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In the early postwar period, the North Atlantic Alliance was created with a strategic mission directed against the Soviet Union that remained powerful for more than 40 years. With the disappearance of that central organizing mission and of the USSR itself, the strength and effectiveness of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are eroding because of a growing divergence in perceptions of national interests and policy priorities between the United States and its European allies. The four-year crisis in Bosnia has underscored this divide, but NATO's difficulties lie deeper. The United States faces a new global international security agenda. Events in Europe, while noteworthy, are no longer as central to American concerns. The European allies of the United States in NATO, however, remain focused on stabilizing the Continent. In strategic terms, Western Europe remains insular if not isolationist.
This structural problem lies at the root of the alliance's current problems. There is a fundamental mismatch between U.S. strategic priorities and what the alliance currently does. Similarly, there is a parallel disconnect between what the Europeans want the United States to do in Europe and the commitments the American political elite and public are willing to undertake. This article proposes to resolve that mismatch through a new transatlantic security bargain as ambitious as the one that drove NATO for more than four decades. In attempting to reharmonize vital interests on the two sides of the Atlantic, that prospective bargain would commit the United States to full engagement in the future security of Europe as a whole. The United States would continue to support the enlargement of NATO to Eastern Europe and would also be willing to participate in future peacekeeping and peace-enforcement missions, including the use of U.S. ground troops, to help stabilize the Continent.
In return, the allies would enter into a long-term partnership with the United States to address key dangers to Western vital interests outside Europe, particularly the vulnerability of Persian Gulf energy and the dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction. In short, NATO would enlarge to Eastern Europe as well as enhance its missions to include these extra-European threats. Such a fundamental transformation of NATO would require a thoroughgoing reform of NATO's structures and procedures in order to make such commitments credible and effective and could not be accomplished without prolonged and adroit leadership by the American president, with strong support from the U.S. Congress.
Transatlantic Vital Interests and Threats
As NATO approaches both its 50th anniversary and a new century, alliance members continue to share enduring vital interests even though the cold war is over and the Soviet military threat has disappeared:
* defending against a renewed hegemonic threat to Europe;
* preventing the return of European rivalry or even military competition and conflict and the renationalization of European politics and defense policies;
* halting or at least slowing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and missile systems to deliver them;
* maintaining access to Persian Gulf oil at reasonable prices; and
* promoting an open international trade and financial system.
Although these common transatlantic vital interests have persisted into the new epoch, some threats to them have disappeared, some have become more acute, and some have remained essentially unchanged. Fortunately, there is no hegemonic danger to the Continent at present. So in this case North America and Western Europe have a shared vital interest with no threat to it. That is only good news, and governments and publics on both sides of the Atlantic should exult at this strategic reality, the like of which has not been seen in more than 60 years.
With respect to the second vital interest, there are fears that the demise of the Soviet Union and the disengagement of the United States from Europe could halt European integration and rekindle the forces of nationalism, thus bringing on the return of history. Although few see this as an immediate threat, the rise of nationalism in the Balkans, in Russia, and, to a lesser degree, in Eastern Europe and elsewhere has reinforced this long-term concern. In any case, with respect to the first two vital interests shared across the Atlantic, there is no threat to one and only a nagging worry regarding the other.
Not all threats, however, have gone so gently into the night. The danger of the detonation of a nuclear device or another weapon of mass destruction on the soil of Western Europe or the United States has increased since the end of the cold war. There are tens of thousands of weapons and very large quantities of nuclear material in the Russian stockpile whose safety and security remain in doubt. Imagine if only three weapons leaked from that enormous arsenal into the hands of rogue states or terrorists who wanted to destroy large parts of Paris, London, Berlin, or New York.
Moreover, we know that Saddam Hussein sought to acquire nuclear weapons before the Persian Gulf War. He would undoubtedly do so again if given the opportunity. Iran is engaging in a similar nuclear effort, and it remains unclear if the North Korean program will be permanently capped and what will happen to Pyongyang's nuclear devices if they already exist. The technology of ballistic missile delivery systems is also leaking into the international arena, including into areas of perennial conflict such as the Middle East and South Asia. Within a decade, if not sooner, it is likely that every capital in southern Europe will be within range of ballistic missiles based in North Africa or the Middle East. So in the case of containing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the transatlantic community shares a vital interest and faces a serious and indeed growing threat to that interest.
The same duality of vital interest and serious threat exists with respect to energy from the Persian Gulf. Over the medium term, the threat to Gulf oil supplies may have diminished in the past several years: the Soviet Union no longer projects its destabilizing influence into the region; Desert Storm gravely weakened Iraq's military machine and exposed its nuclear program to destruction and outside monitoring by the United Nations (UN); and the interim agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), at least at this writing, promise to reduce the salience of the Arab-Israeli problem in the Gulf oil equation.
Nevertheless, the United States and its allies face a variety of clear and present threats to this fourth shared vital interest - all of which are likely to grow. Saddam Hussein is down but not out. Iran condemns the essence of Western culture, is on the road to acquiring nuclear weapons, and seeks to undermine the West's friends in the area. The moderate Arab regimes and especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states are vulnerable to a rising tide of Islamic extremism that could only be bad for the West. Algeria could explode at any moment and have a destabilizing effect on North Africa and the entire Middle East, especially Egypt but also Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates. And modern conventional weapons continue to flow into the region.
The fifth and final vital transatlantic interest - an open international trading and financial system - faces no small number of threats in the long term but appears at the moment to be in one of the more placid phases in U.S.-European relations. Although Japan remains a serious problem for both sides of the Atlantic with respect to the promotion of this shared vital interest, North America and Western Europe appear to be working collegially through the appropriate economic institutions to further this interest and diminish the dangers. The unraveling of transatlantic cooperation, however, could damage this shared vital interest as well.
Interests/Threats and the North Atlantic Alliance
We have two purposes in enumerating this brief catalogue of the shared vital interests of the United States and Europe and the serious threats they face. First, it should bring to mind how much stake both sides of the Atlantic have in continuing the closest possible security partnership to advance these interests and to deal with these dangers. But the second implication of this analysis is much less cheering. Notice how little NATO today - in contrast to its preeminent role in deterring the USSR - has to do with meeting the serious and specific threats to these five common transatlantic vital interests. The alliance currently has firm commitments from its members to meet the least plausible threats to its vital interests and only mushy, ad hoc, or no obligations to counter the most likely contingencies. Therein lies the worrisome situation to which we now proceed.
The North Atlantic Alliance is history's most successful political-military grouping of like-minded states. In a fundamental sense, …