NATO’s Angry Sponsors: The View From Capitol Hill

By Owen Pengelly

Not so long ago, received opinion amongst NATO governments was that the Prague conference had settled the Alliance firmly into its new role of vehicle for democratic expansion and bulwark against the new century’s new threats.

The lead in to the coalition attack on Iraq, however, certainly damaged NATO’s prestige in the capital of the United States, dominant leader of the coalition that effected regime change in Baghdad. Yet, before the Iraq crisis, and even before the Prague Summit, Representative Henry Hyde (Republican – Illinois), Chair of the House International Relations Committee, said Congress finds itself “watching the beginnings of an unraveling of the Atlantic relationship. By the Atlantic relationship, I mean something more than just NATO. I mean the entire complex of connections between North America and Europe, the close identity of interests, that we and our allies have constructed out of the ashes of World War II”.[1]

In May 2002, Senator Richard Lugar, Republican from Indiana and Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed his concern about the ability of NATO to keep up with the United States’ advancing military capabilities, “The problem we face in NATO today is not just one of capabilities but of purpose. The two are inextricably linked and one cannot be solved without addressing the other”.[2] The Iraq crisis brought this issue of “purpose” to the fore by revealing deeper policy differences between the United States and Europe.

The Turkish Catalyst
The crisis over Iraq simply made relations worse. The fact that Turkey, a NATO ally, could have a request for mutual defense assistance, based on a common threat (an Article 4 request under the North Atlantic Treaty), turned down by the alliance has seriously damaged NATO’s credibility amongst US legislators. Because Belgium, France, and Germany initially denied Turkey’s routine request for NATO assets to defend against a possible Iraqi attack, the Alliance had to move its decision-making into the Defence Planning Committee – of which France is not a member – for NATO to finally reach agreement on supporting Turkey.

Equally damaging in the eyes of some Hill staff has been the lack of rapprochement since then: anger has largely taken the place of the traditional assertions of eternal friendship that usually begin the bridge-building process after an intra-alliance dispute. Instead, one Hill staffer said recently, “The Belgians don’t have many friends over here”.[3]

Freedom Fries
According to one official, looking beneath the veneer of popular Francophobia embodied in the ‘Freedom Fries’ episode and approaching recent French actions over Iraq with the intellectual framework of balance-of-power diplomacy can yield revealing results. Hitherto mostly restricted to the op-ed pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times, the idea that the French have been making a concerted effort at ‘institutional balancing’ of US power through the available means of NATO and the United Nations is gaining adherents. Although overt criticism of Germany has diminished considerably since the recent Washington visit of the Christian Democratic Union’s Angela Merkel, suspicion of French actions has only increased in recent months.[4]

An Organization in Flux
NATO has always derived strength from its formidable institutional momentum. Lately, however, that momentum has been subject to the braking force of some major instances of institutional turmoil that have derived extra significance from the Turkish imbroglio.

Popular consensus-building Secretary General George Robertson has announced his intention to retire, despite the entreaties of member nations to stay on in the role for a fourth year. Although US legislators do not view his decision as being destructive for NATO, it threatens to deprive the alliance of a vital and genial pole of stability at a time when the institution can ill afford to lose a figure so popular in Washington.

Also embodying the sense of flux that prevails over NATO is the new SACEUR US Marine General James Jones. A talented and highly respected soldier, General Jones is NATO’s first Marine Corps Supreme Commander and brings with him a Corps tradition of relatively Spartan 6-month deployment cycles that stands at odds with the three-year ‘families included’ tradition of other branches of the military. General Jones’ appointment added to speculation that the United States would abandon most large-scale German military bases in favour of ‘skeletal’ establishments in the image of Kosovo’s prefabricated Camp Bondsteel further east.[5]

Overshadowing Enlargement
As a follow-up to the Prague Summit, the Protocols of Accession for the countries of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, were signed as amendments to the North Atlantic Treaty in March and now await approval by current NATO countries. In May, the US Senate ratified enlargement as part of this process. While Democrat and Republican Senators asked questions about these countries’ usefulness for the Alliance in hearings leading up to the ratification, they took a considerable amount of time to ask questions about the purpose and utility of NATO as a whole. In an opening statement by Senator Carl Levin (Democrat – Michigan) during a hearing on the Military Implications of NATO Enlargement and Post-Conflict Iraq on 10 April 2003, he raised the issue of whether NATO needs to have the option of suspending the membership of a country “that was no longer committed to the fundamental values of the Alliance”, which suggests displeasure with the behaviour of current members.

Attempts are being made to heal the transatlantic relationship. Representative Doug Bereuter (Republican from Nebraska and current President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly) said there is, “… more moderation and more effort to sustain a working consensus within the NATO countries in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly … [W]e [can] take back that kind of sentiment and that kind of constructive approach to our parliaments or, in our case, the Congress”.[6]

Henry Hyde’s comments back in 2001, however, were prophetic, “That [transatlantic] relationship is fraying. Slowly, quietly, it is being hollowed out, even as the responsible officials solemnly reaffirm their commitment. There is no crisis to compel action, but I fear that should a crisis come, it will be too late”. This remark still clearly reflects the feeling of some of NATO’s Congressional sponsors.[7]

[1] Opening Statement by Chairman Henry J. Hyde, House International Relations Committee, 7 March 2001, URL
, version current on 13 June 2003. Aide reaffirmed Hyde’s sentiments in March 2003.

[2] Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Future of NATO, 1 May 2002, URL, version current on 13 June 2003.

[3] Interview with author. Since that remark was made, Belgium and the United States have come to blows over Belgian war crimes charges filed against US General Tommy Franks for the US prosecution of the Iraq War, including “indiscriminate shooting” by US troops and failure to prevent some looting of hospitals in Iraq. General Richard Myers, the US Joint Chief of Staff, has said that NATO would need to move from its Brussels headquarters if these types of charges were permitted by Belgium (Wastell, D., “America Threatens to Move NATO After Franks is Charged”, The Telegraph, 18 May 2003).

[4] The Pentagon has gone a step beyond “renaming” French fries by not issuing an invitation to France to participate in next year’s Air Force exercise in Nevada (“US to Review Ties with France”, BBC, 22 May 2003, URL , version current on 3 June 2003.

[5] This is indeed what has been proposed. The United States plans to reduce its troop presence in Germany and shift troops to Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus (Jaffe, G. “In a Massive Shift, US Plans to Reduce Troops in Germany”, Wall Street Journal, 10 June 2003, p. 1).

[6] Knox, K. “NATO: Parliamentary Assembly Discusses Iraq War and Its Consequences”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 26 May 2003, URL, version current on 13 June 2003.

[7] Opening Statement by Chairman Henry J. Hyde, 7 March 2001.

Owen Pengelly is the Associate Director of the Atlantic Partnership.

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