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Commentary | 3 May 2012

A New Role for a New Century: Can NATO Yet be Saved?

Image of Ulrich Weisser

Ulrich Weisser |Former Director of Plans and Policy and former Military Advisor to the German Minister of Defence

Defence Europe NATO Russia-West Relations Euro-Atlantic Security

A version of this article has also been published in German, in the Journal Cicero. We thank the authors for their permission to publish the English version here.



Despite its uncontested achievements, NATO has been steadily losing significance and acceptance in recent years – not least of all in the eyes of the public. But we cannot afford to let this unique alliance among European and American powers just expire – we have to make sure there is an alliance, with revised structures in place in time to meet the new challenges of a world in which the geopolitical balance has shifted.

Today, NATO is becoming an inward-looking Alliance – without reflecting the fundamentally changed global environment; despite the frequent talk of change, it has not developed a political strategy for preserving its relevance. It has has given no indication of whether – and how – it wishes to address the urgent questions posed today by new circumstances. The way things stand, NATO appears incapable of positioning itself geopolitically so as to define a new political and strategic covenant between Europe and America in accordance with contemporary needs while at the same time taking on the logic and central task of including Russia in this effort.


The Lessons of the Past

During the Cold War, NATO successfully withstood the expansion of aggressive Soviet communism. The USA could not have prevailed in this global endeavor without Germany: the confrontation between East and West took place eye to eye on German soil. In the political process which led to the reunification of Germany, the question of Germany`s membership in NATO also turned out to be a decisive factor. Today, in relative historical terms, Germany’s strategic importance to the USA has significantly decreased. Moreover, the expectations in both Europe and America that Germany would assume an appropriate strategic role within and on behalf of Europe were bitterly disappointed by Germany’s abstention in the UN-Security Council and its stance with respect to the humanitarian intervention in Libya. Germany’s position at that juncture was diametrically opposed to what it needs to be in order to build a future oriented security structure in and for Europe. Nonetheless, since America is shifting strategic priorities towards the Pacific, the Europeans will have to shoulder much more weight and responsibility and will increasingly be left to deal with crises arising in their own backyard by themselves.

Germany’s initiative in 1993 to open the doors of the alliance for neighbors in the East had a two-fold purpose. It was meant to provide an adequate framework of stability in connection with the integration of future EU candidates through allowing them membership in NATO, and the process was complemented from the beginning by the concept for a strategic partnership with Russia.

Access to NATO and to the EU has enabled nearly all countries to find their place in Europe – with the exception of Russia. The alliance has for too long neglected Russia, and failed to devote to it the same degree of positive attention devoted to EU candidate members. NATO’s relationship with Russia has not been developed in the spirit of a genuine strategic partnership. The truth is that a thin veil of consensus shrouds unbridgeable differences among the alliance members as to how NATO should deal with Russia.

For its part, Russia has squandered a number of opportunities by cultivating an image of NATO as the arch enemy of Russia. The willingness of the NATO states to make overtures of cooperation to Russia has therefore diminished increasingly over the past two decades – at least by the standard of the jubilant mood which led the NATO summit of 1990 in London to “extend the hand of friendship” to the Soviet Union.

The upshot is that there is no consensus on how to evaluate and how to deal with Russia. The members of both NATO and the EU are deeply divided over this fundamental question. Some of the new NATO members, for historical reasons, define their security in opposition to Russia; while Western Europe generally follows the imperative that security in and for Europe is possible only with, and not in opposition to, Russia. Moscow, for its part, has made clear over and over again that it feels marginalized and threatened by the expansion of NATO and the shifting of the alliance’s border 1 000 kilometers farther East. NATO, meanwhile, claims time and again that every state in Europe is free to join the alliance of its own choice. Both sides run the risk of overshooting their marks in this controversy. And there is a risk of serious conflict underlying it.

If Russia could be integrated into Western structures, however, this would simplify the issues surrounding incorporation of other East European states into those same structures. For Moscow’s willingness to contemplate such an alliance would necessarily imply a willingness to recognize the territorial integrity of the relevant states in Europe.


The Challenges of the Future

Fear of Russia will not be enough to hold NATO together in future. Although there are differences of opinion on one or the other action taken by Russia or NATO in certain situations – for instance, with regard to Libya or Syria – there is no potential for significant conflict with Russia compared with the time of the Cold War. America, Europe, and Russia in the end belong together in today’s world. To what other pole could Russia orient itself culturally, politically, economically, and strategically? Progress can only happen, however, if Russia is willing to undergo significant reforms. A modern economy is not sustainable without political reforms and a timely opening of the political system.

Anyone who does analyze the risks of today and tomorrow will of course come to the conclusion that any Alliance has to be prepared for the unexpected. NATO has to deal with new strategic risks like cyber war and militant terrorism. NATO has to be capable of dealing with changes in the balance of power. Above all we need discussion and clarity on the question of how important the USA is and will be for the security of Europe in future, and on which role of strategic substance Europe will play for America in a time of new strategic priorities for Washington.

On 17 November 2011 President Obama outlined the new US Pacific Strategy in a historic speech to the Australian Parliament. This strategy aims to define the future US-SINO relationship as well as the role of the USA in protecting smaller powers in the region. It also signals that the Twenty-First Century will in any event be a Pacific one. With luck, it will be a century of peaceful coexistence between America and China – as these two leading Pacific powers measure up to each other in tests of economic, political, and even military strength. It should hardly come as a surprise that the USA now defines its strategic priorities with a view to the trans-Pacific balance of power. But this is in the interest of Europe, because Europe will surely benefit from stability in Asia and the Pacific hemisphere. In light of this shift in America’s priorities, however, far greater significance must be attached to the imperative of creating efficient European defense structures.


The Debate in Europe

At this point in time, the political debate in Europe is almost obsessed with economic and monetary policy. This is superficially understandable, but people seem to have forgotten that the European Union was at its origin- a pact for peace – and it will remain so. The security of Europe is therefore a fundamental element of the EU’s promise to ensure that the basic needs of its citizens are met. The EU will not find a stable equilibrium until it becomes – not just a monetary and economic union, but also a political and security union.

Most Europeans of course are already bound together in their fate through the sharing a common currency. But their structures and thinking on questions of defense limp along far behind. Greece – perhaps the number-one problem in the Euro-zone today – furnishes a telling example: Athens has invested disproportionately in maintaining a wildly over-sized army, with 1.400 modern battle tanks. At the height of its financial and economic crisis, Greece even ordered the delivery of 60 brand new fighter jets from France. It does this on account of its fear of Turkey. For several decades now, the two countries have been engaged in an expensive arms race. The military build-up has compelled the much smaller Greece, in particular, to shoulder ever more debt.

For a long time now, two questions have dominated the public political debate over the future of European security and the mechanisms that must be put in place to ensure it: first, does it make sense, and is it responsible conduct in a world of scarce resources, for each and every European state to maintain the full independent spectrum of weapons and soldiers of land- , sea-, and air-forces? Second, is it possible for Europeans to deal collectively with military exigencies affecting them all and to create a system for the division of labor, so as thus not only to act more efficiently at lower cost, but also to foster European integration by means of a voluntary condition of mutual dependency?

In the light of these questions, our view is that a strategy aimed at developing common European defense structures will enable Europe to accomplish the necessary strengthening of its military capabilities. The willingness to participate in such a project, however, assumes coalescence of the political will to integrate military capabilities in the sense of creating mutual dependency. Up to now, the principal obstacles to pursuing such a policy have been the fear of a loss of national sovereignty and too little faith in the reliability of one’s partners.

To consciously forego developing certain capabilities requires, of course, consensus on the purposes for which armed forces are deployed. All parties involved must feel confident that their partners will make their armed forces available for deployment when called upon. The European Air Transport Command and the policing of Baltic air space by European neighbors are only first steps in a development, which – if costs are to be distributed fairly – may well extend to countries like Slovakia and the Czech Republic. This process should also lead to the joint operation of modern aircraft carriers by France and Great Britain and in the formation of a unified fleet of submarines and a unified squadron of naval long-distance reconnaissance aircraft by all the countries bordering on the North Sea. It would also make sense to create a joint German-Italian missile defense unit using the new weapons system MEADS or a German-Polish Baltic Sea fleet – or even a European projection capability to which at least the six larger EU states would contribute contingents, and which includes the necessary sea-transport capacities.

This intensified European cooperation recommends itself for several reasons. No member of the European Union needs armed forces for the purpose of waging battle with another member state. No state in Europe would seriously entertain the abstruse idea of defending itself single-handedly against Russia, which in any case and despite the problems, is developing more and more like a strategic partner. Truth be told, no singular state in Europe is at all capable of defending itself single-handedly against the new dangers and threats of today’s world.

The decision to deploy armed forces remains with national authorities. But through jointly operated, armed, and trained units, Europe’s capabilities are already slowly being strengthened step by step, so that European governments are no longer dependent on the assistance of powers outside of Europe, when they decide to act jointly in the interest of Europe. And these capabilities, if developed further, will mean that Europe’s voice wields more authority when it comes to addressing the global questions that will arise in the future – even when necessary by carrying out military operations – with Canada and the United States.


The Questions for NATO

Against this background we have to answer the urgent question: Can NATO remain the way it is? Has the alliance reached an historical turning point, at which it has become necessary to define a new political and strategic perspective, in order to remain relevant going forward?

The US-Russian strategic nuclear balance remains a fundamental strategic imperative. For the foreseeable future too, no conflicts will arise which could put Europe in jeopardy. There are, however, states in Europe who still see Russia as a risk. Although these fears are gradually ebbing the states concerned are not willing to do without American reassurance. Nor can Europe handle on its own the new threats – for instance posed by countries like Iran. Building Europe’s security is therefore an on-going task. The Euro-Atlantic zone needs peace and stability within and at the same time protection against threats posed from the outside. A multi-polar world also makes it crucial to find an equilibrium, and place for Europe, with respect to the political, economic, and strategic dynamic of the great Asian powers.

A fundamental element of NATO’s future mission, in this context, must be to overcome the structures that continue to hold outdated military thinking in place on all sides today. In essence, we – and especially the Russian military – are still living in a world of assured mutual destruction. It is therefore in the interest of both sides to define concrete intermediate steps on the path toward a closer strategic partnership. We must urgently address the still far too short warning times against a nuclear attack, which are left over from a bygone era. Such an intermediate step might include a joint declaration of the NATO states and Russia, to the effect that none of their weapons shall ever be used against one another, and that the nuclear weapons they hold serve the exclusive purpose of deterring the use of such weapons by others. On this basis, the Americans could possibly agree to withdraw all nuclear weapons from Europe in exchange for Russia relocating all tactical nuclear weapons to central storage sites, a move which would have to be subject to international inspection at any time.

Another important point is that despite fundamentally altered political and strategic circumstances, NATO remains a “standing alliance.” But decisive for Europe in the future will be the question of how and where the strategic interests of Europe and America should really be coordinated and how NATO can find a new role for itself in the changed landscape of world politics while helping to meet the strategic challenges posed in Asia, Europe, Russia, and the USA.

A global military role for NATO is not, in our view, an option. The Alliance should limit itself to the European periphery, with all its potential for crisis and conflict. Given the challenges for our security, we need to face up to the threats coming from the Southern arc of crisis. In the final analysis, those threats impact the interests of Europe, America, and Russia. Thus, NATO must position itself as a strategic bond linking the three power groupings of North America, Europe, and Russia together since we are all exposed to the same challenges and therefore require common responses. Europe needs Russia and America engaged in all critical regions: in Africa, in the wider Middle East and for energy security.



The end of the confrontation between East and West was the result of a politically defined strategy. Its highest purpose was to ensure a just, peaceful, and stable political environment in Europe. We now need to develop a comparable political strategy to meet the new challenges facing us today. In this, it is crucial for Russia to act with us as an equal partner. NATO therefore must right now find the means of incorporating Russia into the Euro-Atlantic community. Russia’s involvement in the goal of European-Atlantic security could have an internal and external impact. By achieving full transparency within the alliance on the basis of modern structures and strict mutuality, as well as by political and military integration into the alliance system and participation in the collective decision-making process, Russia could remove any reasons for the countries to its west to perceive it as a threat. At the same time, the entire alliance would benefit from the availability of Russia’s political and military capacities in repelling external threats and resolving problems that affect the Euro-Atlantic community.

In the event that the negotiations over a joint missile defense system – thus far thoroughly muddled – actually fail, the opportunity afforded by this “game changer” will have been squandered. The chance of shaking loose from out-dated structures will have been lost.

Regardless of this outcome, the success of the NATO summit in Chicago – and the question of whether the alliance remains relevant going forward – will depend on whether it is possible, at least on the highest political level, to lay the groundwork for a new phase of strategic cooperation between NATO and Russia.


Volker Rühe was the German Minister of Defense from 1992 to 1998.

Ulrich Weisser (ret. Vice Admiral) was director of the policy planning staff of the German Federal Ministry of Defense during this period.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.