- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009


The lack of a significant role for NATO within Europe is causing a form of double jeopardy - it is diluting attention to NATO’s commitments far away in Afghanistan and it is attracting attention inside Europe to issues that should be debated in other contexts better suited for economic rather than military deliberation.

The worldwide economic crisis, the twin problems of energy security and climate change, and the non-military challenges in Afghanistan are but a few of the many sets of issues that are beyond the competence of NATO events like the upcoming NATO Summit.

That economic security issues deserve at least equal attention with military security issues should come as no surprise. After all, the Marshall Plan and the beginnings of a movement toward the European Union (EU) predate NATO by two years.

But as the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union grew to dominate EU-U.S. relations, the first line of defense - NATO - understandably commanded more attention than the annual U.S.-EU Summit. But new problems have emerged that NATO cannot solve and for which NATO can be a harmful diversion.

This is not to suggest that NATO should somehow be downgraded. To the contrary, it needs more assistance with its huge responsibility in Afghanistan. But the solution to the economic issues there resides outside NATO somewhere in the dialogue between the U.S. and the European Union that has atrophied over the past 30 years.

If there are two words that describe the Afghanistan problem, they are drugs (too many) and police (too few). Also critical are reconstruction and development.

The European Union is both primarily responsible for these non-military functions and much better suited to accomplish them. To do so requires a high degree of coordination with NATO and U.S. forces. But it has long been U.S. policy that any formal communication between the U.S. and Europe with respect to anything involving the military must go through NATO, lest such communication undermine the central pillar of the U.S.-EU relationship, which is NATO. The basis for this is both a matter of history and membership - the U.S. belongs to NATO but not the European Union.

But membership also has its problems on the other side of the Atlantic, where Turkey, a member of NATO but not the European Union, vetoes any formal communication between NATO and the European Union.

So voila - there you have it. The U.S. can only talk to Europe through NATO, but NATO cannot talk to the European Union, so the U.S. cannot formally talk to the European Union, at least about Afghanistan. Richard C. Holbrooke is said to be “appalled” by the military-civil separation in Afghanistan; this is part of the explanation.

Why Turkey vetoes formal NATO-EU communication is a complicated issue beginning with a lot of animosity involving little Cyprus and ending with a little bit of animosity involving much bigger France.

Untangling the difficulties would not only improve the situation in Afghanistan but benefit a great many other issues - not the least of which is more cooperation by Turkey and more interest by the European Union in their own common energy security needs vis-a-vis Russia.

These needs include, among others, transit for the huge gas reserves of the Caspian so they can go to Europe rather than Russia, which has demonstrated its ability now at least twice to yank Europe around.

The energy security gaps also have a tendency to interfere with dialogue over the closely related issues of climate change. There is anticipation in Europe that the Obama administration will cure all past U.S.-EU disconnects over climate change policy.

The cooperation no doubt will improve. But, as the initial, overwhelming 90-plus vote in the Senate in 1997 against the Kyoto treaty suggests, it is not necessarily partisanship which always complicates the dialogue. It also might be fruitful to examine the fact that the most visible platform for U.S.-EU talks on climate is a forum - NATO - which can do nothing about it.

One could go on at length without even touching on the financial crisis. That crisis is in part a security issue: Can military budgets be sustained? But again, there is not much NATO can do here, and we have yet to see a stable alternative structure emerge (though the G-20 format might work).

• C. Boyden Gray is the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

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