Since the end of the Cold War, and particularly since September 11, 2001, the United States has been engaged in a slow but steady review of its international alliances. Skeptics question whether fixed relationships with traditional partners are really helpful in dealing with contemporary challenges; supporters argue that they continue to advance U.S. interests and are crucial components of a stable world order. The debate has touched on every element of the U.S. global alliance system, but it has focused on the transatlantic relationship in particular.

NATO has long been something more than the sum of its parts. Designed in part to transcend old-fashioned balance-of-power politics within Europe, it has evolved over the years into a deep-rooted institution with a commitment to democratic values and practices that, along with its unique, integrated military structure, sustains it even at times when its members' short-term strategic calculations diverge. In the wake of the bitter dispute over the war in Iraq, however, it is unclear whether the transatlantic partners are ready and willing to overcome their differences and reaffirm their basic common interests in security and other relations: the essence of the NATO alliance.

The United States, in recent years, has conducted a major experiment in foreign policy. The Bush administration, taking its cue from the country's unprecedented relative power position and lack of a major geopolitical rival, has sought to sally forth against its enemies largely alone. This approach looks less attractive in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, however, as the American people seem reluctant to embrace the diplomatic, financial, and psychological costs of a brusque unilateralism. They do not necessarily agree that the United States should do whatever it wants simply because it can, without embedding its actions in a framework of international institutions and law and without sharing burdens with others. Short of responding to a direct attack on the homeland, the American people are now less likely than before Iraq to support military action that does not demonstrably further their interests and values and that cannot attract a reasonable cross-section of other Western powers. Thus the value of the experiment in unilateralism, if it had a value, was that it showed the limits of such an approach. Although the United States still has the will and temper to meet important challenges, it has no taste for empire. This is an important lesson for whoever guides U.S. foreign policy. It applies particularly in the Middle East where, like it or not, the United States has to be engaged for the long haul and most Americans do not want to go it alone.

A further lesson is that there continues to be inestimable value in embedding what the United States does in a broader set of alliance relationships, both to gain added insurance against failure and to reduce risks and costs to the United States. No one can legitimately question the U.S. right to act on its own if its security is clearly threatened-as universal allied approval of and significant support for U.S. actions in Afghanistan attest. But in other cases, Washington not only gains from having partners but also gives up little in return, since, in the final analysis, none of the allies and few others can afford to have the United States fail when something important is at stake.

Because of domestic attitudes and foreign benefits, therefore, it is not correct to say that acting in an alliance limits U.S. options. In fact, as the wars in both Bosnia and Kosovo show, embedding its strategic purpose within an alliance can enhance Washington's options to act militarily in those cases when the American people are loath to act alone.


The question remains whether the United States is better off-in the Middle East and perhaps in other parts of the world where members of the NATO alliance could reasonably be expected to have an interest-working through NATO or through "coalitions of the willing."

The latter approach does offer greater flexibility, provided that the number and character of the coalition partners both promise to be effective and are convincing to the American people (as have not been the case in postwar Iraq). But working through NATO, where that proves possible, has the potential benefit of getting allies to do things they might not otherwise have done, just to ensure the long-term preservation and reliability of the alliance itself and the United States' continued, critical commitment to it.

Washington has to be careful about relying on such an inclination, however: there are limits to how far others will go simply to preserve alliance harmony, especially if Europeans believe that U.S. actions merely reflect the country's immediate preferences as opposed to their judgment about its underlying interests-a distinction behind much of the European opposition to the war in Iraq. Even during the Cold War, the United States found that it could never credibly threaten to withdraw its support for European security if the allies refused to support controversial U.S. actions in other theaters (for example, in Vietnam).

Furthermore, the United States needs to understand that Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, committing one for all and all for one, still has a powerful impact in European politics and in promoting NATO's underlying cohesion. Its salience in Europe argues against debasing the currency of NATO by stressing a preference for coalitions of the willing and talking about NATO as a "toolbox" rather than drawing on its integrated military structure. Indeed, this helps to explain European sensitivities about being initially rebuffed over Afghanistan: it was a matter of NATO politics and psychology, not of military strategy.

If the United States looked more to the preferences of the alliance as a whole, rather than simply its own wishes, in dealing with the Middle East, it would incur fewer casualties, spend less money, and gain more domestic political support. In return, however, it would have to be willing to accept the widespread European demand, not just for adequate consultations and some U.S. accommodation, but also for a basic sharing of influence and decision-making as well as risk and responsibility.

Two specific requirements for gaining European cooperation in the Middle East stand out. The first is assurance that Washington has abandoned its requirement of regime change in Tehran as the price of Iran's readmission to international political commerce-a demand that many Europeans would argue fuels Iran's ambitions to gain nuclear weapons. A widespread view in Europe is that the United States, and by extension the Europeans, would benefit from an Iran that could play a valid role in regional security, as opposed to the United States, and by implication the Europeans, continuing to assume all the burdens themselves. It is one thing, in the European view, to want Iran to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons and support for terrorism; it is another to try to eliminate Iran as an independent actor in the Middle East. Virtually all Europeans would argue that the balance of costs and benefits argues persuasively against the latter.

The other key Middle East issue is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For almost all Europeans, driving the peace process to a successful conclusion is a strategic imperative, necessary for depriving al Qaeda and other terrorists of a potent symbol for recruitment, for enlisting regional states and populations in Iraq and elsewhere in crucial security efforts, and for European governments to deal effectively with Muslim populations at home. A successful conclusion to the process would yield peace and security for both Israel and a Palestinian state; it can be achieved, however, only if the United States pushes it forward-and, in the European view, preferably by embracing the so-called Geneva Process, which, rather than prescribing open-ended negotiations, defines the precise outcome of peace. Unless the United States is prepared to devote itself constantly and consistently to making peace, other efforts to work out common approaches with the Europeans on the full range of Middle East issues, or even to secure acquiescence in U.S. policies and approaches, will be far more difficult.

In exchange, the United States can make its own demands. Last year, the EU adopted a security strategy that set priorities for concern: terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, regional conflicts, state failure, and organized crime. The United States can relate to these threats and challenges. But are the Europeans-and the EU specifically-serious in responding to them in ways that make sense in the United States? Other than on terrorism and containing conflict in the Balkans, the evidence is mixed. The way the Bush administration went about its war in Iraq is used by some Europeans as an excuse not to face up to the fact that, like it or not, Washington and its allies now have no choice but to spend the next couple of decades successfully sorting out the Middle East. Continuing to blame the United States is no more an answer to the future than is U.S. fault-finding about the Europeans.


What is happening in the Middle East and within NATO argues strongly for a reconsideration of what is meant by "alliance," at least in the North Atlantic context. NATO was preeminent during the Cold War as an instrument of U.S. and Western power and purpose in Europe and in the confrontation with the Soviet Union. Containment began as a broad and largely diplomatic and economic approach, but after the Korean War its military aspects came to the fore.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, much of what NATO has done to promote security in Europe has once again been diplomatic as much as military, with initiatives such as the Partnership for Peace and the NATO-Russia Council-to say nothing of NATO enlargement, which is essentially a security commitment and diplomatic embrace rather than a military effort. The provision of "security" in the North Atlantic area has, in recent years, involved rebalancing instruments, with greater emphasis on the political and economic and a lesser emphasis on the active military, all the while preserving the essential Article 5 guarantee and integrated command structure.

For NATO to be effective beyond Europe-and hence to be perceived in Washington as having continuing utility as a forward-looking alliance-its European members must step up to the mark in terms of military modernization far more than most have been prepared to do. This includes meeting requirements in Afghanistan, now that NATO has assumed responsibility for the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force; making the NATO Response Force effective; and bolstering capacities in strategic air and sea lift, logistics, and C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance).

Indeed, Afghanistan has become a test case for NATO, even beyond any considerations in the United States regarding the alliance's continued utility: all its members have a stake in Afghanistan's not becoming NATO's first-ever failure. But along with greater efforts and a resolute commitment to success, allies on both sides of the Atlantic also need some patience and perspective, including recognition of the extraordinary shifts in focus, capabilities, and action that the alliance has achieved in the few short years since the Cold War military rationale for cooperation collapsed.

In terms of dealing with the underlying problems of the Middle East, beginning with reconstruction in Iraq but extending far beyond, nonmilitary approaches and nonmilitary relationships are likely to be as crucial in the long run as military security is in the short run. In fact, properly understood, the two are interdependent and inseparable. This argues for a new set of relations between the United States and the EU regarding areas and functions beyond Europe and the North Atlantic-a new strategic partnership that would complement NATO.

The United States and the EU represent the world's largest agglomeration of stable democracies, large economies, well-educated and outward-looking populations, advanced technology sectors, and active nongovernmental organizations. They form a natural community, the common interests and values of which should be institutionalized in a nonmilitary organization that could operate in the realms of economics, politics, society, and culture. The partnership should cooperate on addressing not only the challenges of political reform in the Middle East, but also the nonmilitary aspects of counterterrorism and counterproliferation, economic and social development, education, and health there and elsewhere.

It is time to move beyond older and simpler definitions of alliances and understand the need for the United States and Europe to integrate and bring to bear the full range of their instruments of power. NATO was restructured in the 1990s to deal with the issues remaining on the agenda of classic twentieth-century security. For the last few years, it has been in the process of being refashioned to deal with the emerging security problems of the twenty-first century, primarily emanating from beyond Europe, with instruments such as the NATO Response Force and the new Allied Command Transformation. Increasingly, therefore, NATO is ready and able to act, if not yet entirely willing. The added element needs to be a new nonmilitary institution that could do all the things that NATO cannot-and with tight linkages between the two.

Supplementing the transformation and modernization of NATO with a new U.S.-EU strategic partnership could help transform not only key areas of the world in deep difficulty, but also transatlantic relations. The United States and Europe have complementary and mutually reinforcing capabilities. A year and a half after the capture of Baghdad, it should be apparent that the United States will be better able to achieve its strategic and political purposes, in regions impinging on the interests and values of European states as well as its own, by reaching first for alliance and not independent action-acting together with others when it can, alone only when it must.

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
  • Robert E. Hunter is a Senior Adviser to the Rand Corporation. From 1993 to 1998, he served as U.S. Ambassador to NATO.
  • More By Robert E. Hunter