NATO: What’s in it for the United States

by Ambassador Martin Erdmann on February 13, 2013

Since the concept was first presented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Foreign Policy magazine in November 2011, the “pivot” to Asia has haunted America’s European allies. Some of these countries wonder whether the United States will turn its back on Europe during President Obama’s second term. Is Europe “finished business” for the foreign policy of the United States? And will this new foreign policy priority lead the United States to neglect the robust and long standing transatlantic relations epitomized by NATO?

The European reaction to the pivot to Asia seems to have puzzled Washington. In November 2012, only a year after her article appeared in Foreign Policy, Secretary Clinton assured Europeans in a speech at the Brookings Institution that the envisaged strategic shift will not imply forgetting about the United States’ staunchest allies. In her remarks entitled “On the U.S. and Europe: A Revitalized Global Partnership,” she underlined the uniqueness of U.S.–European strategic commonalities and interests in the globalized world of the 21st century. When referring to Asia, she even carefully avoided the term “pivot,” which is more and more being replaced by “rebalancing.”

From an American perspective, the relevant question in this context seems to be: when it comes to the transatlantic relationship, especially as embodied by NATO, what’s in it for us?

From a purely military perspective, the United States does not need its European allies. America is the only remaining superpower in the world, with military capabilities that are second to none. The United States is not, and will not be, dependent on anyone else’s military capacities. Allied military support, like that provided in Afghanistan or the Balkans in the 1990s, may be considered helpful, but has never been decisive. A superpower by definition has to be capable of independent military action. This consideration does not belittle European defense capabilities or fuel the burden-sharing debate. It is a sheer fact of life. But there are plenty of other benefits of NATO as well.

First, the transatlantic relationship is unique. The twenty-six European NATO allies and Canada are not only Washington’s closest allies in the world, they are also “all-weather” allies. It is a time-tested relationship, from the very frigid days of the Cold War through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rebuilding of the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe into independent and sovereign democracies, which for many years now have enjoyed NATO membership. The Alliance is an essential source of stability in an unpredictable world. As as a global power, America desperately needs this shore of stability and economic prosperity on the other side of the Atlantic, so close to a region of instability such as the Middle East. Of course, the U.S. has other staunch allies of the United States around the world, but they are either in volatile parts of the world or don’t have the power and coordination of a collective security network such as NATO, which brings twenty-eight allies to the table on a daily basis.

Second, NATO allies contribute fundamentally to the legitimacy of U.S. foreign policy. The same set of values has made all of these allied societies so successful: democracy, the rule of law, human rights, the fight against corruption, and transnational standards, just to name a few. In today’s world the values that we enjoy are no longer held to be universal, yet they are the indispensable basis on which our nation-states are built and continue to inform our foreign policies. We can only succeed in lobbying for these values on the world stage if we do so together. Only by acting in concert can we bring to the fore the political and moral weight that will make us heard. Wherever we look, be it the United Nations, newly established fora such as the G20, or crisis management activities, including those of a military nature like in Afghanistan, the political support of NATO allies is indispensable for the United States. In most cases, all NATO allies sing from the same song sheet. (The case of Iraq in 2003 was more of an exception than the rule.)

Third, when the Transatlantic Alliance was founded in 1949, the world comprised 2.5 billion people, including roughly 800 million North Americans and Europeans. Today, the world has crossed the population threshold of seven billion, while North America and the European Union remain at nearly the same level: 900 million. China and India alone now account for as many human beings as the entire world in 1949. At the same time, the twenty-eight NATO nations generate more than fifty percent of global GDP. Our mutual economic interdependence and joint economic interests are so vital to all allied nations’ economic prosperity that we must act jointly to promote these common interests in a world where North Americans and Europeans have become a minority.

In sum, there is enormous value in the transatlantic relationship. And that is what the United States should see when it looks at NATO: a family of nations with very similar if not identical philosophies. Secretary Clinton was right to re-emphasize this broad basis of strategic and economic interests, among nations that share a long history, deep cultural ties, and cherished values. As she concluded, this “makes us natural partners in advancing our interests, both within Europe and throughout the world.”

That is what’s in it for the United States. European and NATO allies hope to see this philosophy as one Leitmotiv of the foreign policy of Obama II. Only then we will be able to show the rest of the world what’s in it for all of us.

* The views expressed by the author in this contribution are his own.

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