NATO and Transatlantic Humors

Silvia Fuselli
Staff Blogger at SAIS Washington

Even before that the Cold War ended, political thought leaders asserted that NATO would not survive the disappearance of the geopolitical threat which had legitimized its creation—namely, the Soviet Union—and that a sweeping reconfiguration of military and political balances would take place across both sides of the Atlantic. Skeptical views of NATO’s endurance foresaw an involution in inter-allied relations: the Europeans more and more crammed under the “security umbrella;” and the U.S. no longer perceived as a “benign hegemon,” but rather as a thorny presence in the Old Continent’s affairs.

In the same vein, even though the Alliance failed to disintegrate in the fall out of bipolar competition, scholars now insist that old-style military alliances, whether defensive or offensive in nature, no longer retain their raison d’être in the twenty-first-century’s interstate power game. In fact, nuclear deterrence, increased economic and commercial interdependence, and the spread of democratic institutions and of those values associated with them seem to have mounted as new driving forces for international relations. Further, such developments have inhibited states’ willingness—and need—to forge alliances for traditional security-related purposes. What is more, the pace and significance of technological progress in the military sector, as well as the changed nature of threats, seems to have had major implications for post-Cold War international relations. These military advances not only laid bare the obsolescence and inadequacy of the classical tools of military politics, but have also rallied a remarkable consensus around the need for a decisive change in the management of military affairs.

In the recently published survey Transatlantic Trends 2013, Americans and Europeans have expressed their considerations and concerns about the current role of NATO, as well as about the diverse military engagements in which the Western coalition is involved. 72 percent of Europeans and 62 percent of Americans oppose their country’s military intervention in Syria. Shifting the attention to the recent developments unfolding in Iran, the relative majority of American public opinion (29%) declares itself in favor of the enforcement of sanctions as an alternative to military intervention. This attitude encounters a neat convergence in Europe. Additionally, both in Europe and America, the consensus for offering economic incentives to Iran as a deterrent against the acquisition of nuclear material is remarkably narrow and has sharply decreased since 2012. Finally, among a set of available options for dealing with the Iranian issue, only 7 percent of Europeans and 18 percent of Americans advocate military intervention to prevent the country from amassing a nuclear arsenal. Yet, when asked whether they prefer a military intervention in Iran instead, the majority of people interviewed both in Europe and the U.S. accept the use of force under the aegis of NATO in the absence of alternative options.

It is worth shedding light on a peculiar aspect stemming from the survey: the relevance of the “democratic component” identified as a solid basis for the Alliance’s hold. Specifically, among those who maintain NATO’s continued relevance, the absolute majority of Europeans and the relative majority of Americans claim that NATO retains its importance as an alliance among “democratic countries which should act together”. This view gains the widest support in Germany (where the reluctance to give up a consistent share of national sovereignty in the pursuing a European military integration has soared), Spain and Portugal.

Be that as it may, this admirable affection for the democratic element bounding allies should not make us lose sight of NATO’s genuine function, i.e., as an interstate devise against external threats, and as a constraining structure geared towards circumscribing allies’ leeway and crystallizing power asymmetries existing among them. For the establishment and spread of ideas, values and beliefs that inform interstate institutions play a crucial role in assuring their maintenance and, consequently, the preeminent position of the dominant state that has created them. The promotion (if not the enforcement) of values is a pervasive strategy to protect the hegemon’s position and to smoothly enlarge its sphere of influence. In this regard, the fact that NATO has undergone a process of enlargement in peacetime should not be surprising. What might be surprising, rather, is that in the survey nobody mentioned, say, the protection of human rights as an answer to the question of why NATO still matters today.

Values and ideas represent an indispensable component in the preservation of those power structures. To a certain extent, they create an ideological bond between parties involved in the same process, and, inevitably, draw a line of demarcation between who is an ally and who is not. After all, alliances are but formalizations of extant alignments. These considerations seem to find evidence in Transatlantic Trends’ outcomes: the absolute majority of people interviewed in Europe (58%) and the relative majority in the US (47%) prefer democracy in the Middle East even if a period of instability in the region were necessary to attain that. The fact that democracy trumps stability as a foreign policy goal might be symptomatic of a sharpening divide between democracy/non-democracy, with weaker states more prone to huddle up under the dominant states’ wings that exhibit a more assertive stance towards convoluted international issues.

Finally, and consequently, Europeans seem still to be hopelessly fond of American leadership. Both Europeans and Americans ward off the risk of Chinese/Asian leadership in the future, and renew their mutual interest in the preservation of cooperative and beneficial relations, despite the fact that Asian developments have been increasingly attracting the U.S.’s attention in recent years. It is worth underscoring, however, that, whereas China represents an economic threat rather than an opportunity to Europeans (46%) and Americans (62%), it also represents a military threat to the latter (49%), but not to the former. Hence, although the U.S.’s renewed drift toward the Pacific is often hailed as an unequivocal shift of its strategic national interests away from Europe, one should not overlook that the increased economic and commercial interdependence between the U.S. and China translates into greater mutual dependency, and thus vulnerability, for both parties.

Neither the United States nor the European Union can back out of the need to deal with emerging powers. Both parties face challenges and opportunities arising from the muting international landscape. On the one hand, the US can afford to be more selective and assertive in how it handles its partnerships by virtue of its advantage in relative power. Yet on the other hand, Europe has to adopt a more relaxed stance toward alignments owing to its weaker position and scope. Alliances thus portray a reliable map of relations of forces and power inequalities between allies. NATO, as a hegemonic alliance still representing the benchmark of transatlantic relations, serves as a good reminder of that fact.