all, most of the big geopolitical issues have been resolved.

Q. Let’s talk about the Russian-American relationship. When Boris Yeltsin was in charge, the relationship was often fairly stormy because he first took the temperature of his own parliament, and Russian public opinion was hotly opposed to having NATO on its borders. And now, President Putin seems unexcited by the whole thing.

A. It is a very important change, and I would explain it in several different ways. One is that Putin is a real pragmatist. His priority is economic recovery, and he knows that if this is going to happen, it’s going to come from the West. And so he has really steered Russia westward and wants to attach it to European markets, and he is not going to let something like NATO expansion get in the way.

Second, NATO expansion has lost some of its teeth, as we talked about earlier. It is much more political and much less military. So it appears less threatening to Russia.

The third important point is that the Russian-American relationship has really changed since 9/11 because of the new partnership in Central Asia and because for the first time, you have people in the government— including conservative— saying, “You know, maybe one day Russia will join NATO.” And so this new council which has been created is called NATO at 20— i.e., Russia has a seat at the table. It is more than just window-dressing. It reflects a real reaching-out to Russia. For those three reasons, I think we are in a different ball game in terms of NATO-Russia.

Q. And of course Putin has gotten strong support from Bush on Chechnya.

A. Yes, he’s tried to portray Chechnya as Russia’s own battle against terrorism, and it certainly looks that way after the October Moscow theater hostage crisis. And so in that sense, there seems to have been a closing of ranks between Europe, America, and Russia.

Q. Why did Russia go along with the Security Council on Iraq?

A. My guess is that there were a lot of discussions with the Russians behind the scenes, including economic issues. Russia has a huge stake in Iraqi oil and has a huge debt in Iraq. We may have given them a wink and a nod about those two issues.

Q. So how do you think NATO will fade out?

A. I think the best of circumstances will be that its momentum keeps it going, at least in name, through this decade— that we see another round of enlargement that includes the former states of Yugoslavia and Russia, and perhaps some of Russia’s neighbors, like Ukraine. And that really completes the process of creating a Europe whole and free. At that point, my guess is that the U.S. will have very little business left in Europe, and the EU will then take over primary responsibility from NATO.

Q. Do you also find it amazing that we still have U.S. troops in Germany?

A. Yes, and they are really doing nothing in Europe. In many respects, it has become a forward base for power projection to the Middle East. It’s closer to Iraq than Norfolk. Still, a lot of troops have gone. They have gone down from about a half million to 100,000. We have basically a core left, a pretty serious fighting force. The mission is changing. They are really focusing on mobility and projection to other areas, rather than fighting somebody crossing the inner German border.

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