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   CCADD Conference 2003


Bellem, Belgium


August 29 – September 2






The Future of NATO and the European Security Defence Policy:

Companions Or Competitors ?




Major General (ret) Kees Homan RNLMC





The debate over the ideal level of interaction and cooperation between Europe and the US on security issues is not a new one. However, the events of 11 September and the Iraq-crisis brought the debate once again to the forefront of political and analytical discussions. One of the main points of discussion focuses on the long-term outlook for NATO and the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP); about the relationship between NATO and the EU’s ESDP; about how ESDP should function – what it should do and equally important, what tasks it should leave to NATO; about the proper role for the Helsinki Headline Goal Task Force; about the level of European defence spending and the equipment that a European Force should ‘duplicate’ rather than draw from NATO. In this paper the developments in the field of NATO and ESDP and the interrelationship between both are described and analyzed.



NATO was founded as a counterweight to Soviet expansion in Europe in the late 1940s. Some commentators expected NATO to disappear after the end of the Cold War once its  ‘main threat’, the Warsaw Pact, had collapsed. NATO looked like an alliance in need of a mission. However, those critics probably did not reckon with the common transatlantic identity developed among the Alliance members. It should also be kept in mind that NATO was never simply a classic defence alliance. But its political component was less dominant during the Cold War. As a matter of fact, NATO’s transformation in the 1990s was not a fundamental reorientation, since NATO has always had elements of collective security and a vision of a lasting and peaceful order in Europe based on democratic political systems and shared security. But during the Cold War, the presence of a clear external military threat to NATO member states made NATO’s collective security elements secondary to its deterrent and war-fighting roles. The end of the Cold War brought a series of NATO decisions, through which NATO moved to downplay its war-fighting elements and instead emphasize its collective security elements. NATO launched several Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme initiatives and throughout the 1990s expanded on them. The PfP programme aims to enhance respective peacekeeping abilities and capabilities through joint planning, training and exercises, and by so doing increase the interoperability of the partner country’s military forces with those of NATO. It also aims to facilitate transparency in national defence planning and budgeting processes and in the democratic control of defence forces. Twenty-seven countries are members of PfP, including neutral countries such as Austria and Switzerland. An important step that NATO took in 1994 was when it decided to enlarge gradually. As a result, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were admitted as members in 1999, and at the Prague summit in 2002 Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were invited for negotiations to join NATO.

Although NATO’s enlargement has received much public attention, NATO’s new military roles in the 1990s are probably the more important of the two steps that the Alliance has taken (1). NATO has now expanded its mission to include conflict prevention and conflict management throughout Europe, including beyond the boundaries of the NATO treaty area. In both its enlargement and its transformation, NATO has primarily been driven by political imperatives with an agenda of democratization and integration. NATO’s transformation is illustrated by its involvement in former Yugoslavia since 1993, with its emphasis on peacekeeping and peace enforcement, while retaining in a residual form the traditional mission of deterring potential military threats to NATO members. In short, to remain relevant and continue to play a role in shaping European security, NATO reinvented itself in the 1990s as an institution for dealing with perceived security problems in contemporary Europe.


NATO’s relevance

NATO is also needed because the process of consolidating peace and democracy in Europe is still not finished (2). The United States should remain engaged until the continent’s future - including that of Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe is clearer. There is also still a fragile situation in the Balkans. Although the Europeans under the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) eventually want to take over missions in the Balkans - as will be discussed later - NATO’s role will be indispensable for at least the next few years. No other organization can effectively plan and coordinate the diverse military forces from all the contributing countries.

From a transatlantic perspective, NATO is most important because the partnership between the United States and Europe still remains the central link in dealing with a broad range of political and security challenges faced outside the European context. Finally, NATO provides the only framework in which the United States and Europe can continue to work together on tactics for how to work their armed forces, how to build the interoperability of their forces, which will allow them to take on common military challenges. In this field, the PfP programme plays an important role.


NATO’s challenges

Nevertheless, the Alliance is confronted with some serious problems. First of all, it faces an enormous military capabilities’ gap between the US and Europe (3). The US is spending and continues to spend at a rate of increase in defence technology, that is far more than Europe is going to do for many years, if ever. This gap, which became clear in Kosovo, is getting larger every day as more and more defence dollars are poured into new technology and incorporated into the armed forces of the US, and are not being incorporated in most of the European armed forces, with some exceptions for the United Kingdom and France.

In February 2003, the Bush administration put forward the request to spend US$ 396 billion on defence for the next fiscal year (The member states of the EU spend slightly more than US$ 150 billion on defence in 2003). If the Bush administration adds to the defence budget every year as planned, the United States will outspend all other countries in the world combined by 2007 As a result, the ability to cooperate and operate with the United States in joint operations will be reduced. Another reason why joint operations are becoming less and less likely is that the United States and Europe look at the world in different ways and have different perceptions about how to use military forces. Europeans in the main are busy completing the very mission to make Europe whole and free, peaceful, undivided and democratic, and to expand the European space. Their instrument for years was NATO, but for the next ten years the focus will also be on the European Union.

It is EU enlargement - the fact that ten new members are going to enter starting in 2004 - that will preoccupy every single European government for most of its time. This is a massive undertaking that will take an extraordinary amount of effort and political capital on the part of every single leader.

The United States in the meantime is allowed, and because of the zone of peace that has been created in Europe is able, to spend less time on Europe and more worrying about the other threats and challenges and opportunities outside. So there is a basic geographic and geostrategic divergence between the United States and Europe.


The Prague Summit

The recent Prague Summit in November 2002 has made clear that new threats such as international terrorism have now become a central concern to NATO member states. In its 1991 Strategic Concept, NATO had already recognized that ‘Alliance security must also take account of the global context’ and that ‘Alliance security interests can be affected by other risks of a wider nature, including proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, disruption of the flow of vital resources and actions of terrorism and sabotage’. NATO repeated the point in its 1999 Strategic Concept, this time moving ‘acts of terrorism’ to the top of the list of ‘other risks’.

The member states also agreed at the Prague Summit to build a NATO Response Force (NRF). The force is an American idea, partly designed to concentrate European minds on their military shortfalls. The NRF is intended to be fully operational by October 2006 and should be able to move quickly to wherever needed. In other words, NATO operations are no longer limited to the Euro-Atlantic region. The Response Force will involve approximately 21,000 troops and would be capable of intervening in a host of crisis scenarios, including intensive combat.

Two different views have arisen on this NRF (4). It looks as if the rationale for the Bush administration is that this enhanced capability of European forces does not enhance NATO as an institution, but rather enhances NATO as the tool kit - essentially a set of capabilities that can be divorced from the political institutions around NATO and taken off to fight elsewhere. It is a mission, an ad hoc coalition, where the United States leads, but draws on capabilities that come out of NATO so as to get NATO’s military benefit. For the Europeans, it gives them more of a political voice in how force is used, and tries to bring force back into a NATO framework, where Europeans at least nominally have some say.

But some in the Bush administration have drawn the lesson from Kosovo, that as the United States you do not want to fight as NATO, but you want to fight in an ad hoc coalition in which willing and capable European allies join. The Europeans want more of a situation in which they have some say in deciding the political objectives for the use of force and even some of the military operations.

As a result, there is a big risk that the whole purpose of NATO is no longer to be able to conduct joint military operations, which is why NATO after all was founded, but that the purpose is to provide military capabilities for the United States to pick and choose from. For instance, the Czechs have good chemical and biological weapons’ (CBW) capabilities and the British have good special forces. That is what happened with the military operation in Afghanistan, which was conducted in Tampa by US Central Command. The United States determines the mission and it then builds the coalition for that particular mission. In that sense, the Balkans was probably NATO’s first combat mission as NATO and its last.


Final remarks

NATO is not the same military-political organization that it was before 11 September 2001. Washington decided to bypass its allies and thereby downgraded NATO’s military utility. The war against terrorism is America’s war, with Europe reduced to a supporting role. With Europe falling further and further behind the United States in military technology and know-how, and with Russia inching closer to NATO, NATO’s military strategic significance after ‘9/11’ has become unclear.

Under these circumstances, the second round of enlargement could and should from a European perspective be the beginning of a process to redefine NATO’s mission. The new NATO will not be the NATO of the Cold War, and it ought not to be the NATO that could not find its place after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It should be a NATO whose primary mission is to maintain and expand the zone of political stability from the Atlantic to the Urals.

As a Washington Post editorial on 7 April 2003 put it, the real benefit of enlargement ‘lies in the leverage it offers to shape the political and economic development of European countries where democracy and free markets are not yet taken for granted. [...] Admission to NATO will maximize the chances that Central and Eastern Europe will, for the first time in its history, become a region of stable and pro-Western governments’.


The European Union and ESDP

Although the EU was a civilian-only organization for a long time, after a slow start in the early 1990s to develop a defence policy, it is now in the process of formulating and establishing the military capabilities for a European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). It therefore bears the potential of becoming another security organization in Europe. Within the EU, the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) is being developed as a tool for expressing security views and interests.

The Saint Malo Declaration of December 1998, adopted by Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac, was the starting point for much of what has happened since in the field of European defence (5). At the EU’s Helsinki Summit of December 1999, EU member states committed themselves to a number of military ‘headline goals’. By the year 2003, the EU should be able to deploy 60,000 troops for the so-called Petersberg missions. To put into place the appropriate decision-making mechanisms for crisis management and to secure political control and strategic direction of future EU-led operations, a standing Political and Security Committee (PSC), a Military Committee (MC) and a Military Staff (MS) have been  established.


Why ESDP ?

One of the reasons for most member states to include defence among the EU’s normal competencies is related to internal European debate and policy (6). A defence dimension was felt necessary in order to complete CFSP and to give the EU more strength and coherence in its foreign policy. The lessons from the Balkans’ crisis and the EU’s weakness during the military campaign in Kosovo played an important role in the EU’s new determination. Moreover, some principal challenges facing the EU in the next few decades are also likely to be external.

Another reason was related to transatlantic relations and the future of NATO. A European military capability was considered necessary to compensate for the uncertainty over US military involvement in crisis management in Europe. ESDP would also be a way for the Europeans to influence seriously US military strategy, in cases where the US decides to be involved. And last but not least, it could help to strengthen NATO by improving European military capabilities, as NATO Secretary-General, Lord Robertson, has stressed several times.

However, because of the impact of 11 September 2001, the prospect of EU enlargement and the work of the European Convention, very few senior politicians are giving ESDP much time or dedication. Moreover, the Europeans are as divided as ever in the Iraq debate and the technological ‘gap’ between European and American military forces is increasing every day. Except for the Balkans, where the EU is showing real political involvement, the Europeans are also suspected of being unwilling to tackle any security issue seriously.


A new US policy

From a European perspective, since the events of ‘9/11’ the United States has become to a certain degree a new and different actor. With respect to peacekeeping, the US has other priorities than peacekeeping in the Balkans, Afghanistan or anywhere else. The US has become even more explicit in its refusal to accept this burden. So the Europeans will have to do the job, whether they like it or not, more and more, and increasingly by themselves. US aversion to multilateral constraints, including those within NATO, will change the ways and means that the Europeans will have to find if they still wish to influence any US policy. This can be done through bilateral relations, or by creating greater European capabilities. If the US understands only military criteria, then the EU will have to do more in that area too.

For security reasons, the Europeans will be the only ones able to carry the future burden of peacekeeping and crisis management, at the request of the US. It was the Americans who first asked the EU, in December 2001, to take the lead in Macedonia after the end of NATO’s Operation Amber Fox, whose operation was taken over by the EU’s Operation Concordia on 31 March 2003. 

For political reasons, the ESDP becomes necessary because if the Europeans want to remain capable of operating with the US in a military coalition, and if they want to be relevant to America in order to influence US policy, the EU will have to demonstrate that its military capabilities are interoperable with US military capabilities.

But an essential precondition for the development of an effective ESDP is an effective CFSP. Fundamental questions on the functioning of CFSP are: how can the EU define a common foreign policy with enlargement approaching, and how will an enlarged EU be able to decide and to act? In other words, it is now policy, and not defence, that is at the heart of the European debate. As the different positions of the EU member states and aspirant member states in the Iraq debate have made clear, a CFSP is confronted with many obstacles.


The problem of military capabilities

However, the EU also has much progress still to make on building up its military capabilities (7). The military capabilities of EU member states currently fall short of their declared ambitions, and will do for years to come. EU members lack sufficient airlift and sealift; transportable docks, communications equipment and headquarters; and intelligence-gathering satellites, aircraft and UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). But there are also some serious gaps at the sharper end of military operations, such as the suppression of enemy air defences, combat search and rescue and precision-guided munitions.

These gaps are not only a problem because they limit the scope of any autonomous mission that the EU may wish to undertake, but it is also hard for Europeans to answer the question of American sceptics - ‘where's the beef?’  - when many of their governments appear to be doing very little about developing the necessary capabilities.

Nevertheless, the EU is already capable of carrying out small-scale Petersberg missions involving a few thousand troops. And now, since the EU-NATO Declaration on ESDP of 16 December 2002, that it is able to draw on NATO assets, it would be able to undertake more ambitious operations.

The EU should think more about developing common military capabilities. The budgetary advantages of governments collaborating on, for example, a common fleet of air transport planes, or air-tankers, or UAVs, are potentially huge. In this way each country could save money on bases, servicing, maintenance and training.

There is also money to be saved through role specialization. Even the larger European countries cannot maintain every sort of military capability on limited budgets. For example, it would not make sense for several European air forces separately to develop the capability to destroy hostile radar systems.

Moves towards role specialization or common capabilities would inevitably provoke political opposition in several member states, and not only in Britain and France. However, that once again illustrates the importance of political leadership in Europe. European states are currently failing to do so.


Final remarks

For all the problems, the EU has still made progress over the past three years. Despite the lack of political leadership, the idea that the EU should be able to manage a military operation is not opposed by any mainstream political party in the Union. A potential strength of the EU, compared with other international organizations, is that it should be able to draw upon a wide range of foreign policy tools - ranging from technical assistance, to humanitarian aid, to trade sanctions, to war planes. At the moment, the EU makes a poor job of coordinating these various instruments, and is weaker as a result. However, national sovereignty remains the dominant obstacle to the development of a military Europe, and implementing CFSP and ESDP depends first of all on the political will of member states.

The year 2003 will be the moment of truth both for ESDP and for the EU: by the end of the year, the Helsinki headline goal will have to be met. Equally, at the same date, the Intergovernmental Conference will have been completed under Italy’s presidency, with the obligation to adopt the new rules, institutions, and decision-making processes that will enable the larger EU to work, decide and act, including in security and defence matters.


Recent developments

Looking at the most recent developments, the war in Iraq, which started on 20 March 2003, hit Europe and its security organizations hard. NATO faced what might be its greatest crisis. The Alliance was more pub­lic­­ly divided than it had been since the Reagan era, when the introduction of Pershing 2 and cruise missiles severely tested Alliance unity. The split on Iraq, with Britain and Spain on the side of the United States, and France and Germany leading the anti-war group, exposed the problems of forging a common foreign and defence policy for the EU. The role of Eastern European countries, which supported the United States in the war with Iraq, will com­plicate the search for a more coherent European Common Foreign and Secu­rity Policy. Within Europe, the rift between France and Britain is both the most serious and the most crucial to repair.

All this does not mean that com­mon EU foreign, security and defence policies are dead. The political divisions between member states over relations with the United States do not necessarily represent the decisive factor in NATO’s and the Union’s security policy. At the height of the Iraq crisis, the EU-led Operation Concordia in Macedonia and subsequently the EU-led Operation Artemis in the Democratic Republic of Congo were launched. And NATO decided to take over the command of ISAF in Afghanistan in August and to support the Polish division in Iraq.

Within the EU there is also the surge of consensus on tackling the new international strategic situation. The opening premise of the document drawn up by Javier Solana, A Secure Europe in a Better World, is recognition that “…the European Union is, like it or not, a global actor; it should be ready to share in the responsibility for global security” (8)  Solana’s plan has three basic parts. First it calls for the EU to contribute more resources to establishing economic and political stability in their neighbourhood. Second, it calls on the EU to build an international order. And third, it calls for the EU to strengthen its civil and military capacity to deal with the threat of weapons of mass destruction and rogue states. The document also stresses the importance of maintaining good relations with the United States and the Atlantic Alliance, which phrase got a positive response from the US. The exposure given in the EU security strategy to likely threats creates an expectation that appropriate responses will be crafted to meet the pre-identified risks. It looks like the security debate in the EU is shifting from what is affordable and politically permissible, to what is necessary. But we shall see.

In conclusion, Philip Gordon rightly remarked: “If done right, the development of a serious EU defense force could be a good thing for all concerned – reducing American burdens in Europe, making Europa better and more capable partner, and providing a way for Europeans to tackle security problems where and when the United States cannot or will not get involved. If done badly, however, the EU project risks irrelevance as an empty institutional distraction – or even worse, a step back toward the situation in the Balkans in the early 1990s, when separate European and American strategies and institutions led to impotence and recrimination” (9).




1. Thomas S. Szayna, NATO Enlargement, 2000-2015: Determinants and Implications for Defense Planning and Shaping, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica CA, 2001, pp. 9-10

2. Philip H. Gordon, Reforging the Atlantic Alliance, The National Interest, no. 69, autumn 2002, pp. 91-99

3. Chris Lindborg and Ian Davis, NATO’s Defence Gap: More than Just Capabilities, BASIC email series, autumn 2002

4. The NATO Summit in Prague: Challenges to Bush and the Alliance, Brookings Press Briefing, The Brookings Institution, Washington, 13 November 2002

5. Peter van Ham, Europe’s New Defence Ambitions: Implications for NATO, the US, and Russia, Marshall Centre Papers, no. 1, George C. Marshall Centre, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, 30 April 2000; and Hans-Christian Hagman, European Crisis Management and Defence, Adelphi Paper 353, IISS, London, December 2002

6. Nicole Gnessoto, ESDP: A European View, IISS/CEPS, European Security Form, Brussels, 8 July 2001

7. Charles Grant, A European View of ESDP, IISS/CEPS, European Security Forum, Brussels, 10 September 2001

8. Javier Solana, A Secure Europe in a Better world, European Council, Thessaloniki, 20/06/2003

9. Philip H. Gordon, Their Own Army ? Making European Defense Work, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2000, Vol. 79, No. 4, p. 17