Anchoring the West: A Strategic Concept for Transatlantic Security

By Kupchan, Charles A. | Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Anchoring the West: A Strategic Concept for Transatlantic Security


Kupchan, Charles A., Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly


NATO has undergone a remarkable transformation since the end of the Cold War. Not only has the alliance persisted despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it has redefined its core purposes, extending democracy and stability into Central Europe, bringing peace to the Balkans, playing a major role in the effort to stabilize Afghanistan, and building a host of strategic partnerships in the Black Sea and Mediterranean regions. NATO has also demonstrated that it remains the primary institutional pillar of the West, consolidating the Atlantic democracies as a meaningful community of common interests and values. The durability of the alliance is testimony to the fact that North America and Europe remain each other's best partners. At the same time, making the most of the Atlantic partnership requires recognizing that in a world of diverse threats, NATO no longer enjoys the unity and solidarity that it did during the Cold War. Alliance members have diverging views of the nature and urgency of the operation in Afghanistan and have varying levels of capability to contribute to the mission, leading to an inequitable sharing of burdens. Disagreements have emerged across the Atlantic and within Europe on numerous other issues, including the future of NATO enlargement, alliance relations with Russia, and an appropriate division of labor between NATO and the European Union (EU). Such differences are hardly fleeting. Rather, they reflect alternative strategic visions for the alliance: the United States tends to see NATO as a tool for addressing global security challenges; members in Western Europe envisage NATO as a vehicle for tethering the United States to Europe and stabilizing and expanding Europe in step with the EU; Central European members focus more on the need to hedge against the potential resurgence of a threat from Russia.The alliance will not be able to overcome these deep-seated differences. Instead, members will need to learn how to tolerate them and strike reasonable compromises if NATO is to remain effective in the absence of a clear strategic consensus. The global nature of threats such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation begs the question of NATO's geographic and functional scope. In addition, the West, which has been the strategic pivot of global affairs since World War II, is confronted with the challenge of adapting the international system to the rise of China, India, and other powers. In this respect, the Atlantic democracies no longer have the luxury of focusing primarily on their own affairs, but must also address the role that the West should play in shaping the international order that comes next. In the analysis that follows, I lay out a risk-averse approach to NATO's future one based upon the supposition that it is preferable to conserve NATO's integrity by keeping its will and resources in balance with its commitments, rather than to tax the alliance with responsibilities that risk compromising its credibility and coherence. NATO should continue to anchor the West while the Atlantic democracies address a global agenda, but efforts to turn NATO into a global alliance risk stretching it past the breaking point. Instead, NATO should serve as a model for and assist with defense cooperation and integration in other regions, meanwhile putting its focus on seeing through its mission in Afghanistan and addressing unfinished business in the broader European theater: improving its operational capability, in particular by strengthening its European pillar; locking in peace in the Balkans; deepening ties to partner countries to the south and east; building a more cooperative relationship with Russia; and addressing unconventional threats such as cyber-attack, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism. I begin by discussing NATO's core purposes, then turn to NATO's role in Europe and its responsibilities beyond the Euro-Atlantic area, and end with a brief reflection on Congress and the alliance.

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