Select Committee on Defence Seventh Report


The US and its European allies

113. One of the principal purposes behind the founding of NATO was to bind the security of the United States and Europe together, and this has remained the cornerstone of the Alliance for the 53 years of its existence. As Dr Allin told us, NATO—

... provides the framework, the habits, the training, the institution for shaping and regularising ... the relationship between the United States and its allies.[110]

Professor Heuser agreed that NATO is 'the only formalised forum of Euro-American co-operation and consultation and that gives it a special quality'.[111] It is apparent that this, together with Article 5 protection, is one of the key attractions of NATO membership for the applicant countries.

114. The US and its European allies have found a number of issues on which they have not agreed over the last 50 years, both within NATO and beyond it. Within NATO, for example, the Cold War years saw a number of disagreements about nuclear policy. President Kennedy's initiative of 'flexible response' in the early 1960s was opposed by some European allies, notably West Germany, on the grounds that it implied US centralised control of nuclear weapons, and it was not adopted by NATO's Defence Planning Committee until 1967. Another long-running bone of contention was the definition of 'out of area'. Article 6 of the North Atlantic Treaty defines the area to be defended by NATO as the territory of North American Alliance members, Europe and the Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer. In the 1950s, the US opposed extending NATO's area of activity in relation to both Indochina and Suez, although it sought NATO support for its own participation in the Korean war and in Guatemala. The Vietnam conflict was a major source of division within NATO. The 1980s saw political disputes over the deployment of American intermediate range nuclear missiles ('Cruise' and 'Pershing'), as well as the refusal of certain Allies to accept deployments of the neutron bomb. In 1990-91, only the UK and France of the NATO allies contributed substantial numbers of troops to the coalition in the Gulf War and some countries made positive decisions to keep their forces out of direct military engagement.[112]

115. Outside NATO, US views on the Middle East conflict are now, and have been throughout NATO's history, very different from those of most European countries. This has recently been brought into sharp focus following President Bush's speech calling for the removal of Yasser Arafat as the leader of the Palestinian Authority,[113] a proposal which most European governments have not supported. The UK Foreign Office Minister, Mr Mike O'Brien, met President Arafat in Ramallah on 2 July. Similarly there has been recent disagreement between the United States and its allies about the International Criminal Court, and the effects on deploying personnel in peace-keeping missions, which has had a direct bearing on the NATO SFOR operation in Bosnia.[114] The Secretary of State's view is that—

It is actually part of the grown-up world in which we operate that from time to time we do disagree, and I do not think that should be terribly surprising ...[115]

116. Nevertheless, even with the acceptance that the US's relationship with its European allies has not always been harmonious, there have been suggestions of a more marked change in the US's attitude to NATO recently. Some of our witnesses believed that, since the Bush Administration took office at the beginning of 2001, and particularly since the campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan began last October, the US is less interested in the Alliance now than previously and that there is a danger that it will become disengaged or decoupled from it. Dr Allin told us—

... there is less interest in NATO in Washington now than there was. It has something to do with the new administration, it has a lot to do with the circumstances after September 11, it has something to do with continuing to store up the trends in terms of disparities of power.[116]

He believed that this had led to a 'moment of historical discontinuity', where it is not clear whether the US will remain sufficiently interested in NATO to ensure it continues to work.[117] Dr Honig told us that NATO's 'primary problem' at present is its relationship with the United States.[118] Professor Heisbourg believed that NATO was no longer the 'delivery vehicle' for the coupling between the United States and Europe and that people in the Pentagon now 'do not mind saying out loud that they are sceptical about the future of NATO ... it is politically more palatable to say that NATO is not that important any more'.[119]

Implications of the campaign in Afghanistan

117. When, last October, the United States embarked on the campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, in response to the 11 September terrorist attacks, it decided to act through a 'coalition of the willing'—nations prepared to act with it on a bilateral basis—rather than conducting operations through NATO. Operation Enduring Freedom was co-ordinated from the US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, and to date 20 other nations have been involved, deploying more than 16,000 troops.[120] This has led to suggestions that a pattern has been set for the future, and that the US is no longer interested in using NATO as a military alliance. Dr Honig believed 'there is a distinct tendency to deal with countries on a bilateral basis' and Mr William Hopkinson told us that the United States—

... have no interest in NATO as a war fighting military organisation ... They see it as a framework within which they can perhaps induce their allies to increase defence expenditure and perhaps even more importantly to treat defence as a serious issue ... the emphasis is highly on the political and in the present scale of things in the Bush administration, the political does not weigh so heavily as the military when it comes to solving security problems.[121]

Some of our witnesses believed that the US experience in the Kosovo campaign and the need to conduct operations through consensus, resulting in what has been described as 'war by committee', had convinced the US military that the experience should not be repeated and that means other than NATO should be used in conducting future campaigns.[122] Professor Heisbourg supported this argument—


... NATO will no longer serve as a military command structure to conduct major military operations implying a high level of American use of force, and that is not something which flows from the Bush Administration, it flows from the Kosovo experience ...[123]

The point was made to us very strongly, however, in our informal meetings in NATO that the Kosovo campaign had actually been a very successful one and that the decision-making process had been swift and effective, but that it suited some people, including in the US, to encourage an unfavourable view.

118. Dr Allin believed that the fact that the US had not been interested in using the NATO command structure to fight the Afghanistan campaign should not be regarded as surprising: there were 'very rational and sound reasons' for this decision and it would not have made sense to use NATO on that occasion.[124] Professor Heuser's view was that NATO is a tool which the US will use when it is appropriate and that there are other tools which will be used on other occasions. But 'as long as you keep the tool, polish it and keep it running' it can be activated when it is required.[125] The Secretary of State for Defence also did not accept that the Afghanistan campaign represented any particular watershed in the US's attitude to NATO—

... we needed bases, we needed support from well beyond the geographical area covered by existing NATO members and, therefore, it made military sense to involve a wide range of countries who were not existing NATO members.

He drew parallels with the Gulf War, when NATO was not used as the vehicle for conducting coalition operations.[126] Mr Hawtin's view was that, even though Afghanistan was not a NATO mission, NATO common standards, which took many years to develop, were being used by the allies.[127] Dr Honig agreed that—

Even though the operation in Afghanistan is not directly a NATO operation, it still uses so much of NATO assets that it is sort of a NATO operation in disguise.[128]

Of the 20 nations working with the United States in the coalition, 16 are NATO members.

119. The view we heard both during our visit to Washington in February, and from NATO officials in Brussels, was that there are undoubtedly unilateralist and isolationist tendencies in some quarters in the United States, including in Congress but these views are not shared by the Administration. The Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and President Bush himself, are all said to value NATO. In informal meetings at NATO HQ, the point was made to us that the US imperative had been to strike quickly and with force against terrorists in Afghanistan and that the reality of the situation was that it would have been difficult to get all 19 NATO countries to act within the four week period which the US was able to achieve. The point made by Mr Hoon, that the coalition needed to involve countries outside NATO, particularly India and Pakistan, was also emphasised by those we met.

The future for US involvement in NATO

120. Professor Heisbourg expressed the view that the key to NATO's future—

... is to get the Americans on board. For me the key is to ensure that the Americans, and particularly the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reintegrate, if I can put it that way, NATO into the mainstream of US defence preparedness.[129]

There is something of a circular argument around this. The US will only be interested in NATO if it is a viable military organisation. But NATO will only remain a viable military organisation if the US is properly engaged and thereby provides an incentive to its Allies to develop their defence capabilities and to see the Alliance as a priority.

121. The Director of Policy Planning Staff at the US Department of State, Ambassador Richard Haass, said recently that 'the transatlantic relationship remains critical for both the United States and Europe'. He believed that the transition to the post 11 September strategic context (what he describes as the post-post-Cold War world) will inevitably involve frictions, as transatlantic relations always have, but concluded that 'there is virtually nothing that we can do alone that we cannot do better together with our allies and partners in Europe'. However, he drew attention to the need to bridge the gap in military capabilities and said: 'this gap will not be bridged by the United States doing less. It will only close if Europeans do more, individually and collectively'.[130]

122. Those we spoke to informally, at all levels in NATO, strongly believed that capabilities, and the gap between the US and all other NATO allies, was key to the level of US interest and engagement in the Alliance. The Secretary of State was also very clear about this—

Unless the Europeans do more, spend more and spend better, then there is a clear danger that the transatlantic link will weaken ... I think it is absolutely vital that the United States remains engaged and the best way of ensuring that, in my view, is to ensure that the other members of the Alliance play their part in developing and funding appropriate military capability that allows them to work effectively alongside the United States ...[131]

Our academic witnesses took a similar view. Charles Grant believed 'if America is going to respect NATO it has to be a serious military organisation ... That is why it is important to keep up the military side, to keep America engaged in NATO, so that America takes NATO seriously ...'.[132] As Professor Heisbourg pointed out, the combined defence spending of the European Allies was 60 per cent of US defence expenditure four years ago but with the recently announced increases in the US defence budget, this is projected to slip to only 40 per cent next year. Moreover, US expenditure on military research and development will then be five times that of Europe, compared to four times at the beginning of the 1990s. He believed that this discrepancy would mean that European forces simply would not be able to operate alongside US forces in the future, and that although the US tended to use this 'to bludgeon us', the fact remained that 'we are not spending enough and we are not spending enough in the right places.[133]

123. US involvement is essential to NATO's continuing existence. The US must make it clear what it expects of European Allies and must be prepared to engage properly with NATO as an alliance. There is considerable uncertainty, if not suspicion, among some European members as to the true nature of the US's commitment. But the Europeans must also pull their weight. We emphasise the importance we place on NATO having a future as an effective functioning organisation.

124. We believe that capabilities are key both to NATO's future and to US engagement. We now turn to look at what NATO has tried to do, and what more it needs to agree to do at Prague, to rectify the capabilities gap.

110   Q 83 Back

111   Q 89 Back

112   See Jane's NATO Handbook 1991-1992, edited by Bruce George, pp 4-8 Back

113   President Bush Calls for New Palestinian Leadership, 24 June 2002, available on White House website at Back

114   See, for example, HC Deb, 3 Jul 2002, c 329w Back

115   Q 236 Back

116   Q 89 Back

117   Q 98 Back

118   Q 17 Back

119   QQ 55, 57 Back

120   US Department of Defense Fact Sheet, 7 June 2002, International Contributions to the War Against Terrorism Back

121   Q 58 Back

122   QQ 24, 56-57 Back

123   Q 24 Back

124   Q 89 Back

125   QQ 97, 100 Back

126   Q 163 Back

127   Q 156 Back

128   Q 17 Back

129   Q 34 Back

130   Charting a new course in the transatlantic relationship, Speech by Ambassador Richard Haass, Director, Policy Planning Staff, US Department of State, at the Centre for European Reform, 10 June 2002 Back

131   QQ 132, 163 Back

132   Q 83 Back

133   Q 24 Back

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Prepared 31 July 2002