Toward a New Transatlantic Pact

The end of the Cold War calls for redefining major countries' ranks and roles. That challenge is most painful for two nations--the United States and France. The two countries were the great beneficiaries of the geopolitical freeze of the Cold War, and both stand to lose the most after the thaw. The United States enjoyed an unchallenged status as leader of the Free World, while France benefited from a divided Germany and a strong Western alliance without incurring the full costs of Western discipline.

Yesterday's world was fundamentally structured around nuclear weapons, which also boosted the American and French roles. The United States now has to define for itself a new role in a world where military force alone will no longer be the principal criterion of power. The relative political and economic weight of the United States will be closer to its pre-World War II situation than to the postwar decades. The French too are awakening, reluctantly, to a messy Europe, where most of the basic foreign policy and defense guidelines laid out by General Charles de Gaulle 35 years ago are simply no longer relevant.

Because both nations face such an arduous redefinition, the potential for friction between France and the United States will be quite considerable. Yet never before have the two countries' strategic interests been so complementary. If this convergence of interests were to be wasted through mismanagement of the political process, the reconstruction of a stable Europe would be impossible.

Focusing on Strategic Concerns

Leaders and citizens alike are discovering that Europe's security is now more precarious than it ever was during the forced peace of the Cold War, and that Europe is more exposed than the two other poles of economic power, the United States and Japan. The general mood in Europe is now one of anxiety, rather than the "Europhoria" that attended the double victory of the West in Eastern Europe and the Persian Gulf over the last four years. Western Europe adjoins a zone of massive and prolonged turbulence in the eastern and central regions of Europe as well as in the countries of the former Soviet Union. In addition to their difficult transition toward capitalism (and hopefully, democracy) these regions are experiencing a resurgence of the nationalist fervor that repeatedly bloodied the continent over the past century. The further tensions and wars expected in these areas stem from the strategic void left by the collapse of the Soviet empire. Gone also is the territorial status quo created by the Second World War in a vast area ranging from the Balkans, East-central Europe, the former Soviet Union, all the way to the Caucasus.

The collapse of communism has bequeathed two immense problems--reconstructing the region's mismanaged economies and managing the Soviets' nuclear legacy. Ironically, the West pursued two completely contradictory policies for the past half century, without quite knowing it. On the ideological front, the West sought to bring down the Berlin Wall, and with it communist authoritarianism as a whole. Nonetheless, the West also needed a solid, central authority in Moscow to control the Soviets' 35,000 nuclear weapons. Today, the West has no choice but to help its former adversary oversee its nuclear arsenal. A further irony is that Western nations will no doubt have to pay--whether it be to convert Soviet weapons factories, to employ the nuclear engineers and scientists, or to dismantle the weapons. America, France and Great Britain, all experienced in this field, can jointly contribute to the management of the Soviet nuclear legacy and the associated proliferation risks.

This European, or "North-North," strategic concern is outweighed by another one emerging on the continent's southern periphery. The African population is projected to triple within the next 30 years, reaching an estimated level of 1.6 billion. Moreover, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent all have volatile admixtures of acute poverty, demographic explosion and political instability. Together these regions will have some 4 billion people within 30 years, while due north sit 500 million aging Europeans already in a squall of demographic depression.

The regions to the south of the Eurasian continent are the world's poorest, the most prone to religious fundamentalism, and, unfortunately, the areas where missiles and weapons of mass destruction are proliferating the most. With the exception of North Korea, all major proliferators are located in an arc spreading from Algeria to Pakistan. A proper regard for security cannot exclude the hypothesis that several European cities will be--probably sooner than generally expected--the potential targets of these weapons.

The Security Vacuum

Europe no longer has a security system capable of confronting this double peril. Even so, a sterile de-bate is droning on, at ministerial conferences and at heads-of- state summits, over whether NATO or the Western European Union (WEU) or the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) or the European Community (EC) should tackle this or that issue. This display of faint political will, coupled with declining defense expenditures (Japan's being the exception among the industrialized nations), stands in stark contrast to the conflicts multiplying in Europe and adjacent regions. NATO and other Cold War institutions must be overhauled, and the place and role of all major powers, including Russia, must be redefined.

Today, NATO is characterized by paradox. It has no enemy or military doctrine and is rapidly losing forces. Yet the alliance apparently prospers, with prospective members from the East lining up at the door and new purported reasons for being, ranging from humanitarian and peacekeeping operations to the establishment of a framework for political cooperation with the East.

The same observation applies to the CSCE. With the Cold War over, it too has lost its main role as a channel of discussion with the East. As to its new ambition (outlined in the Paris Charter of November 1990) to serve as a peacemaker in Europe, the CSCE has failed conspicuously in Yugoslavia and in the Caucasus.

Meanwhile, the WEU's involvement in the Yugoslav war has been modest, late and unconvincing (e.g., the monitoring of the arms embargo at sea). As to the Franco-German "Eurocorps," created in May 1992 by President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl, it too is facing uncertainties. Paris has yet to clarify the role of French troops within the new corps, nor has it adequately defined its strategic links to NATO. It is also questionable whether Bonn is ready to use the corps outside the NATO area. Finally the United States and Great Britain have yet to accept the Eurocorps as a positive contribution to the maintenance of NATO.

Over the past year or so, this institutional confusion has resuscitated the diplomatic guerrilla warfare periodically waged between Paris and Washington since the early 1960s. Many in France favor a post-Cold War security system, more "Europeanized" than the old NATO, one that is driven by the Franco-German coupling. Many Americans believe that the French still want the United States to hold the umbrella when the storm comes, but are not prepared to let it be more than a "mercenary of the ec" the rest of the time. Caught in the middle, the Germans hesitate and try to gain time until the end of their difficult unification, when they will define their own security options for the post-Cold War world. For the time being, therefore, Bonn presents itself in Washington as the most faithful NATO ally, and in Paris as the other key architect of the future Europe. Meanwhile of course, the British, who trust neither the French nor the Germans, stick to the American line (along with the Dutch and the Scandinavians).

New Realities

The concept of a broad transatlantic alliance remains a fundamental instrument of stability and peace in Europe. It also is essential to the United States, which intends to maintain its status as a world power. America and the France need to understand that the implementation of that concept, the "nuts and bolts" of it, must be adjusted to the new realities of the post-Cold War era. Three new factors must be borne in mind.

First, a new transatlantic alliance cannot be shaped by a "NATO area" that is no longer relevant to actual problems. Whether one looks at East European conflicts or at potential instabilities in the South the relevance of the alliance will basically depend on one factor--whether the United States will be prepared to intervene. That must be a sovereign decision taken by the United States, not one generated by any automatic commitment to European or allied interests.

In the Persian Gulf, for instance, the United States chose to intervene and some allies (although not NATO as such) followed. In Yugoslavia, by contrast, the United States initially decided to stay out and the Europeans, after much hesitation and blundering, decided to do the same--except in the humanitarian field. The result is that so far neither NATO nor the WEU have played any significant role in the Balkan war despite its enormous moral, political and strategic implications for the continent.

The issue is not one of institutions or legal definition of areas of competence, but one of political will. While the notion of "automaticity" in the commitment of forces was central to the response to an attack by the U.S.S.R., it is now questionable for conflicts arising in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus or the southern rim of the Mediterranean. Europe and the United States need a flexible political-military structure that coordinates joint action but also leaves room for independent action by European forces if America forgoes involvement.

Second, U.S. military forces, stationed in Europe during the 1990s, are likely to be a quarter or even a fifth of the old level of 325,000. For the first time since 1945, less troops will be stationed in Europe than in Asia. This will mean a considerable difference in the military effectiveness of the future NATO. Given these reduced numbers, the question arises as to whether the U.S.-dominated command structure should be adjusted to reflect a greater role by the Europeans. A related question is how to adjust the current command mechanism to permit action solely by European forces with little or no U.S. logistical support.

Finally, among the rich, industrialized nations of the North the political-military utility of their remaining nuclear arsenals will be much reduced, although they will retain some deterrence purpose given the risky evolution of the former U.S.S.R. and the probability that one or more of its successor nations will continue to possess large numbers of modern nuclear arms. In many ways, as far as the North is concerned, there will be a broad convergence of doctrines and postures to something very close to France's classic deterrence approach.

The situation will be quite different in North-South relations. While the North will gradually move to a post-nuclear age, North-South relations may well return to the strategic posture of the 1940s and 1950s, when nuclear arms were conceived primarily as weapons of mass destruction. Faced with a number of nations in the South that will possess such nuclear weapons and delivery missiles capable of hitting European targets, it is by no means clear that mere possession of nuclear arms by Northern nations will deter proliferation or the actual use of such weapons against Europe. Against such risks, France and other European countries cannot ignore the need for some defense options. One area that ought to be examined is how to promote better French-American cooperation in the nonproliferation field, including anti-ballistic missile defense. France has no choice but to develop the necessary protection of its nuclear assets in Europe and the transatlantic area. This means maintaining a state-of-the-art, safe and effective nuclear deterrent, and continuing modernization and nuclear testing, though at a somewhat slower pace. A policy stressing a freeze on nuclear modernization, and in particular a complete nuclear test ban agreement with Russia, could certainly pose a serious problem for French decision-makers.

Were the United States to denuclearize its forces on the continent, Europeans might have to build up some form of deterrent in the face of likely long-term instability in the former Soviet Union. The question is whether the United States can live with that option.

The Will and Means to Lead

Reintegrating France into NATO, thought by some to be necessary to "save" the Atlantic alliance, would simply legitimize the current system and postpone needed major adjustments. France does not deserve such an overestimation, either of its absence or of its full presence in NATO. Moreover, some European allies, accustomed since 1966 to having the comfort of certain leading positions in the NATO machinery, would view the French return without much enthusiasm. Yet it is clear that France has a major role to play in any significant adjustment to the alliance. Britain is a much weakened player, given the state of its economy and its attitude on the European front. Germany is focusing on its domestic problems following reunification and has yet to face squarely a security debate of its own. The fragility of its domestic consensus on defense and foreign policy has been aggravated by the incorporation of 17 million East Germans with a thoroughly different historical memory of NATO and Europe. Finally, no other European nation but France has the desire, the ambition or the means to play a decisive leading role in redrawing Europe's security order.

France is left with the enviable but difficult challenge of shaping, alongside the United States, Europe's future security system. Clearly, French aloofness on these matters, on the pretext that these are "NATO problems," is no longer sustainable. Nor is it useful to continue the sterile Franco-American quarrel of the past few months over institutions.

The United States must understand that France is not trying to undermine either America's presence in Europe, or in NATO--quite the contrary. France in turn must put to rest certain institutional reflexes. It is absurd, for instance, that at a time when NATO is undergoing a complete redefinition, France's voice cannot be properly heard in NATO forums simply because it refuses to be present for reasons that belong to another era. Similarly, it is equally bizarre that the French minister of defense is the only one absent around a NATOO table of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council that now includes Russia's Marshall Yevgeny Shaposhnikoff. Finally, it is regrettable that a certain amount of ambiguity continues to plague the issue of a command agreement between the Eurocorps and NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.

All of this must be corrected, if the bureaucratic guerrilla warfare developing between France and the United States is to end. The key is to pragmatically, but resolutely, build upon several synergies that are emerging with the end of the Cold War. The evolution of the role of nuclear weapons toward residual deterrence should permit an obvious convergence between French and U.S. nuclear postures and doctrines. The days are gone when experts and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic could claim a basic incompatibility between NATO's flexible response and France's pure deterrence concept.

French and American interests ought to be converging in conventional arms policy as well. Evaporation of the East-West line in Europe renders moot the old quarrel over integration on the "front line," and the resulting risk of being drawn "automatically" into a conflict. For France, and America, integration bears a different meaning when it is based upon only some 70,000 U.S. troops in Europe, no Soviet military threat, and a force structure now positioned all across allied nations. This is more so when use of force is likely to be outside NATO's reach and, far from being automatic, will require consent of the governments involved, be it in NATO or in the CSCE or both. Unless exploited for domestic political warfare, the creation of a flexible command structure within the alliance and the WEU/Eurocorps ought to be feasible. It would allow the alliance to act as a whole along with the United States, when the latter chooses to intervene with its allies, or allow the Europeans to do so in other instances, without the United States.

A first step in this direction would be to deflate the issue of the Eurocorps' relationship to the alliance. Rather than assume it is meant to destroy the alliance, the Eurocorps should be seen as an instrument for making Europeans, and particularly the Germans, responsible for the defense of their own interests in those instances where the United States will not be prepared to act. Americans, unwilling to be Europe's protector in every instance, must consider whether a Eurocorps better serves its interests than a passive, disorganized and militarily castrated Europe. Meanwhile, France should state publicly that its forces assigned to the Eurocorps are actually "double-hatted." They would fully participate in NATO operations when NATO (and the United States) decide to act, but they could also act under a European command in other situations.

To put this arcane command debate in perspective, it is well to remember that in the Persian Gulf, the United States and some of the European nations decided to intervene together, and even though NATO as such was not involved, there was no theological debate about integrated command in Kuwait. In Yugoslavia, by contrast, the bureaucratic games being fought over who should do what and under what command actually mask a tragic lack of political will on all sides. Legal battles are a lot easier to fight than Serbs.

Mutual Self-Interests

The maintenance of a strong U.S. commitment to post-Cold War Europe benefits both countries. The United States needs to remain strongly attached to Europe, for its own political, economic and strategic interests. Its dilemma, however, is how to stay the boss, while withdrawing. There is no easy answer because Washington has found it easy to welcome a united Europe but difficult to act accordingly.

For its part, France needs a strong American commitment to the post-Cold War Europe in which nationalism, border questions and structural imbalances have been resuscitated. Once again, Europe is characterized by a pivotal and strong Germany, a backward and unstable Russia, and a large number of small, weak states. And again, France and Great Britain are incapable by themselves of balancing German power or checking Russian instability, let alone restructuring the entire European order around a Franco-British axis.

At this point, Europe will go in one of two directions. Either it will be "contaminated" from East to West, so to speak, and find itself thrown back into its bleak past. In this case, resurgent nationalism in the East will eventually sweep away Western Europe's postwar habits of cooperation, codified in the EC and NATO. Or, and this is the most hopeful route, stability in Western Europe will eventually gain in the East, as a result of preserving West European cooperation and strengthening both the EC and NATO.

While the outcome of this process of transition is by no means assured, it is crucial for Europe's future to do everything possible to consolidate the continent's only poles of stability: the EC and the alliance with the United States. Both must be seen as complementary; indispensable tools for avoiding an anarchic reshuffling of Europe's map along purely nationalistic lines.

European unity and a strong U.S. commitment to European affairs remain perhaps more vital to French national interests in post-Cold War Europe than they were during the era of East-West confrontation from which they were derived. Un-fortunately, it is not clear that the Maastricht treaty, which ought to have adjusted the Community to the new geopolitical realities of Europe, has succeeded in doing so. It is more likely that the opportunity has been missed and Europe will have to go back to the drawing board at some point.

Both the United States and France have a paramount interest and a key role to play in adjusting the Atlantic alliance for the new era. This calls for--in parallel to the ongoing work in NATO, the WEU and the EC--an urgent political-strategic negotiation between France and America on the following items.

-How to reform the alliance with the objective of preserving a strong American role while creating within that framework an indispensable European military structure. What are the long-term intentions of the United States, in respect to U.S. troop levels and to the possible evolution of command mechanisms between NATO and the WEU?

-What can France contribute to NATO's new strategy of "reconstitution," in particular in terms of availability of French territory and facilities ?

-How can the United States and France contribute effectively in the nonproliferation field, particularly as catalysts for a Europe-wide effort on enlarged air defense?

Finally, both France and America have a special responsibility in opening a dialogue on the future of nuclear deterrence in Europe. The future of European security will continue to depend on a close partnership between the United States and Europe, and the United States and France. Both countries bear a responsibility to show imagination, political will and a sense of vision for their common future. The price of failure is simply too great to miss this rendezvous with history.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now