The Atlantic Alliance

Lawrence J. Korb
Lawrence J. Korb

In his remarks commemorating the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, French President Jacques Chirac observed, "Like all countries of Europe, France is keenly aware that the Atlantic alliance remains in the face of new threats a fundamental element of our collective security." For his part, President Bush insisted that – despite their differences over Iraq – France and the United States remain staunch allies, "History reminds us that France was America's first friend in the world."

These are nice words, but they obscure more than they reveal. What exactly is the Atlantic alliance? What are the common threats? How does one provide for collective security in the 21st century? What do staunch allies expect from each other in this day and age?

When Americans think of the Atlantic alliance, they normally think of the military partnership between the United States and Europe (i.e., NATO). But for European nations, like France, the Atlantic alliance is increasingly coming to mean the European Union. While an American general has and always will command NATO, the 25 nations of the European Union will soon begin deploying their own forces under the command of a European officer. Moreover, when NATO invoked its collective defense clause after 9/11 and was ready to participate as an alliance in the war in Afghanistan, the United States ignored Europe and toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan without NATO.

And while the American and Europeans continue to face common threats, they often perceive these threats differently. The chief example of this is terrorism. The United States has declared a global war on terrorism; whereas the Europeans view terrorism as a tactic that, as such, cannot itself be defeated. Rather, the threat comes from specific radical groups, like the al Qaeda network, which use terrorist tactics but have a global reach. Furthermore, as noted by Javier Solana, the former Secretary-General of NATO and now the person in charge of the European Union's foreign and defense policy, for Europeans the struggle against al Qaeda is a fight rather than a war.

How do we provide collective security? For the Bush administration, it means launching pre-emptive attacks against what it perceives as imminent threats and waging preventive wars against what it perceives as gathering dangers, with or without international approval; maintaining military dominance and global hegemony; and creating the free market democracies on the American model in the Arab and Muslim world.

For Europeans, on the other hand, pre-emption requires elegant or actionable intelligence and preventive wars demand international approval if they are to be seen as legitimate. Because of their own history, they are suspicious of hegemons and dominant powers (however well intentioned) and more concerned with improving the living standards of the people in the Arab and Muslim worlds through development assistance. Further, they want to give priority to brokering a just peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. For America the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad; for European and most Arabs it is just the opposite.

The real question is whether the United States, France and the rest of Europe can remain staunch allies or global partners as they did during the Cold War if they disagree about the institutional arrangements, the threat, and the means to deal with the threat? The answer is no. Though it is not in the interest of either the United States or Europe to sever their alliance, but this new selective partnership will be different from that which has existed since D-Day.

During the Cold War, the U.S. relationship with Europe was carried on through NATO. Economic differences were put aside to maintain the strategic relationship. Now that situation is reversed. Despite the attention given to Asian nations like China, Europe still remains America's largest trading partner – our largest source of foreign investment, and our favorite place to invest. For example, since the US invasion of Iraq, US investment in Europe has increased by 30 percent. As a result, the primary U.S.-European relationship must engage the European Union, be conducted on the basis of equality, and focus on specific issues.

This is actually a good outcome. American sacrifices at Normandy and during the Cold War were intended to make Europe whole and free. This has been accomplished and the threats to Europe (like the threats to the United States) come from outside the border. This is why the US will soon be moving some 70,000 troops from Germany. What we need is a debate, based on mutual respect, on how to deal with the external threat. The statements of Chirac and Bush are a good beginning, but will be meaningless if we go back to business as usual.

Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.