Courtesy Reuters

The alliance that won the Cold War has lost its way. Contented summit photos cannot hide the fact that NATO no longer defends its members' vital interests.

With the Soviet Union gone and regional threats on the rise, the proper object of strategy is to protect more distant interests -- Persian Gulf oil, for instance -- not Western Europe's borders. The United States has executed this strategic U-turn more or less gracefully by refocusing its defense plans on "major regional contingencies." Its European partners, however, have not. NATO does not figure into current American strategy, while the strategy of America's NATO allies is a mystery altogether.

As the only nation able to project military power, the United States is giving its best friends a free ride. This new inequity is worse than the lopsided burden-sharing of Cold War days. It need not continue. Using NATO as the vehicle for organizing the defense of the West's interests -- an old idea with a new focus -- the United States can get its allies to become partners in power projection. Doing so would improve security in key theaters (the Persian Gulf and Eastern Europe), rejuvenate the alliance, reduce the U.S. defense budget, and avoid a revolt by the American people against international duties that fall too heavily on them alone.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE ALLIES GONE?

When Saddam Hussein menaced Kuwait last October, the force assembled to scare him away consisted of 40,000 U.S. troops, an American fleet, 600 U.S. aircraft, and a thousand or so Brits. Had it come to war, the American public would have demanded to know why, yet again, they were shouldering nearly all the burden of defending interests -- oil, in this case -- dearer to our rich friends than to us.

In the 1991 Gulf War, the United States provided 90 percent of Western "coalition" forces. As Americans debated whether to back President Bush's plan to liberate Kuwait, supporters and opponents alike complained that the United States should not have to fight such a war alone. After all, Western Europe and Japan together import four times as much oil from the gulf as we do. Moreover, it is not as if only the United States has the wealth to field forces able to protect oil and other shared interests. Western Europe's economy is 120 percent of ours, and Japan's is 60 percent.

Back in 1991, complaints about America's heavy burden had answers. Our allies' lack of intervention forces was understandable: Germany and Japan due to their aggressive pasts, and other NATO countries because their Cold War assignment was the stationary defense of Western Europe -- force projection being America's job. Even so, Great Britain and France sent what they could to the gulf -- a division each. And Germany and Japan wrote checks to help defray the costs.

Leaky even then, those excuses hold no water today. Only the low level of American casualties averted public outrage about our absent allies. Had America suffered heavy losses, those donated Deutsche marks and yen would have counted for little. As for the unsuitability of their forces, America's allies have had four years to shift from the old mission of border defense to the new task of protecting distant interests. Yet in October's Persian Gulf flare-up, the European response was patent tokenism, contrived to create an illusion that the United States was acting within a coalition.

This latest episode illuminates a larger phenomenon: deny it though we may, the United States is the world's policeman, owing to its unique ability to project power. Beyond participating in U.N. peacekeeping operations and sending small expeditions now and then to quell disturbances in Africa, our allies cannot wage war in the places where Western interests and international peace are most likely to be threatened -- where major conflicts could occur -- such as the Middle East, Korea, and Eastern Europe.

Yes, several thousand allied troops are serving with the United Nations in Bosnia. But it took two months to get them there from nearby Western Europe, and those forces are not up to heavy combat. Indeed, a decisive intervention to roll back Serbian aggression would have to be mainly an American operation -- a certainty that helps explain Washington's chronic cold feet about putting U.S. troops into Bosnia. While the presence of Europeans and absence of Americans in Bosnia today may be viewed as unfair and unfortunate, it does not change the fact that only the United States can fight a real war in the new era.

At the moment, the United States is already juggling too many demands: its current occupation of Haiti, its promise to send 20,000 troops to help police a Bosnian peace agreement, the lingering danger of a war with North Korea, the occasional threat to the Persian Gulf, and some unidentified crisis that could crop up almost anywhere (say, Cuba) in this unstable era. Because U.S. forces are currently sized to handle only two major regional contingencies at once, American reservists could be sent to defend Western interests even before meaningful numbers of allied active forces show up. Indeed, this has already happened, in the gulf and Haiti.

The problem is not that our partners' armed forces are too small. Our European allies have 2.5 million men under arms to our 1.7 million. They spend two-thirds of what we spend on defense. Yet the United States must supply nearly all the forces needed to defend the gulf and other common interests. The West Europeans remain well prepared to defend themselves against an invasion -- a contingency as far-fetched as an invasion of the United States. So the United States is left with the duty of actual war-fighting, while our allies -- our economic competitors -- enjoy the benefits at no risk.

The failure of America's prosperous friends to take responsibility to help defend shared vital interests is costing American taxpayers billions of dollars annually. If we could count on our allies to provide, say, half the force required to protect the gulf -- a fair standard given their healthy economies and dependence on oil -- the United States could scale back its armed forces and save more than $10 billion annually. Alternatively, the United States could keep its current posture and enjoy greater security. An allied role in power projection could be the best way out of America's defense predicament, in which its strategy does not address all its security needs, its forces are not up to its strategy, and its defense budget is too small to maintain its forces. In any case, Americans would not have to be asked again to send their youth to defend Western interests single-handedly.

American allies will avoid the sacrifices needed to create and use power projection capabilities as long as we are prepared to do their fighting for them. Of course, prudent strategists will insist that the United States needs no less than an independent ability to defend its interests, even if it means letting our partners off the hook. But faced repeatedly with a choice between unilateral military action and inaction, the American people will be tempted by the latter, not because they are isolationist at heart, but because they demand fairness. Instead of ensuring that the United States can always act independently, failure to build a Western coalition to project force could make it politically impossible to act at all.

FROM PETROL TO POLAND

The Europeans could help meet the need to project power by drastically, yet safely, shifting forces from territorial defense. This could be done without increasing the $1.5 trillion they plan to spend on defense over the next decade. In fact, ample intervention forces could be built with less than five percent of that amount. Because West European territorial defense forces serve no purpose, the alternative to creating needed force projection capabilities is essentially to have no serious combat forces at all, making Western Europe a sort of giant Switzerland.

To say the allies can afford large intervention forces is not to say that it would be popular with European publics. While the potential for political controversy is modest in France, Britain, and the Low Countries, it is considerable in Italy, Spain, Scandinavia and, above all, Germany. The question thus becomes how the United States can secure its allies' commitment to build a Western force projection coalition over the next several years. The answer may lie in a related question: What are NATO's intentions toward Central and Eastern Europe?

The idea that NATO should provide for the security and thus the successful transformation of Central Europe's new democracies -- Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia -- has gained increasing support. With these countries likely to join the European Union in the coming years, it is logical to bring them into NATO as well, lest one part of the future EU have a U.S. defense commitment and the other part not. President Clinton has declared that NATO membership for the so-called Visegrad Four is only a matter of time. NATO's largest European member, Germany, agrees.

Russia does not now militarily threaten these new democracies, but it does oppose their joining NATO. While the alliance is nevertheless almost certain to expand into Central Europe this decade, it will want to take care not to arouse a new Russian threat by the way it goes about it. Therefore, there will not, and should not, be much support for stationing Western forces in Poland and the other Visegrad countries. Such a step would be seen by Russia as provocative and feed its anti-NATO paranoia. It could even trigger the reintegration of Ukrainian forces under Russian command and another confrontation with the West across a new dividing line in Europe -- something no one wants.

Fortunately, since there is no threat of a Russian invasion of Central Europe, basing NATO forces there is not only ill-advised but unnecessary. With Russia's steep economic, industrial, and military decline, NATO will have years of warning time if Russia rearms. In the meantime -- indeed, in perpetuity, if Russia does not threaten Europe again -- NATO can rely on a power projection strategy to keep Central Europe safe and confident.

The choice of power projection over forward stationing would also be less divisive in the West. It should allay the fear that NATO expansion will alienate Russia and sidestep the tender issue of basing German troops on the territory of its eastern neighbors. Finally, this strategy would cost little extra, provided NATO does what it should do anyway: become a power-projection coalition.

This is the key point. The basic military capability needed to safeguard the new democracies of Central Europe is essentially the same as that needed to protect other Western interests such as Persian Gulf oil: highly mobile ground forces, overwhelming air power, agile logistics, and integrated command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I). The United States has such capabilities; its allies do not.

NATO TO GO

A NATO power projection capability is the only realistic solution to the West's common security needs. But it requires European allies to transform their territorial defense forces into troops capable of winning a distant, heavy war alongside U.S. troops. In the meantime, of course, it would be folly for the United States to reduce its own defenses before knowing that such forces will actually be built and shaped to fight in a coalition.

The European allies already have a rudimentary capability to help the United States defend the West's strategic interests. Great Britain and France can project about a division each, albeit with deficient reach, speed, readiness, and stamina for distant heavy combat. A few other allies can each deploy a brigade in ragtag fashion. Despite being the world's fourth-largest economy and second-largest per capita gas-guzzler, Germany is good for only a brigade, though it plans to expand that capability to two divisions.

Still, NATO itself lacks a credible projection capability. Its Rapid Reaction Force, created in 1991, was originally meant to be a corps-sized mobile force for defending the alliance's remote territories, such as Turkey. It has since swelled into a 10-division hodgepodge that lacks the agility, command structure, logistics, and air and naval power for large-scale interventions. Likewise, the Franco-German "Eurocorps," concocted in 1992 for political reasons, has neither the right forces nor the strategic reach. NATO's Combined Joint Task Force, adopted at the 1994 Brussels summit to provide for situations other than border defense, is an idea that has yet to be matched with the right forces. There is no telling when those troops will be built or if they would be ready when needed.

NATO has met this sort of challenge before. After the Vietnam War, in the face of a steady Soviet buildup against West Germany, the alliance implemented its Long Term Defense Plan. A similar program, the Conventional Defense Initiative, was implemented in the 1980s. Those efforts succeeded, without hype, because the United States took the lead, key allies accepted the challenge and made needed investments, the costs were fairly shared, and the forces were made ready to fight as a true coalition. They also succeeded because we did not deem it too risky to count on our allies to join in defending common interests.

In the same way, the United States and its partners should now set out to create a NATO power projection capability of, say, 10 divisions, 10 air wings, and associated lift, logistics, naval forces, and C3I. Such a force should be able to prevail in a major conflict anywhere Western interests might be challenged. The United States would provide a share of the forces while concentrating on such American specialties as air strike and airlift, naval forces, and C3I.

These forces would allow NATO to back up defense commitments to Central Europe's new democracies and project power to the gulf and elsewhere. The program would be paid for by eliminating useless West European border-defense forces. The more confidence we gain in our NATO allies, the better the prospects for sizable savings in the U.S. defense budget. This shift in strategic thinking, combined with the hard work of getting it done, could produce the nearest thing to a free lunch -- which is vastly better than a free ride.

THE WILLING AND THE ABLE

Some cannot see the point of an Atlantic alliance with the U.S.S.R. gone. But the idea of the alliance was wider than this, even at its creation. In addition to providing for the mandatory defense of allied territory, the NATO treaty stipulates that the alliance may act if its members' interests are threatened anywhere, without obligating all allies to do so.

This unstable new era demands even greater flexibility. NATO's decision-making rules must be adapted to relax the need for unanimity. It is neither necessary nor possible to get prior agreement among all NATO members to use force in every circumstance. Indeed, there are situations -- turmoil in North Africa, perhaps -- where the United States and the West Europeans might take different views about whether to intervene. The key, though, is to have the ability to act with strong mobile forces and a flexible command structure. Those allies willing to project power together should be allowed to use NATO assets.

This new way of viewing and using NATO as a Western force projection coalition would also give the alliance a strategic purpose not dependent on an increasingly implausible Russian threat to Europe. Indeed, Russia could itself come to cooperate closely with such an Atlantic alliance, even one that includes former Warsaw Pact countries. After all, our defeated enemies from World War II are now the very nations with the greatest potential to bear more of the burden of our common security.

The United States cannot get its European allies to share in power projection without Germany. Fortunately, German leaders and people are emerging from the unnatural role of the democracy that could not be trusted with power. This new maturity is healthy, welcome, and important to the United States. Japan, in contrast, shows little willingness to accept its share of responsibility for international security. As a consequence, Europe is now the only candidate to be America's partner in the coming era.

There is not much time to get all this right -- to create a new partnership with Europe, to reorient NATO, to get our allies to help us bear the burden of security. If this effort is long delayed, the American people will lose their patience. The allies will disarm completely. The new democracies of Central Europe will give up on the West. A new threat to the Persian Gulf will appear. Who will respond if not a new Western coalition?

  • David Gompert is a Vice President at RAND and former Senior Director for Europe and Eurasia on the Bush administration's National Security Council staff. Richard Kugler is a Senior Analyst at RAND.
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