Center for Strategic Decision Research


The EU and NATO—Organizations in Need of a Fresh Look

General Klaus Naumann (Ret.)
Former Chief of Defense of Germany


Any description of today’s state of transatlantic affairs must begin with a brief look at several issues: The relationship between the U.S. and Europe; the status of both the U.S. and the EU; the threat perceptions on both sides of the Atlantic; the approaches chosen to achieve security. I will focus on how these issues affect NATO since there are others who are much better qualified than I am to talk about the EU. 


Europe, Canada, and the U.S. achieved an historic and common success in ending the Cold War on their terms, bringing to an end the three wars fought in Europe between 1914 and 1991 over the question of an order for Europe. But although it was a common success, the U.S. and Europe arrived at different conclusions concerning how this success was brought about. 

The Europeans, tired of the wars that are still fresh in the memories of many, and wary of confrontation, saw the success as the result of a combination of strength and the determination to resist—the result of modern democratic societies’ patient diplomacy, which was used to penetrate and indeed open the Iron Curtain. Some Europeans concluded that the very same approach could help to stabilize Europe and its periphery and to cope with the unrest that so often accompanies the demise of a great empire such as the Soviet Union. Europe indeed pursued this course of action throughout the dramas over Yugoslavia, although it brought Europeans quite often to the brink of appeasement. The majority of Europeans still pursue this course today, since Europeans concentrate primarily on domestic affairs and the consolidation of Europe. 

The American conclusion was very different. Americans saw the success in winning the Cold War as a triumph of strength and resolve. The U.S. emerged from the Cold War as the world’s sole superpower and began to dream of becoming invulnerable and of being capable of establishing a new world order based on human rights, the rule of law, and democracy—all brought about, if necessary, by using the country’s multifaceted and dominating power. 

This American dream came to a brutal end on the sunny morning of September 11, 2001. The world and indeed Europe rallied behind the U.S. on that day as did NATO a day later, when it invoked Article 5 for the first time ever. But the day that was a triumph of Alliance solidarity turned out to mark the beginning of NATO’s most severe crisis. 

The U.S. was determined to react to the act of terrorism but the American government wanted to do it alone and on its own terms. This attitude, reinforced by European military weakness and by the quick military success in Afghanistan, had an influence on the American approach to Iraq. However, the attitude of some European allies concerning the Iraq crisis divided Europe, reduced Europe’s influence on Washington to almost zero, and strengthened those who do not favor standing alliances because of their intrinsic characteristic of shared decision making. 

NATO had a near-death experience during the crisis when, as then-U.S. Ambassador Nick Burns put it, the arrogance of power met the arrogance of the impotent, who felt they were on the moral high ground. 

While the dispute is over, the differences remain. My conclusion on the state of NATO at this time is therefore: 

  • NATO is indeed no longer the primary place of transatlantic consultation.  
  • It is no longer the option of choice for all NATO nations engaged in crisis management.  
  • There is no real agreement on how to cope with future crises since there are gaps between the U.S. viewpoint and its allies’ on several issues: 1. The resolve to use all necessary means, including military means; 2. The capability to act across the full spectrum of political options; 3. Military capabilities; 4. The absence of the political will in most European countries and in Canada to take appropriate steps to modernize their armed forces; 5. Quite a few different viewpoints on the future role of NATO, ranging from a global alliance ready to act in expeditionary operations where needed to an alliance more or less reduced to collective defense plus some PSOs.  


The two key players, the U.S. and the EU, are not as healthy as they should be, and they act in an international environment governed by fragility.  The U.S. is undoubtedly the dominant and indeed the only global power in all areas of politics, ranging from the cultural to the military domain. But American dominance has been acquired by leaving huge domestic and social problems unresolved and is being paid for by borrowing money from foreign nations, in particular from eastern Asia. The incredible amount of 780 billion USD held by Japan and the 180 billion held by China do not bode well for American sustainability if one takes into account the growing double deficit in the U.S. trade balance and the U.S. budget. The Chinese in particular have a powerful weapon in their hands, and if they one day decide to use it this would not only hurt them but also could get the U.S. and most other nations down on their knees economically. The U.S., the undisputed and indeed irreplaceable leader of NATO, is therefore in a fragile position of power. 

Turning to Europe we see that the European Union is still struggling to digest the two severe blows it received when the French and the Dutch voters rejected the European Constitution draft. While these votes will not mean the end of the EU, they do mark the end of the plan to enlarge the Union while simultaneously deepening its integration. As a consequence, invitations to other nations to join may well wither away, although all Europeans know that there is no better way to resolve the many unresolved European problems than through integration—it is the approach that may help to solve the troubles in the Balkans, the powder keg in the Caucasus, through to the difficulties in Ukraine. In my view Europe must stick to its vision of a Europe whole and free, and both NATO and the EU must keep their doors open so that the ghastly ghosts of nationalism never haunt Europe again. 

However, the likely consequence of the fragile status of the two key players is that they might increasingly focus on internal issues instead of the international situation, which with all its uncertainty requires concentrated and well-coordinated transatlantic cooperation. The U.S. and the EU need to take stock regarding where they stand as well as how they should cooperate, since the crises will not wait until the two sort out how they should work together.  

Russian fragility is another area that requires a coordinated response because its domestic movement toward a quasi-authoritarian regime gives us as much reason for concern as does its heavy-handed approach toward the unrest in its Caucasian underbelly. Russia is doing well economically but its wealth is being paid for by the export of commodities, and far too little of its revenue is being reinvested in the repair of the results of almost 80 years of socialist mismanagement. Russia’s industrial sector is not close to being competitive on the world market and the country struggles with a demographic problem reinforced by the serious spread of illnesses such as AIDS and tuberculosis. The Russian population will probably shrink to less than 100 million within the next 50 years or so while the illegal settlement of Chinese immigrants in eastern Siberia may well grow beyond the over one million illegal Chinese immigrants of today. For this reason alone Russia may not be able to be a pole in the multi-polar world of which her leaders speak so often. 

Concerning the broader Middle East, the U.S. and the EU must work together on the many questions waiting for resolution in that troubled area of the world. None of the problems, including the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Iraq, and Iran, to name but a few, can be solved without the greatest amount of cooperation between the U.S. and the EU.  


In a discussion of risks I can be very brief indeed. Experts in NATO as well as in the NATO nations do not suffer from a lack of threat awareness, and there is relatively strong consensus among NATO, the EU, the U.S., and U.S. allies on the scope and nature of the threats NATO and the EU confront. The differences lay in the political preparedness to make the public aware of the threats and in offering views on how to cope with these transnational threats, including views on the use of military force. 

All of you are better aware than I am of the uncertainties, risks, and dangers ahead of us, and to offer you a risk assessment would be like carrying coals to Newcastle. We all know what we are up against and we all are probably convinced that there is but one approach left to us, namely, to stand shoulder to shoulder as we did in the darkest hours of the Cold War. 


Both NATO and the EU are not fully prepared to respond to future crises properly. NATO’s 1999 Strategic Concept is to some degree outdated and in line neither with the U.S. National Security Strategy nor with the rather inconclusive EU Security Strategy. Moreover, NATO’s toolbox is limited to military tools. 

The EU is not much better off. Its strategy is a soft power-driven concept and its military capabilities are not sufficient to act in crises of global dimensions. The EU’s advantage, however, is that it has the full set of political, economic, and albeit limited military tools including police forces. 

What is needed could be expressed as follows: 

 “With the requirement to meet the threats from where they may come, the Alliance will operate in a wider strategic environment that is influenced by several key factors and drivers for change. Foremost among them are: Globalization, the increasing sophistication of asymmetric warfare, the effects of changing demography and environment, failing states, radical ideologies, and unresolved conflicts. These factors are liable to lead to shocks to Alliance security interests over the next 15 years, particularly as tensions, crises, and conflicts will occur with little warning.” 

If this “mission statement” is correct, then it does not make too much sense to do what some NATO nations are doing, namely, keep NATO down and pop the EU up. Whether we Europeans like it or not, realism suggests that the EU will need a very long time, if it does it at all, to become a truly global actor capable of conducting military operations across the full spectrum. It is therefore better for the U.S. and for Europe that NATO and the EU work together and that they seek to widen their cooperation by including the U.S.  

If you compare the interests of all the hypothetical partners, you will see that there are no other two groups besides the Americans and the Europeans who have so much in common. The idea of balancing American power by promoting a multi-polar world and partnerships among the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese has simply not been thought through, and definitely is not in the interest of Europe. Such ideas will result in dividing Europe and making it impossible for Europe to be seen as a partner in Washington. They will also strengthen U.S. dominance and reduce European influence. 

I therefore do not see a better solution than a mature transatlantic partnership. The basis for such a partnership should be NATO, which is, after all, the only legal framework that firmly ties the U.S. to most of the EU member-states. But as the strategic environment changes, it seems that NATO needs a new vision. 


The first and, in my view, indispensable step is to transform the political side of NATO’s house as profoundly as NATO asked the military to transform. Such a transformation must raise the question of decisions by consensus as well: At this moment all committees are bound to achieve consensus, which makes the lowest common denominator the best that can be achieved after considerable time and effort. Is this really what we need in a time full of uncertainties? I’d like to repeat what I suggested at the inaugural SHAPE lecture in May 2005: I can imagine preserving the consensus principle for NAC decisions but opening the door to majority rule at the committee level.  

Political transformation also calls for a reaffirmation that all NATO nations will use NATO as the option of choice in all situations that require coordinated transatlantic action as well as a consolidated transatlantic appreciation of the situation. This would require Europeans to give up the idea of consulting first in the EU and the U.S. to abandon the flawed idea of developing a concept in Washington and then asking the allies to join a coalition of the willing. This latter approach, by the way, perpetuates “ad hoc-ery” and is detrimental to the cohesion of NATO.  

What I have in mind is consultation within NATO that leads to a decision of the 26 and delegation of the execution to a coalition of the willing; execution defines the coalition but not necessarily the political decision. This obviously means that allies who don’t contribute to the execution of a NATO decision have no right to influence the conduct of the operation—their decision not to participate reduces their rights to information. While I know this idea might be provocative, many may share my view that future military operations will require exploiting the qualitative edge that NATO and its nations will enjoy because of their ability to win and maintain information dominance. Time will therefore be of the essence, and delegation, quite often pre-delegation of responsibility to the executing commander, will be indispensable.  

Delegating responsibility will include allocating all necessary resources to the commander in the field. NATO must therefore modernize the way it finances operations beyond the Cold War formula of “costs lie where they fall.” Applying this outdated formula to the NRF could well mean keeping the force dormant and never using it as it was designed to be used: As a rapid response in the early stages of a conflict that might extinguish the spark before it becomes a fire. If politicians remember how expensive it is to come too late, as we did in the Balkans during the 90s, they may agree that common funding of NRF deployments might save a lot of money. 

Delegating responsibility also means reducing to the extent possible national reservations that often hamper NATO commanders from using forces in a proper and meaningful way and that prevent ROES without amplifying national instructions. As many of you know, it is this reality, plus the manpower-eating insistence of nations to take on national responsibilities for logistics or overlapping national C2, that makes NATO deployments so expensive and often increases NATO’s reaction time far beyond what is tolerable. 

All of these problems require political, not military, solutions; if these solutions aren’t found, the Alliance might find itself possessing a military rapid reaction capability but unable to use it quickly because of political issues. Taxpayers on both sides of the Atlantic will not tolerate such a situation forever. 


If all of the steps I have proposed were taken, NATO would undoubtedly be better off than it is today. But the question of how to equip NATO with other than military means, which are so often and so badly needed in the early stages of a crisis, remains.   

One possibility is either a Berlin Plus analogon or a steering committee that could direct NATO, the EU, and the U.S. toward joint contributions in a common effort to end a conflict. Using a Berlin Plus analogon would mean that the EU and the U.S. would pledge to provide NATO with non-military tools as NATO would pledge to help the EU by providing NATO assets and capabilities. The alternative option is to establish a steering committee consisting of the Secretary General of NATO, the President of the EU Commission or the EU President, and the U.S. President. The committee would be given the task of directing NATO, the EU, and the U.S.G. to make contributions to resolve emerging crises after consultation in NATO concluded that common action by one or two or all three of them would be needed to protect common interests. 

I readily admit that something like this may not happen tomorrow, but logic suggests that it would be a good answer to the challenges of a world full of uncertainty. It would also lead to a new concept for NATO, which I would call a Grand Strategy, that would answer other key questions, including the priority for military action and the legality of the use of force. 

I do not wish to dwell at length on these highly political and intensively debated issues, but an alliance that claims to be the defender of freedom and the rule of law has to demonstrate through its actions that it will use its power only when its members’ vital and legitimate interests are at risk, and that even then its actions will be governed by the rule of law. This does not mean, however, that NATO’s hands should be tied by a narrow interpretation of international law that evolved through centuries in a world that no longer exists.  

I stated earlier that NATO must take a holistic approach to crisis management, which often may mean that other than military means should be used. But it seems uncertain whether the old mantra of the use of force being the last resort of politics will remain unchallenged. We live in a world in which cyberattacks and the use of WMD belong to our opponents’ range of options. In such a world the option of using force as the first resort must not be ruled out. We need to think prevention through.  

It goes without saying that any use of force must be both legal and legitimate but it could well be that on reflection prevention may need to include the concept of self-defense and lead to a different understanding of intervention. I can well imagine that the key to such a debate may lie in a new understanding of national sovereignty; if sovereignty were no longer seen as the right to act as one likes within one’s area of responsibility but as a responsibility to protect the state’s citizens, then intervention might possibly be regarded by a majority of states as being legitimate should a government not live up to this responsibility. A government that failed to honor its obligations would no longer be protected by Article 2 of the UN Charter. 

I do not, therefore, rule out the possibility that a new understanding of the legitimacy and legality of the use of force might evolve over time, either as a new convention or through actions taken by state parties as is customary in international law. Thus preventive military action could well become a legal instrument in NATO’s tool box. This tool box, however must contain both military and non-military instruments and the allies must agree that one set of tools does not automatically have greater priority than the other.  


I believe that these and other principles should be laid down in a new NATO strategy paper, since the extant 1999 Strategic Concept as well as the Bi-SC Strategic Vision fall short of meeting such requirements. Such a new strategy paper could serve as both a guideline and a benchmark for future force planning. But it does not suffice to adapt or modify the Strategic Concept. NATO should also have a fresh look at force planning.  

The organization, no doubt, deserves a lot of praise for the steps it has taken so far to transform its military capabilities, most notably establishing the NRF. But I hope that no one believes that the initial operational capability of the NRF means the end of transformation. Transformation must go on, and it should encompass all NATO forces over time. All of us need to understand that transformation will increasingly be a process in which the end-state is difficult to define. Most nations are currently beginning their transformation by focusing primarily on information dominance, but the next revolution in military affairs (RMA) based on nanotechnology, biotechnology, and robotics may soon be knocking at our doors. NATO’s nations must therefore not wait to modernize their inventories; if they do, they may soon be facing two gaps, a modernization gap and a capabilities gap, which may soon develop into a conceptual thinking gap. 

It therefore seems to me that a new approach to NATO’s force planning procedures, at least an unbiased stock taking, is necessary. This effort should focus on Europe without leaving Canada in the margins. The NATO military authorities should identify the requirements and the North Atlantic Council should then demand that all nations, including the U.S., make specific contributions. Non-U.S. nations would complement U.S. capabilities and ensure full interoperability. Such an approach would enable Europe to develop a limited capability to act independently in defense of European security interests when the United States is either not capable of taking on additional tasks or is unwilling to join a European action. 
When planning for such action, the European military would need to focus on three functional areas: 

  • C4ISR 
  • Effective engagement 
  • Focused logistics 

Its NATO-compatible capability would then serve two strategic objectives simultaneously: 

1. It would allow Europe to implement its Security Strategy as agreed by EU heads of states and governments. 

2. It would enhance European influence on U.S. decision making since the European assets would likely be those that the U.S. does not have in sufficient quantity. This means that the assets should be selected and developed in a way that ensures a limited autonomous European intervention capability while focusing on those areas for which the U.S. depends upon allied support. 

Force planning following these guidelines would produce European armed forces that tie European capabilities to American global projection capabilities. Thus Europe could benefit from American global capabilities and the U.S. would benefit because European capabilities would help to sustain the American military. 


In this presentation I have tried to outline what I believe are two needed changes: A new political strategic vision plus the political will to transform NATO beyond the military realm, and the continuation of military transformation through the establishment of a few affordable and feasible NATO-owned and -operated component forces. Together these two elements would create a cohesiveness that would remain strong while the difficult debates over a new Strategic Concept unfold. No doubt, such an approach would make the non-U.S. nations more dependent on each other, but it could also encourage the U.S. to think of using NATO as its option of choice in crisis management. Thus the allies could become the indispensable partner of the indispensable nation, the United States. 




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