Commentary

Let Europeans Defend Themselves

By Barbara Conry
April 8, 1997

During four decades of cold war, rivalry with the Soviet Union was the beacon that guided American foreign policy. The size and structure of the U.S. military, American alliances and security commitments and U.S. involvement in remote regional conflicts all were driven by the need to contain America’s enemies in the Kremlin and their surrogates around the world. No part of the foreign policy debate occurred outside the confines of the East-West conflict.

That Cold War paradigm, which for so long was in the center of every foreign policy initiative, withered away with the Soviet Union, yet Washington policy-makers have displayed a disturbing inclination to maintain Cold War policies.

Rather than welcome the opportunity to divert resources from national defense to more productive sectors of the economy, they cling stubbornly to a military that costs more than it did during the Nixon era and remains configured to confront a superpower enemy. Instead of viewing minor regional conflicts as unfortunate but ubiquitous features of the international state system from which the United States can afford to remain detached, much of the foreign policy elite advocates rushing in at the first signs of trouble, needlessly sacrificing American blood.

Instead of encouraging America’s West European allies to develop a new security system that is relevant to the post-Cold War era, Washington insists on maintaining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization - an alliance that was designed to defend the West against the Soviet Union and has no other credible mission or rationale. In many ways, the debate over post-Cold War European security epitomizes the foreign policy community’s irrational, almost sentimental attachment to Cold War institutional and policy relics, regardless of their relevance in the new international environment.

So strong is the determination to maintain NATO that the alliance no longer seems to be viewed as a tool to protect American vital interests; in the eyes of many of its proponents, NATO itself has risen to the level of a vital interest.

That approach is wrong and potentially dangerous. NATO functioned effectively during the Cold War, but it is out of place in the new environment. The conditions that led to its creation - the Soviet threat and the extraordinary coincidence of American and European interests in containing that threat - no longer exist.

The Soviet Union is gone, and the concurrence in American and European interests has diminished dramatically. Conflict, not cooperation, has been the hallmark of U.S.-European relations in the post-Cold War era. Former British diplomat Jonathan Clarke makes the provocative observation, “If NATO did not already exist, it is doubtful that Washington would now invent it.”

Yet Washington not only refuses to “disinvent” NATO, it seems determined to reinvent it. Much of the foreign policy community is obsessed with proposals for new NATO missions and expanded NATO membership. Many of the proposals conflict with one another, and others are inherently unworkable. But their authors remain engaged in an earnest discussion of how to ensure that NATO remains relevant in the post-Cold War world.

To most of NATO’s champions, no suggestion is too radical for serious consideration - except the suggestion that the alliance has outlived its usefulness and should be eliminated so that an alternative arrangement for European security, one that is appropriate to the post-Cold War era, can be made.

What should be done? The Western European Union, the security arm of the European Union, should replace NATO as the primary guarantor of European security. A robust WEU would have a number of advantages over NATO. WEU member states have many common security interests, in contrast to the increasingly divergent U.S. and European perspectives that already have produced serious disarray in NATO.

The West European nations have ample economic resources and are capable of providing for their own defense without a U.S. subsidy. Finally, Moscow is likely to view the WEU as less provocative than a U.S.-dominated NATO - especially an enlarged version that expands to Russia’s borders.

Maintaining NATO as the primary European security institution is expensive and risks drawing the United States into military entanglements even when no vital American interests are at stake. Replacing NATO with the WEU would emphasize that most disputes in Central and Eastern Europe are more relevant to the European nations than to America, and that dealing with such problems is properly a European responsibility. Moreover, once the West Europeans develop a full independent military capability, the WEU would be a strong partner for the United States in the event of a future threat to mutual U.S.-European security interests.

This article originally appeared in theBudapest Sun.

Barbara Conry is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.