Bush’s Globalized NATO

Bush’s Globalized NATO

As envisioned by the Administration, it's unilateralism with a multilateral face.


The war in Afghanistan could become a defining event not just for the fight against terrorism but for NATO and US-European-Russian relations. Already the war has brought changes that just a few months ago would have been unimaginable. For the first time in its history, NATO has invoked Article 5 of the Washington treaty establishing the alliance–not to defend Europe, as was originally envisioned, but to support a US war in a region far from the European theater. And for the first time, NATO forces are operating from the territory of the former Soviet Union with Russia's blessing, and NATO officials are seriously considering giving Moscow a real voice in NATO affairs.

Yet underneath this unprecedented display of common purpose lie conflicting visions of NATO and of the American-European-Russian relationship, particularly as it connects with the troubled Arab and Islamic worlds. In both Europe and Russia, there is a palpable apprehension that Washington is using the war to advance a vision of NATO long favored by hawkish Democrats and Republicans–a more flexible NATO with a global mission controlled by Washington and acting in accordance with US foreign policy priorities.

If the Bush Administration has its way, this globalized NATO would entail a clearer division of labor between Europe and the United States: a NATO in which the Europeans assume more responsibility for post-cold war peacekeeping and nation-building in the Balkans while the United States is given a mandate to act outside the region against supposedly common enemies or on behalf of supposedly common interests in the Persian Gulf and East Asia. The United States would gain a freer hand for NATO military operations, while the Europeans would stand ready with money and personnel for peacekeeping and reconstruction. Washington would make the war, Europe would pay for the peace and Russia would politely stand aside, except when its cooperation was needed in the fight against terrorism and against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Such a NATO would provide a degree of legitimacy for American power projection while reducing the overall financial burden for American foreign policy.

The expansion of NATO to include the Baltic states as well as the Central and Eastern European countries not included in the first round of enlargement in 1997–a NATO from the Baltics to the Black Sea, to use Bush's words–is a core part of this vision. A "big bang" expansion would dilute European control, since the new NATO members, especially the Baltic states, like Poland before them, tend to be more sympathetic to the American position on most military matters. Moreover, an enlarged NATO would require a looser and more flexible military decision-making and command structure–a further extension of the Combined Joint Task Force idea that the Clinton Administration championed in 1994. Thus, by pushing another round of NATO enlargement, the Bush Administration would be able to create a more malleable alliance that would increasingly operate like a "coalition of the willing," allowing Washington to pick and choose its allies in any crisis or mission while retaining overall NATO support.

Top Bush Administration officials spoke of this larger and looser NATO early on in their term but backed off when they encountered European resistance to both the Administration's plan for withdrawing US forces from Bosnia and Kosovo, and its proposal for a big-bang enlargement. The war on terrorism has been propitious in its timing, because it allows the Administration to establish these ideas in practice before it presents them for formal adoption at the Prague summit next fall.

For the Bush Administration, a globalized NATO would be the best way to insure American freedom of action while maintaining leverage in European affairs and the cover of European support–in short, it would be the best way to put a multilateral face on American unilateralism. But for the Europeans and the Russians, such a NATO is anathema, for it would undermine NATO's value not just as a collective security organization but also as an institution, perhaps the only effective one, for constraining American unilateralism and for checking ill-conceived American policies that adversely affect European and Russian interests. Indeed, if NATO's original purpose was to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and Germany down, the alliance's rationale, at least for many Europeans and even some Russians, is to harness if not contain American military power.

There is, of course, no single European view of NATO's future. But on the whole the Europeans tend to favor a more modest evolution of NATO's mission: toward that of a collective security organization that insures peace and stability in the newly democratizing European countries to the east and south. They also tend to favor the strengthening of Europe's own autonomous military capabilities and the establishment of a common security and military policy, not so much as an alternative to NATO (at least not initially) but as a way to give them more leverage within NATO and more influence over American military actions. And if military force is to be used, the Europeans would prefer that it first be authorized by the United Nations Security Council, a further check on Washington's war-making tendencies.

This desire for more control in NATO explains the uncharacteristic enthusiasm the European governments have shown for participation in the Afghan war. Even as domestic support for the war was falling precipitately, a number of European governments–including France, Germany and Italy–offered various forms of military assistance, including one by German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to send 3,900 troops into combat, an action that required a vote of confidence in the German Bundestag. The reason was not enthusiasm for the war but rather the felt need to gain some control over Washington's war-fighting plans.

Except for the deployment of some British forces, Washington has tried to deflect these offers, not wanting to have its hands tied as they were during the Kosovo campaign. The Pentagon has been particularly adamant about not allowing the allies any say in the military campaign, fearing a repeat of the war-by-committee it found itself fighting against the former Yugoslavia.

President Vladimir Putin's much-heralded historic choice of throwing his lot in with the West can be interpreted in a somewhat similar light–not so much as a move toward the West but as an effort to bring NATO and American thinking toward the Russian point of view. By dropping or softening previous objections to NATO enlargement and by allowing the United States to use former Soviet bases in Central Asia, Putin has made a bid to gain a greater say in NATO as well as greater American support for Russia's war against what Moscow considers the threat of militant Islam in Chechnya and Central Asia.

The Russians are increasingly divided over NATO's future. Most in the Russian elite still consider NATO a cold war instrument whose further expansion would isolate Moscow and threaten vital Russian national security interests. But Putin seems to understand that the real threat is not NATO expansion per se but unchecked American power operating ever closer to Russian interests. That is why Moscow is now so determined to win some real say in NATO affairs–even to the point of possibly making a serious bid for NATO membership in the future. Moscow does not trust American power in the same way it trusts the Europeans; that is why Putin insists on "verification" and formal disarmament agreements, an ironic historic reversal of positions.

NATO officials have responded to Putin's more forthcoming position toward NATO enlargement with a proposal for the establishment of a Russia-North Atlantic Council, which would include Moscow as an equal with the alliance's nineteen members in setting policy on some issues–an upgrading of the consultative council created in 1997 following the first round of NATO enlargement. But this proposal is not likely to satisfy Russian concerns fully. In fact, it could further erode European control without giving Moscow any real power within NATO.

A globalized NATO without the constraining power of the Europeans and without Russian membership would represent the worst of all worlds for Moscow: It would enlarge NATO without fully transforming it. For now, Putin is willing to take the risk of having US forces operate in Central Asia as long as it serves Russian interests in helping contain, if not destroy, Islamic terrorism. But Moscow remains wary of Bush's vision of a more globalized NATO, given Washington's unilateral tendencies and its known appetite for control of the world's oil market. Russia is still smarting from how its interests were ignored in NATO's war against the former Yugoslavia as well as from the Clinton Administration's effort to squeeze Moscow out of a major role in the development of Caspian Sea oil by dictating the choice of pipelines in the region and by trying to establish anti-Russian security relationships with Azerbaijan and Georgia. A globalized NATO, Moscow fears, would put added American military muscle behind the Clinton Administration's policy of geopoliticizing Caspian Sea oil resources and America's rogue-state policy aimed at bringing down the Iraqi regime and isolating Iran, with which Russia has good relations.

Here, too, Russian and European interests tend to converge. Both Europe and Russia would oppose a vision of NATO that would perpetuate American unipolarism in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, thus sustaining what looks increasingly to them like a failed regional order that threatens to breed even greater instability in both Russia's and Europe's immediate neighborhoods. In this regard, Bush's push for a globalized NATO may backfire on US hegemonists in both the Republican and Democratic parties. For talk of a globalized NATO might only make Europe and Russia more determined to work together to put an end to the US monopoly in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.

Liberals in the Clinton Administration and Reaganites in and around the Bush Administration have alike celebrated the United States as a different kind of hegemonic power–one that stands for democratic values and for universal rules that serve the common good. But in European and Russian eyes, the United States is a failed hegemon in that part of the world, falling prey to the temptations of raw economic interest as well as narrow ethnic and business concerns. If anything, the events of September 11 have only strengthened this view.

The answer to this problem in Europe's and Russia's view is not to globalize NATO but to further internationalize policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in the Persian Gulf. Americans not concerned solely with recycling Saudi petrodollars into arms sales or with perpetuating Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza should welcome this effort because it would serve American interests better than does the current American monopoly. The United States needs a Europe and Russia that can act as a check on America's worst tendencies in this part of the world. For more than three decades, American policy has been its own worst enemy–embracing the Shah of Iran in a misguided authoritarian effort at modernization; befriending and building up a power-hungry Saddam Hussein; arming the Afghan mujahedeen and "Arab Afghans"; cozying up to Central Asian dictators in a failed bid for control of Caspian Sea oil; stroking a calcified and repressive Saudi royal family even as it exports Islamic extremism to other parts of the region; and tolerating if not giving aid and comfort to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This is not to mention the utter failure of the United States to advance democracy and economic development–despite billions of dollars of aid to Egypt and billions of dollars of arms sales to the Saudi, Jordanian and Kuwaiti governments.

Indeed, it is in America's interest to recognize that Washington alone cannot deliver peace in the Middle East or create a viable order in the Persian Gulf. The United States is no longer regarded as an objective arbiter between Israel and its Arab neighbors, or as a legitimate keeper of order in the Persian Gulf. Europe, by contrast, has taken a more evenhanded approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (having helped shepherd the Oslo accords); has maintained a constructive dialogue with so-called rogue states like Iran and Libya, which has helped to moderate those states' policies; and is untainted by America's close association with the Saudi monarchy or by Washington's counterproductive policy toward Iraq. It can therefore complement, if not supplement, US policy in any new effort to solve the Israel/Palestine conflict and bring democracy and economic development to the region. Russia, too, can play a larger constructive role, given its good relations with Iran, its historic ties to Syria and Iraq, and its newfound positive relationship with Israel.

It is not clear whether the conflicting visions of NATO's future can ultimately be reconciled or whether NATO has any real role in the world order that is emerging from the events of September 11. What is clear is that the challenge for US policy-makers is not to come up with new schemes to make the world safe for American unilateralism and keep other powers out of the Middle East but to harness these considerable European and Russian assets in a new internationalist policy toward this troubled region.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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