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The EU And NATO, Side By Side

December 14, 2011

The European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were arguably the two most important trans-national organizations that shaped post-war Europe. Although the two are sometimes confused in Americans’ minds, throughout the Cold War they had very different goals. NATO arose as a collective security organization designed to guard against the Soviet threat. It essentially functioned as an American security umbrella over Western Europe. The EU (and its predecessors, the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community), on the other hand, has mainly pushed an agenda of economic integration.

Although there had been proposals early on to expand this economic integration into political and military spheres, nothing much came of them. The very existence of NATO made the ideas for a military component of the European Economic Community somewhat redundant. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War altered the geopolitical calculations. The elimination of the Soviet Union as an existential threat to Western Europe made many observers question what NATO’s purpose should be in the new world order. The collapse of the Soviet threat also made many Europeans feel that they no longer needed to rely on American protection to such an extent.

The Treaty of Maastricht, which officially created the European Union in 1993, also for the first time incorporated foreign and security policy (known in EU jargon as the Common Foreign and Security Policy, or CFSP) into the organization’s remit. There were several motivations for wanting to create a more unified EU foreign policy. The first was the assumption that speaking with a more unified voice on the world stage would help the EU achieve its economic and political goals more easily. Second, some states, mainly France, wished to reduce the European reliance on America. For them, a more robust defense and security component to the EU would help displace the American-dominated NATO.

The EU was criticized for standing by and watching during the ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslav conflicts in the 1990’s. When Western forces did finally intervene militarily in Bosnia (and later in Kosovo), it was mostly American-led NATO forces that carried out the operations. The EU did play an important role in post-conflict peacekeeping missions, however, with the European Police Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo. In recent years, however, the EU has engaged in several military missions, mostly in Africa. In 2007 the Council approved the deployment of several thousand soldiers from EU member states to Chad and the Central African Republic to protect Sudanese refugees who had fled across the border. See this article (opens pdf) by Bjoern H. Seibert for an excellent analysis of this operation and its implications. The European External Action Service has a full list of the various EU peacekeeping and military missions here.

The response by American policymakers to the EU’s military operations has been varied. On the one hand, many proponents of NATO worry that a growing EU assertiveness in its CFSP might make the two organizations competitors (opens pdf). Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, for example, has been a vocal proponent of expanding NATO eastward towards the Russian border. Lugar also urged NATO to play a more active role in European energy policy, perhaps in response to frustration over the EU’s lack of a unified policy and Europe’s heavy reliance on Russian gas. Some scholars, however, have argued (opens pdf) that a reinvigorated EU CFSP is in America’s interests and should not be viewed as a competitor of NATO.

Do the EU, NATO, and UN have competing or complementary functions? What are the potential costs and benefits of a strengthened EU military and defense role? Should the U.S. be supportive of or apprehensive about these developments?

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