NATO, how can it evolve to the challenges of the 21st century?

By Benjamin Bardos, Core Writers’ Group

European military commitments amidst the now yearlong war in Ukraine have increased exponentially, however, not equally alongside that of the United States. To strengthen the alliance, both to persevere against the Russian threat and to deter the Chinese threat, improving the standing of European military capabilities is indispensable.

It has to be acknowledged that doing so is an increasingly precarious position for the US, as a key issue lies at the heart of any large-scale US-led support towards European militaries. That being growing European aspirations for European Strategic Autonomy (EU-SA), specifically to decrease Europe’s security dependence on the US. However, it has been evident that an internal EU-led initiative to do so is overdue to EU-SA having been plagued by political inflexibility and a general lack of results.

Therefore, it poses the question of what role can the US take in strengthening the European pillar of NATO. One answer could be C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) capabilities, as nowadays in the 21st century’s digital environment it lays the foundation of NNEC (NATO Network Enabled Capabilities) and effective modern integrated combined arms warfare. C4ISR was described as “a key concept to contribute to NATO success, including through closer cooperation with partners”. This is a capability the US military structures and industries are fairly familiar with and can also serve as the basis of bolstering European military capabilities.

A reason for C4ISR being a prime candidate for the basis of the US’s role in supporting Europe is because it can avoid duplication of resources through more effective coordination, and thereby allow for a rebalancing of responsibilities in the transatlantic security theater. The character of C4ISR allows for increasing the effectiveness of an overall force without a drastic increase in the personnel size of a military, largely because of it being a strategic enabler and its ability to be a force multiplier.

Developing strategic enabler capabilities would allow “Europe to become the first responder to most crises in its neighborhood” as it would be able to act as a more cohesive force instead of strategic assets being splintered across EU member states. Moreover, it would help achieve a key US objective by allowing the US assets to be shifted to the Indo-Pacific. Ultimately allowing for the alliance as a whole to be able to deter on multiple fronts through a delegation of areas of responsibility.

However, one such initiative will not form the hallmark for US support for EU-NATO militaries. Instead, a more broad and less technical approach is needed to be the bedrock for US support for European militaries. Perfectly situated for this role can be the concept of strategic responsibility (EU-SR). This concept would imply, instead of EU-SA’s notion of being able to act autonomously without the US, that European EU and NATO member states place the highest value on equal cooperation.

It is important to note that elements of EU-SA and EU-SR are shared. Both imply a greater fielded presence of European states in the grander transatlantic security theater, however, they differ in the ways both approach the US. The former, EU-SA, goes along the lines of a more independent European force with some instances highlighting separate strategic objectives to that of the US and NATO. Meanwhile, EU-SR embodies open defense cooperation as its highest value rather than institutionalizing autonomy.

Bolstering European military capabilities both tactically and strategically within an open and cooperative framework in a transatlantic context makes it more flexible to geopolitical tides. Moreover, while ensuring a militarily capable and autonomous force on the battlefield, it needs to be ensured that it does not divorce North America and Europe in the grander sense of military policy and respective coordination.

This policy decision bears heavily not only on the current security crisis in Europe with Russia’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine but also on the growing tug of war with China. Crucially because Europe’s willingness to cooperate with the US against China will be of paramount importance. Europe is a key market for Chinese exports and more importantly is in the center of the conflict due to the economic war over semiconductor chips.

Overall, neither the US nor Europe should intend to pursue a hawkish and staunch national interest-prioritized foreign policy against one another. In a time where the very essence of the post-WW2 legal order is being challenged, a compromise amongst allies instead of bickering over national pride is needed. Importantly, this implies concessions from both the US and Europe.

Europe has to recognize that the post-USSR tranquility is no longer a reality, meanwhile the US has to accept its European partners as equals in order to uphold Western values in the face of increasingly growing authoritarian challenges. For that, coordinating military policy in a manner that places the highest value on open and equal cooperation through EU-SR can serve as the foundation of a more extensive cooperation across the Atlantic.

Benjamin Bardos is a member of the European Horizons Core Writers’ Team. He is a Tilburg University student reading Global Law, specifically involved with research in the fields of defense policy, military law, and macro-economics.



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