These days, there is a great deal of talk about the dawn of an Asian century -- hastened by the rise of China and India. Meanwhile, the fractious Atlantic alliance, enfeebled by two wars and an economic crisis, is said to be fading away. But the West is not doomed to decline as a center of power and influence. A relatively simple strategic fix could reinvigorate the historic bonds between Europe and North America and reestablish the West's dominance: it is time to bring together the West's principal institutions, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

When NATO's 28 leaders gather in Portugal later this year to draw up a new security strategy for the twenty-first century, they will consider a range of options, including military partnerships with distant allies such as Australia, Japan, and South Korea. Yet the most practical solution lies just down the road from the alliance's sprawling headquarters near the Brussels airport. Genuine cooperation between NATO and the 27-nation European Union would allow Western governments to meld hard power with soft, making both organizations better equipped to confront modern threats, such as climate change, failed states, and humanitarian disasters. A revitalized Atlantic alliance is by far the most effective way for the United States and Europe to shore up their global influence in the face of emerging Asian powers.


Anybody who spends time in Brussels comes away mystified by the lack of dialogue between the West's two most important multinational organizations, even though they have been based in the same city for decades. Only a few years ago, it was considered a minor miracle when the EU's foreign policy czar and NATO's secretary-general decided that they should have breakfast together once a month. An EU planning cell is now ensconced at NATO military headquarters, but there is scarcely any other communication between the two institutions. With Europe and the United States facing common threats from North Africa to the Hindu Kush, it is imperative for Western nations to take advantage of these two organizations' resources in the fields of law enforcement, counterterrorism, intelligence gathering, drug interdiction, and even agricultural policy.

Past efforts to build bridges between the EU and NATO have routinely foundered due to mutual suspicions between France and the United States. When France left the NATO military command in 1965, it sought to establish a European defense capability as a counterweight to U.S. dominance. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was unclear whether the United States was willing to remain the primary security actor in Europe; painstaking negotiations eventually led to the "Berlin Plus" arrangements in 2003, which allowed European nations to use NATO assets when the United States or other NATO members chose not to get involved in peacekeeping missions. But the Balkan wars of the 1990s had by then humbled Europeans' ambitions to take control of their continent's security. More recently, in 2004, when the Republic of Cyprus joined the EU, its accession sparked tensions with the NATO member Turkey -- which administers the northern half of the island. To this day, Ankara refuses to give its consent to Cypriot cooperation with NATO on diplomatic, intelligence, and military matters, and Cyprus continues to prevent Turkey's participation in the European Defense Agency -- an EU body. The biggest impediment, of course, is that the United States is not, and never will be, a member of the EU. But that should not forestall creative efforts to breathe new life into the Atlantic partnership by increasing coordination between the EU and NATO.

Now that France has fully rejoined the Western military alliance, there is an unprecedented opportunity for closer collaboration between the two organizations. The simultaneous expansion of both, to embrace former communist states in the East, has created greater overlap in their membership than ever before: 21 states are now members of both the EU and NATO. In addition, the enormous budgetary pressures created by the recent global economic downturn have compelled the United States and its European allies to reconsider their collective defense commitments and try to figure out how to adapt their partnership to cope with transnational challenges.

When Barack Obama spoke in Berlin to a crowd of more than 200,000 people during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, he referred to the West's triumph in bringing down the Iron Curtain and declared, "The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand." Now that he is president, Obama and his administration should lead the way in breaking down bureaucratic barriers between the EU and NATO.


A strong connection between the EU and NATO would serve Western security interests on every major issue. Although Russia still regards NATO with trepidation, Moscow is eager to cultivate broader economic contacts with the EU. Dialogue with Russia could move beyond the issue of Western military encroachment to include energy security, investment in Russian infrastructure, and enhanced trade. Such talks may well convince Moscow that cooperating with the West serves its own security interests because the greater long-term threats come from Chinese intrusion on Russia's eastern border and the spread of Islamic radicalism to its south. In the Balkans, the prospect of future EU and NATO membership could become a tantalizing reward for good behavior, just as Hungary and Romania were prodded into resolving their long-standing ethnic dispute in Transylvania in order to qualify for EU and NATO membership. Indeed, Serbia's government now says that it wants to become a full-fledged member of the EU-NATO community of nations, a welcome change from the past, when it wallowed in victimhood and spouted self-defeating nationalist rhetoric. And in the Middle East, increased funds for peacekeeping forces, humanitarian aid, and trade and investment programs could yield new incentives to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians -- perhaps including shared security partnerships with NATO and an open trading zone with the EU. Israel's president, Shimon Peres, has often visited Brussels seeking to draw lessons from Europe's postwar reconciliation in the hope of one day establishing a common market in the Middle East.

Preparing for future threats will be just as important, and it will require imaginative policymaking. Burgeoning conflicts over cybersecurity and Internet freedoms have already emerged as a new source of tension with China and Russia. The World Bank expects demand for food to rise by 50 percent over the next two decades; at least 36 countries will be desperately short of crops or fresh water within the next ten years; and scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predict that in the coming decade, up to 250 million Africans could face starvation or drought because of lower crop yields or a lack of fresh water supplies -- all of which could trigger new wars that would require EU and NATO intervention.

Meanwhile, the Arctic Circle has become a hotly contested region; according to the U.S. Geological Survey, it holds 13 percent of the world's remaining oil reserves and 30 percent of undiscovered but technically recoverable natural gas deposits. Moreover, world shipping routes will be transformed by new northern sea routes made possible by the melting polar icecap; these new sea-lanes will shave thousands of nautical miles and up to seven days of travel time off current routes through the Suez and Panama canals. Given the competing claims of Arctic nations, notably Norway and Russia, and the absence of clear international rules, the rush to control new energy resources and shorter shipping routes could lead to armed confrontation. Together, the EU and NATO could take the lead in enforcing an Arctic agreement under the aegis of the United Nations. Finally, when it comes to combating terrorism, NATO could work more directly with the EU to connect national criminal databases and use the EU's special powers to seize the financial assets of suspected criminals. All these challenges will require a much higher degree of creativity and cooperation between Europe and the United States in order to minimize the risk that military conflicts will spread to previously peaceful parts of the world.

The enormous military, financial, and psychological burdens of fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade may give the U.S. government pause before it undertakes future overseas adventures, but Washington cannot afford to resort to isolationism. More than ever, the United States will need to share costs and burdens with allies while still maintaining an active military posture. Although Obama has vowed not to make any cuts to next year's $700 billion defense budget, he has made it clear that he expects NATO members to make greater contributions -- if not in the form of combat troops in Afghanistan, then certainly through development aid, police training, or education to help rebuild war-ravaged nations.


Merging the U.S. missions to the EU and NATO as quickly as possible is an important first step. Doing so would send both a substantive and a symbolic message to European leaders. At the same time, it would shatter old mindsets and encourage new approaches to dealing with security threats that require more than firepower. Today, many of the organizational structures of the State Department and the Pentagon are still rooted in Cold War thinking and have not fully adapted to twenty-first-century threats. A "Grand Europe" embassy that consolidated U.S. delegations could encourage European allies to conceptualize policy solutions to complex problems by drawing on resources from government agencies apart from the foreign and defense ministries -- for example, going beyond military force and border controls in dealing with such vexing challenges as illegal immigration and terrorist threats. Likewise, European efforts to bolster farm exports from North Africa could encourage the growth of local jobs in Morocco and Tunisia, thereby reducing the number of people who desperately try to cross the Mediterranean in search of work in Europe or fall under the sway of jihadist ideology at home. By helping raise living standards through innovative trade policies in Afghanistan and the Middle East, Europe and the United States could give potential terrorist recruits something to live for rather than something to die for -- a far more effective strategy than staging military assaults.

This approach would also encourage European countries -- the vast majority of which are both EU and NATO members -- to build a new strategic partnership with the United States that reaches beyond their respective foreign and defense ministries and draws instead on all their government resources, including agencies not usually associated with national security policy. Finally, in confronting today's threats -- whether they come from al Qaeda terrorists, Afghan heroin traffickers, Somali pirates, or Congolese warlords -- there will have to be closer coordination than ever before between federal agents and counterterrorism analysts in Washington and their counterparts in Europe.

The long-awaited passage of the Lisbon Treaty has further integrated the EU, allowing Brussels to finally focus on shaping a new European security strategy. Gone are the grandiose visions of building a United States of Europe with a multinational army, a single European seat on the UN Security Council, or a jointly administered nuclear arsenal. Although Europe still aspires to play a greater role on the world stage, it has little desire to project military power: over the past decade, defense budgets in Europe have steadily fallen to the point where the 27 EU nations combined spend only $300 billion on their militaries -- under two percent of their collective GDP and less than half the amount spent by the United States. European countries profess to maintain two million men and women under arms, yet only about 110,000 are capable of being deployed abroad. Beyond an absence of troops capable of fighting abroad, the EU lacks strategic transport planes that can carry heavy loads over long distances, which inhibits Europe's ability to project military power abroad. Washington's frequent pleas for European nations to build up their armed forces and modernize their arsenals have fallen on deaf ears at a time when many European voters see no enemy on the horizon. Having suffered two world wars on their continent in the past century, it is no surprise that Europeans now prize social welfare programs over funding national armies. They are much more willing to put their tax money behind the projection of soft power, in the form of development aid, educational assistance, and other tools to bolster civil society and democratic institutions in war-torn areas.

As the world's most successful experiment in multinational government, the EU boasts some of the world's highest living standards for its 500 million citizens, and its $16 trillion economy is larger than that of the United States. The EU also offers some of the world's most generous aid programs, encourages democratic reforms among those of its neighbors that aspire to become members, and provides a good model of regional integration, which has been emulated in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Its military contributions to NATO pale in comparison to the United States', but they still matter: European nations have provided about one-third of the forces in Afghanistan and have suffered about 40 percent of the fatalities there since 2001, according to NATO figures.

Still, Europe will never come close to acquiring the military power of the United States; its leaders and its voters have no desire or ambition to achieve that goal. Since Europe is prepared to pour its tax money and resources into noncombat roles, the United States should encourage its European allies to do what they do best -- and what their people and their politicians are willing to support. Washington must accept that European leaders will almost always choose the soft-power option, leaving the exercise of hard power to the United States. In nearly all cases, that will mean that the United States will continue to assume the dominant role in supplying military firepower, while Europe steps up its extensive aid efforts in such fields as economic reconstruction, police training, health care, and education.


The prospects for Western success in conducting counterinsurgency efforts in failing states will improve dramatically if the NATO military command structure and the well-funded EU foreign aid programs learn to cooperate. Afghanistan is a case in point: in January, German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded to Obama's urgent appeals for more troops by sending only 500 additional soldiers. However, she doubled Berlin's development aid to Kabul and provided an extra $70 million to help entice Taliban insurgents to lay down their arms. This is a classic case of how Europe's most powerful nation, Germany, always opts to spend money on development programs rather than troop deployments. Given their history, Germans are even less willing than other Europeans to allow NATO to become an "expeditionary alliance" -- as former President George W. Bush once prescribed.

A new initiative to pair EU and NATO institutional resources in ways that combine U.S. military capabilities with Europe's economic and political clout will not please everybody. In Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers look with scorn at their European counterparts, whose governments have imposed stringent rules of engagement. (Among U.S. soldiers, the initials for the NATO mission known as ISAF stand not for the International Security Assistance Force but rather for "I Saw Americans Fight.")

Yet the ongoing struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate that modern warfare does not depend completely on military prowess and technological wizardry. More than ever, the United States needs to recognize that its overwhelming firepower will not be the most effective tool in twenty-first-century warfare. Much of Europe's reluctance to follow the United States' lead in Afghanistan is based on the belief that military force, particularly when it results in civilian casualties, only produces more recruits for the Taliban. By embracing Europe's arguments in favor of economic reconstruction and civic development projects over the use of brute military strength in counterinsurgency missions, the United States can revive public faith in the most successful alliance in history.

Until now, the policies of Western nations toward the EU and NATO have rarely been coordinated. Foreign ministries still operate on separate tracks when sending instructions to their respective EU and NATO missions. Unless policymakers revolutionize their thinking, the West's most important institutions will be condemned to mediocrity and eventual irrelevance. It is time to give the EU and NATO a new lease on life by endowing them with a common transatlantic mission.

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  • WILLIAM DROZDIAK is President of the American Council on Germany, Senior Adviser for Europe at the international strategic consultancy McLarty Associates, and Founding Director of the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Center, in Brussels.
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