Europe's security priorities: a Nato perspective

James Appathurai
20 August 2002

For the four decades of the cold war, the priorities in European security policy were pithily set out by Lord Ismay, Nato’s first secretary-general: ‘Keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down.’ The United States took the lead in deterring Soviet aggression, while western Europe focused inward, concentrating on overcoming the legacy of the past through economic and political integration.

These priorities have been met, in historic fashion. Germany is a leading member of a peaceful and integrated European Union, and of Nato. Russia is no longer an adversary, but is instead an increasingly trustworthy partner. And what was, in 1949, something of a shotgun marriage between Europe and north America – primarily through Nato – has grown into a true security community, which, as the US commentator Walter Lippman correctly predicted at the time of Nato’s creation, ‘would outlast the conditions upon which it was founded.’

The Euro–Atlantic community has endured because Europe and north America continue to share common values and common interests. It has remained active, even after the cold war, because it faces new challenges – challenges that must be met, if we are to continue to ensure the security which was won so dearly in the second world war.

Today, Europe and north America are pursuing three main priorities: firstly, to manage the legacy of the cold war, and bring an end to its divisions; secondly, to adapt to meet the new threats of the modern security environment; and thirdly, to develop Europe’s capacity to act as a true and equitable partner to the US. And, as has been the case throughout its history, Nato is playing a key role in meeting these challenges as well.

Ending the post-cold-war era

The cold war was defined by Europe’s political and institutional divisions. And while western European countries overcame their historical differences through integration, east-central Europe saw its many ethnic and historical tensions cryogenically frozen, only to re-emerge with the fall of the Berlin wall.

The first priority of the Euro–Atlantic community, for more than a decade, has been to manage, and to overcome that legacy. This project has four key elements.

The first element is to assist Russia in becoming a trusting and trustworthy European nation. Russia remains the greatest single European security variable. A Russia that feels rejected, or that suffers a political or economic collapse, would certainly undermine Euro–Atlantic security. In contrast, Russia can be a crucial partner in meeting transnational security challenges, as demonstrated vividly by her participation in the current fight against terrorism.

This potential drove Nato and Russia, in 1997, to set up a Permanent Joint Council, and to enter into regular discussion and cooperation on security issues. But while the cooperation did bear some fruit, it was often both reluctant and suspicious.

On 11 September, the futility of this approach was demonstrated, and it was shown to be important to move beyond residual cold-war poltergeists. Nato and Russia therefore entered into a new quality of relationship, to cooperate more fully and more equally on certain important security issues, such as countering terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

This relationship is already in place, through the new NATO–Russia Council. Its initial success, and the prospects for further progress, bode well for Russia’s continuing integration into the Euro–Atlantic community – an historical development of massive, long-term importance to European security.

Secondly, and of equal importance, is the successful post-communist transition of the new democracies in Europe, including Ukraine and the Caucasus, and in central Asia. Here too, Nato is playing an important role. Through the Partnership for Peace, the alliance offers practical cooperation and training to twenty-seven non-Nato countries. The Euro–Atlantic Partnership Council brings together Nato’s members and partners around the same table to discuss common security challenges, and common approaches to solving them. It is an historically unprecedented arrangement – inclusive, flexible and practical. As such, it goes a long way to ending Europe’s historical divisions.

But some new democracies want more than just partnership – they want membership. They wish to integrate fully into Euro–Atlantic institutions, such as Nato and the European Union. For their part, both organisations share that goal, because the most definitive way to end the division of Europe is by offering full membership to countries that meet European Union and Nato standards.

Nato lived up to that commitment in 1999, when it took in three new democracies. The commitment will be demonstrated again at the November 2002 Prague Summit, when Alliance Heads of State and Government will issue further invitations to aspiring members. And the process of Nato enlargement will continue into the future, further broadening the zone of stability and security that the alliance represents. This is the third way in which Nato is helping to overcome the legacy of the cold war in Europe.

The fourth element of the overall effort is peacekeeping. Because, while most of Europe is looking towards the future, the Balkans have awoken, and suffered from, the conflicts of the past.

There is no need to elaborate on NATO’s commitment to its Balkan operations. Suffice it to say that an essential priority for European security is to help transform ‘the Balkans’ into ‘Southern Europe’ – an area that is already increasingly sharing in the peace, security and integration most of the continent is already enjoying. The alliance will remain engaged in this long-term effort, and it will continue to work closely with other international organisations, such as the EU, the United Nations, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Adapting to meet new threats

If one priority is putting the past to bed, a second is preparing to meet the challenges of the future. On 11 September it was demonstrated that there is no end to history. Security will have to be defended in the future, just as it had to be won in the past. To do so, the Euro–Atlantic community must adapt to meet the challenges we face today, and will face tomorrow.

Clearly, a major new threat is international terrorism, and stopping it must be a priority. At the same time, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has taken on a new salience, and a new danger. On 11 September it was demonstrated, beyond any doubt, that there are individuals willing to cause, indeed seeking, mass casualties. These individuals are also not deterred by traditional deterrence. Taken together, terrorism and proliferation require the full attention of the international community.

Nato and its members have already participated in the ongoing fight against terrorism, both in Europe and in Afghanistan. The alliance is also enhancing its capacity to prevent the use of WMD, as well as to manage and mitigate any use thereof, were these weapons to get into the wrong hands. At the Prague summit, the alliance will unveil a package of substantive measures designed to organise, and enhance, the fullest capacities of the Euro–Atlantic community to combat these new threats. And again, Nato will consult and cooperate with the EU and the OSCE, to ensure that international efforts are coordinated, focused and effective.

A creative approach

The first two priorities in European security policy – closing the legacy of the cold war, and preparing to meet the challenges of the future – depend critically on success in achieving the third priority: developing Europe’s capacities as a security actor.

The imbalance between Europe and the US is one of the hottest topics of discussion these days, and the reasons are clear. Firstly, the capability gap is inhibiting military cooperation, because the US lead in technology makes inter-operability difficult. Secondly, US dominance breeds transatlantic resentment: Americans complain about interfering European freeloaders; Europeans complain about ham-fisted, deaf Americans. Thirdly, according to such analysts as Robert Kagan, the difference in capabilities is creating a divergence of strategic culture: for Europe, ‘can’t’ becomes ‘shouldn’t’; for America, ‘might’ equals ‘right’.

These pressures – real or perceived – are putting increasing strain on a transatlantic security relationship that is still, in its fundamentals, very strong. Europe and north America share common interests on almost all major security issues, if not always on how to get there. Furthermore, they are each other’s most trusted allies, and most effective partners. It is therefore in the profound interests of the entire Euro–Atlantic community that this challenge, too, is met, to the greatest extent possible.

There should be few illusions that European governments will suddenly be spending vast amounts on defence. Their populations would not support such moves. Furthermore, monetary union imposes macro-economic restrictions on eurozone governments that makes massive spending hikes very difficult indeed – and military spending is very, and increasingly, expensive.

The solution, therefore, is creativity. Nato is promoting a new capabilities initiative, to be blessed at the Prague summit, which will look at new and innovative ways to promote the development of key capabilities. It will identify a few key capacities that Nato countries should develop, and it will set out country-specific targets. Euro–Atlantic countries are also discussing other concepts, such as role-specialisation, to allow small countries to play key roles in multinational operations. European countries are also looking at ways to pool assets, and share in procurement costs.

The US is moving to relax technology transfer restrictions and to encourage transatlantic defence industrial cooperation, which will improve economies of scale for all concerned. And, as Nato’s secretary-general has pointed out repeatedly, there will also have to be some increases in European defence spending, if Europe’s own headline goals are to be met.

Managing transition

Perhaps the most significant development of the modern age is Europe’s current transition: from the epicentre of the cold war, to a zone of peace; from a historical exporter of instability, to a contributor to international security; from junior partner to the US, to partner tout simple.

This transition, however, is not yet a foregone conclusion. To complete it, the Euro–Atlantic community must complete Europe’s integration, adapt to meet new threats, and balance the transatlantic relationship in a fairer and more sustainable way. Significant progress has already been made in meeting these priorities, which bodes well for the security of Europe, and of the international community, into the future.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData