Anglosphere: The Old NATO show

By JAMES C. BENNETT  |  May 25, 2002 at 5:39 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 23 (UPI) -- For American presidents, Berlin has been a great stage. George W. Bush's speech this week paid homage to two of the best-known performances, John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" and Ronald Reagan's "Tear down this wall." But Bush's own performance, although credible, was no first-night opening.

Rather, it was repertoire theater, the latest performance of a show American presidents and secretaries of state have been taking on the European road tour for the past half-century.

Bush's creative interpretation was to update it by setting it in a different era. Orson Wells got traction, theatrically, by setting Julius Caesar in Mussolini's Italy. Bush updated The Alliance, or Europe and America Standing Together, by setting it in Afghan War camouflage rather than the traditional Central European tanker's gear.

Not a bad performance, actually. He hit all the right notes, including the obligatory nod to European integration no doubt written over at Foggy Bottom. Reading the transcript of the speech, however, what I and many other readers have to wonder is how much longer this show can go on. It has become to strategy what The Mousetrap has been to the stage.

So long as the taste of the audiences remained the same, The Mousetrap could run night after night to everybody's satisfaction. For strategic alliances, external circumstances do the job of audience taste. From 1948 to 1989, nothing much changed on the Central European Front. Think-tank denizens and futurists in those days published projections of NATO-Warsaw Pact balance of forces into the 2040s.

Since the Berlin Wall fell, and then the Soviet Union dried up and blew away, NATO has been wandering about seeking a purpose and justification. It seemed to find it in the Balkans. At first, the Europeanists thought that the conflicts of the dissolution of Yugoslavia would be an opportunity to build the European state, and the Clinton administration would have been happy if they had proven right. The failure of European institutions to resolve the Balkans crises on their own forced them to draw in the United States. NATO proved a useful framework for doing so.

Alliances, like other political entities, need narratives and justifications. The historical NATO narrative was simple and mutually satisfactory: when the Soviets came over the Elbe, the Americans would be there to fight, and hope that things didn't have to go nuclear. America was the senior partner, but treated the junior partners with reasonable respect. Despite the endgame problems with Pershing II and cruise missile deployment, the main players in Western Europe went along.

The search for a new post-Wall narrative was more problematic. The European idea was evolving into the idea of a "post-modern state," where the individual nation-states were to evolve into member-states of a rulebound international order. The European Union was no longer just a project for Europe; it was to be the model for the eventual destination of transnational governance. NATO was to be the police force for the European order. Eventually, a force for the world order would emerge.

America never bought into this narrative, but it never really generated an alternative either. The U.S. military itself took the view that real threats were still out there, and that enforcing international order was at best a distraction. The Clinton State Department, which had essentially bought into the European vision, discouraged any speculation along alternative lines.

Sept. 11, 2001, validated those who felt that real threats lay outside the universe of the postmodern international system. Proposals for treating al Qaida through that system fell on deaf ears in America. However, some Europeans and Americans saw in the post-September response the chance for a new definition and mission for NATO as a structure for addressing threats such as terrorism on a multilateral basis. Bush's Berlin speech set forth that vision, clearly acknowledging the need for a successor vision to the pre-1989 NATO, but also distinguishing it from the postmodern state vision.

Will the new narrative succeed? I suspect that it could only work if the vision were kept modest enough. America and Europe no longer share a enough of a common vision for NATO to remain America's main axis of military cooperation. America will remain stubbornly modern in its conception of national interest and appropriate state actions in pursuit of the same; it will count among its principal allies states such as Israel and Turkey who share such a perspective.

NATO could remain useful as a template for cooperation in those instances, probably about to become more rare, where the American vision and the European vision coincide. Certainly the mutual training, communications, and weapon standards NATO has established should be maintained, and NATO forces should continue to train together to maintain the prospect of interoperability.

However, America needs to prepare other axes of cooperation, ones which will permit it and its coalitions of the willing to interoperate smoothly when times demand it. The rest of the Anglosphere, and particularly Britain, Canada, and Australia are the question marks here.

Although much of Britain's governing elite has accepted the postmodernist theory of the state, the British people as a whole, and still many in its political circles, have not. The Falklands War was the quintessential modernist nation-state action, and in its own way marked Britain's own turning aside from the undisputedly postmodernist path it had seemed to have embarked upon since it joined the then-Common Market.

Similarly, although Canada's political elite fully subscribes to the postmodernist view of the state, it is, somewhat paradoxically, furiously sovereignist (and therefore modernist) in regard to any collaboration with the United States. Thus America and Canada have constructed highly effective collaborative structures in defense and economic integration that carefully, with all the caution of mating porcupines, have preserved the essences of national sovereignty. Ironically postmodernist Canada has pioneered the development of a modernist version of international collaboration that contrasts vividly with the postmodernist model of the European Union.

While accepting a modest vision of what a continued NATO might achieve, America would do well to begin constructing alternative structures for defense collaboration with nations that wish to cooperate, like Canada, on a modernist and sovereignist basis. For a roster of who else might fit into such a structure, we could do worse than look at who is fighting on the ground with us in Afghanistan, particularly Britain and Australia. Australia is another nation with a postmodernist intellectual class and a modernist population; its recent actions in dealing decisively on the asylum issue were as fully supported by the general population as they were furiously protested by the intellectual elites.

Bush was not wrong to give one more performance of the old show in Berlin; that is a theater for old shows. Soon, however, other stages will call for new plays, with bringing together veterans of other shows in other places, with a few old faces as well.

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