The Danger of a Two-Tier Atlantic Alliance

Robert Gates believes that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is in danger of turning into a two-tier Alliance between those who provide security and those who consume it. As Jon Western aptly describes it, the United States (US) is the undisputed leader of NATO in an operational sense, and the contours of any debate at the structural level within NATO are controlled by Washington. European policies towards the Atlantic Alliance are predicated on this fact. The US is disappointed that the Europeans have not done more to fill military gaps in Afghanistan’s troubled south. European states lack key capabilities and have scaled back their defence budgets. Some states refuse to take part in military operations altogether. European capabilities in the European Union’s (EU’s) Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) are designed for longer term diplomacy and civil-military crisis management for humanitarian purposes.


This means that the majority of EU member states have settled on “niche marketing” their capabilities mainly towards civilian crisis management, typically at the lower end of the Petersberg Tasks. The EU and its member states have accepted in the Lisbon Treaty that CFSP/CSDP is dependent on NATO for the foreseeable future although the EU is beginning to mount stand-alone operations. This is cold comfort to Washington, which wants the Europeans to contribute militarily to the Afghanistan operation through NATO to a far greater degree than it is currently doing. There is a real danger that the Afghanistan operation could undermine NATO, ushering in a new era of gradual American withdrawal from NATO and Europe respectively. US attentions are already starting to be focused more on the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East and are gradually moving away from Europe.

Furthermore, as Western notes, the United States is a global superpower and does not need Europe in a practical sense to help manage the military aspects of global security. Indeed, this perhaps encourages the Europeans to free-ride on American security guarantees. US defence spending and concomitant technical advances mean that Europe is far behind the US in terms of established military capabilities and the ability to construct defence capabilities for the future. Indeed, the majority of European states are not interested in developing what they see as expensive capabilities when the US already provides them for free. The Europeans would rather concentrate on “soft power”. There is a widely held belief in Washington that European military capabilities are weak and that it is easier for the US to mount operations alone.

This creates a vicious circle. The Europeans have no real incentive to build up their capabilities because of the American preponderance of power and capabilities in the international system. The US responds with unilateral actions, because it can. The Europeans are then less likely to follow the US lead, and so on. This also arguably serves to undermine multilateralism at the transatlantic level. As Western also writes, any new NATO Strategic Concept will not change the underlying transatlantic relationship at this time because of these pre-existing, asymmetrical dynamics driving US-European relations. This does not necessarily mean that NATO will cease to exist, as some have predicted. It just means that the Alliance will be less effective than it could be in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It might also serve to further weaken the transatlantic relationship and multilateralism more broadly.

Here is the challenge. The Europeans need to make themselves more relevant to the Americans by taking on greater burdens outside of the North Atlantic Area within NATO. The Americans need to welcome the EU’s focus on civil-military crisis management as being a useful addition to their efforts throughout the world. This might be done through NATO and/or EU structures (which are under a NATO umbrella anyway). The Americans also need to understand the extremely valuable contribution that Europe (both nationally and through the EU) makes to the management of global security through its “soft power” of aid, trade and development. In other words, the world’s problems are not just to be solved by military might but also by quiet, behind the scenes, long term diplomacy. The Europeans have something to offer here through the EU in conjunction with NATO, thereby underlining the importance of multilateralism to transatlantic relations.

In the end Europe’s contribution to the management of global security might be best oriented towards “soft power” tools because this is where it can supply real value added. However, there is still a niggling feeling in Washington, that a European foreign policy organized around “soft power” tools is intended to place the military burden of leadership firmly on the US. This undermines multilateralism. Perhaps the Europeans have a responsibility to develop their military capabilities within both EU and NATO structures, whilst the US might recognise that the Europeans have proven “soft power” capabilities that can also contribute to the management of global security. In this way, perhaps both sides of the Atlantic could offer new hope for the longevity of a more meaningful transatlantic relationship in NATO based on multilateralism.


Neil Winn is Senior Lecturer in European Studies, University of Leeds, England.