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NATO and the EU: What a difference a decade makes

Global Governance / COMMENTARY
Antonio Missiroli

Date: 17/07/2009
In a few days, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer will hand over his responsibilities as NATO Secretary-General (SecGen) to the former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. A few days ago, Javier Solana announced that he would not seek a new mandate as High Representative (HR) for the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) when his ten-year term ends in late October. By December 2009, in other words, entirely new teams will be in charge of Europe’s security and relations between the two key regional organisations dealing with it.
Until a decade ago, it was quite common to hear that the Alliance and the Union were in the same city but on different planets. Since the launch of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) and the appointment of Mr Solana (then NATO’s SecGen) as the first-ever HR for CFSP - at the Cologne EU Summit exactly ten years ago - closer links have been established, although not as close as many had expected.
NATO went through a major crisis when, in the wake of 9/11, the first Bush administration preferred to deliver its riposte in Afghanistan with a selected coalition of the willing, ignoring Lord Robertson’s offer to activate the Washington Treaty’s Article 5 for the conduct of Operation Enduring Freedom. Later on, however, the Alliance became increasingly involved in Afghanistan - first with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Kabul; then through an ever-expanding counter-insurgency role in other provinces; and is now fighting for its reputation (and a “success” that is hard to define) far away from its original theatre.
Indeed, over the past decade, NATO - not unlike the EU - has undergone a triple expansion: of its membership (from 16 to 28); its geographical outreach (up to Central Asia); and its functional scope - dealing with such diverse tasks as rescuing civilians in earthquake-hit Kashmir, guaranteeing air and ground surveillance for the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2006 World Cup in Germany, or patrolling the Gulf of Aden to combat maritime piracy (now done by the EU, supported by US intelligence). In addition, 43 years after General de Gaulle’s decision to pull out of the Alliance’s integrated military structure, France has just formally returned to the fold, after having done so already in a more informal fashion. Still, the organisation Mr Rasmussen is about to take over seems to be struggling to find a new and shared vision of its role in the 21st century.
For its part, under Mr Solana’s stewardship, European ‘foreign policy’ has almost come of age. Initial tensions with the US (and NATO itself) gave way in early 2003 - just before the divisions over Iraq became apparent - to the signature of the ‘Berlin-plus’ agreement that eased military cooperation between the two Brussels-based organisations. Its impact has been more political and psychological than operational, as the arrangement has rarely been implemented, especially since Cyprus joined the Union in 2004 and constant skirmishes between Nicosia and Ankara have rendered EU-NATO relations particularly tricky. Yet the EU has managed to develop a sort of acquis sécuritaire by carrying out some 20-odd operations around Europe and also elsewhere in the world, especially in Africa.
True, such operations have been mostly small in size and short in duration; have often taken over from previously existing missions (by the UN or NATO); have rarely been seriously dangerous; and have been predominantly civilian in nature, if not always in form. They have embodied, in other words, the Union’s “yes we can” claim in what had hitherto been a no-go area for Europe. And they have shown that the EU has strong potential when it comes to peace-building, thanks to its multiple competences and resources in increasingly relevant areas - while peace-enforcement remains a much more challenging and controversial goal for its 27 members.
All this - not to mention the role the Union has played since 1999 in the Balkans, the Middle East or in dealing with Iran - would have been unthinkable without Mr Solana and the way he has interpreted and shaped the HR role. He may have not given the outside world the single “telephone number” Henry Kissinger allegedly (and ironically) asked for long ago, but he has certainly given a face, voice and active presence to Europe’s fledgling ‘foreign policy’.
Mr Solana is also likely to go down in history as the one and only ‘true’ High Representative, especially if the Lisbon Treaty enters into force at last and creates the double-hatted HR who will also chair the Council’s foreign affairs meetings and be a European Commission Vice-President. There is no obvious candidate for this virtually impossible job, but there are indeed expectations and hopes that he or she will be instrumental in establishing at least a single ‘switchboard’ for the EU’s international partners.
One of Mr Rasmussen’s most important challenges - Afghanistan notwithstanding - will be the drafting of NATO’s new Strategic Concept, expected to be solemnly approved at the Lisbon Atlantic Council in October 2010.
The last such ‘Concept’ was published in March 1999, just before the Alliance launched its first-ever large-scale military operation since 1949: the Kosovo war. The world, the US, and Europe have all changed remarkably since then - and so have the threats and risks they face. The role of military force as a tool to solve international crises has also swung back and forth, from the successes of 1999-2001-2003 to the ensuing setbacks.
Everybody now appears to agree that a more comprehensive approach is needed, and that appropriate planning and coordination are required across the board. But NATO is still a predominantly military organisation and can therefore only do part of the job - although it can do it better than any other similar organisation. This is an issue that will probably concentrate minds in the Alliance’s International Secretariat, along with the imperative of forging consensus among 20+ members - old and new.
Maybe there is something here that Mr Solana can suggest to Mr Rasmussen and his team before he steps down. When faced with a comparable challenge - drafting the European Security Strategy (ESS) in 2003, just after the Iraq war - he decided to go it alone, without formally submitting any text to the Brussels-based inter-governmental bodies used to negotiating and amending every official EU document. He did consult informally with both capitals and experts, but he took full and exclusive responsibility for the final version. In the end, the ESS was a great success - both inside and outside the EU - and last year's review, carried out using the same methodology, reconciled the potentially conflicting goals of representing consensus at 27 without limiting itself to registering the lowest common denominator.
The new NATO SecGen should arguably follow a similar path if he wants to make his mark and move the Alliance forward. His task may prove particularly demanding in light of the different perceptions of NATO’s role among its own member governments, citizens on both sides of the Atlantic, and partners and neighbours - the main cleavage probably still lying, decades after the end of the Cold War, between the East and West of Berlin, with Russia being (or not) the main catalyst.
The process will be almost as important as the outcome, but the final text must be concise and clear - and it should preferably not be called “the Lisbon Concept”, not least to avoid confusion with existing EU documents whose implementation (the 2000 Lisbon Strategy) or ratification (the 2007 Lisbon Treaty) has been fragmented or delayed. Indeed, with 21 members and many interests and values in common, but also distinct functions and goals, NATO and the EU can learn a lot from one another, and from their respective strengths and weaknesses.
Antonio Missiroli is Director of Studies at the European Policy Centre.

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