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International Politics, 2008, 45, (325–347)

r 2008 Palgrave Macmillan Ltd 1384-5748/08 $30.00

It’s Over, Over There: The Coming Crack-up in

Transatlantic Relations
Christopher Layne
Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX
77843-4220, USA.
E-mail: or

Euro-American ties — and NATO — have been ruptured, and never again will be
the same. Of course, as the historian Lawrence S. Kaplan correctly observed, ‘The
idea of NATO being in a terminal state has been a topic for pundits since the 1950s’
(Kaplan, 1992, 16). It still is. However, today those who argue that the Alliance is
in terminal decline have a very strong case to make. There are four reasons for this.
First, the Cold War’s end has deprived NATO of its essential raison d’eˆtre. Second,
the European Union has not only taken huge strides toward attaining political and
economic unity but now also has taken significant steps to creating the capacity to
act independently of the United States in the security arena. Third, the structural
effects of unipolarity are pushing the EU in the direction of counter-balancing
American preponderance. Fourth, the Iraq war has highlighted the divergent
geopolitical interests of the US and the EU.
International Politics (2008) 45, 325–347. doi:10.1057/ip.2008.6

Keywords: transatlantic relations; US foreign policy; US hegemony in Europe; US

European relations

This article is structured as follows. First, I discuss the historical roots of the
current tensions in transatlantic relations. Second, I argue that the real source
of transatlantic conflict is America’s role as a global — and European —
hegemon, and the concomitant gap in hard-power capabilities between the
United States and Europe. Third, I show that, although US primacy is the
major cause of transatlantic friction, the very fact of American hegemony is
what explains why NATO still is in business more than a decade after the Cold
War’s end. I conclude that, although NATO essentially is obsolete as a military
alliance, US power will not be retracted from Europe any time soon. As long as
there is a consensus among the American foreign policy elite that the US
should be a global hegemon NATO will continue to be perceived as an
indispensable instrument both of US geopolitical preeminence, and America’s
containment of European power.
Christopher Layne
The Coming Crack-up in Transatlantic Relations

Transatlantic Rift: A Long Time in the Making

Several years ago Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt argued that the ties that
had linked Europe and America during the Cold War were beginning to fray
(Walt, 1998/1999). Walt identified a number of factors that he believed would
ultimately result in a transatlantic divorce: the rise to power of ‘successor’
generations who did not share their predecessors’ Cold War-forged Atlanti-
cism; intensifying commercial competition between the US and the European
Union (EU); diverging geopolitical interests; and domestic changes on both
sides of the Atlantic reflecting growing disharmony in the realms of culture and
values. Walt’s argument was insightful, though unoriginal. The same points —
and similar predictions of NATO’s unraveling — had been made during the
1970s and 1980s by various analysts.1
There was one thing new in Walt’s argument, however. In contrast to those
who had advanced similar arguments before him, he was writing after the
disappearance of the Soviet Union (although many of the others who wrote on
this topic before 1989 had visualized the possibility of a post-Cold War
Europe). Building on neorealist theories of alliance formation, Walt argued
that, although there had been pronounced fissiparous trends in transatlantic
relations during the Cold War, the Soviet threat had kept those trends in check,
and thus kept the Alliance intact.
Up to a point Walt is correct about the Cold War’s adhesive effect. But it is
easy to overstate this point, because the United States and Europe began
drifting apart perceptibly long before 1989–1991. This reflects the fact that in a
de facto sense the Cold War ended for Western Europe a long time before it did
for the United States. Indeed, the conflicting European and US perceptions of
the Soviet threat exacerbated transatlantic tensions. In contrast to the relaxed
Western European perception of the Soviet Union as a more or less benign,
status quo power (at least in Europe), the United States — especially after the
Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 — was intent on combating what it
viewed as Soviet expansionism in the Third World periphery. Western Europe,
on the other hand, wanted to maintain itself as an ‘island of detente’ and
worried that confrontational US policies toward the Soviet Union would spill
over onto the Continent. By the mid-1980s, the US and Western Europe were
on the verge of a break-up triggered by differing responses to Soviet leader
Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘new thinking’ and the transatlantic frictions engendered
by NATO’s decision to deploy intermediate range nuclear forces (INFs) in
Western Europe. Indeed, it is not a stretch to suggest that only the intervening
— and unexpected — collapse of the Soviet Union rescued the transatlantic
relationship from an ugly rupture.
According to Waltzian neorealism, NATO should have dissolved when the
Cold War ended (Waltz, 1979, 126, 209). After all, structural realism posits
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that alliances form in response to a common external threat to the security of

the alliance partners. When that threat disappears, however, the alliance
dissolves.2 American Atlanticists intuitively grasped the fact that the Soviet
Union’s collapse was a threat to the Alliance’s continued existence. To hold
NATO together, they proposed that it be invested with new, post-Cold War
missions. These included maintaining peace and stability in East Central
Europe and the Balkans and, after 9/11, in Afghanistan — areas that had been
outside the ambit of the Alliance’s Cold War strategic concerns. In the
Atlanticist mantra of the early 1990s NATO had to ‘go out of area or out of
business.’ Notwithstanding the efforts to restructure NATO for the post-Cold
War world, today it is evident that the transatlantic bond between the United
States and Europe is more frayed than ever. There has been much discussion
about the causes, and implications, of NATO’s current disarray. Two of the
most commonly cited reasons for the transatlantic discord are a widening
cultural divide between the US and Europe, and the impact of the George W.
Bush administration’s post 9/11 muscular unilateralism — the most important
example of which is the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
Probably the best known argument that there is a cultural schism between
the US and Europe is that of the neoconservative foreign policy analyst Robert
Kagan. As Kagan wrote, ‘It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and
Americans share a common view of the worldy’ (Kagan, 2002b, 1; also, see
Kagan, 2003a). If it is true that Europe and the US no longer hold a common
worldview, then Atlanticism’s champions might have cause for concern. As the
fallout from the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq has made apparent, there is a
culture/values gap between the United States and Europe. Yet, it is easy to
exaggerate its significance. Going back even to the period before the United
States achieved independence from Britain, American relations with Europe
have always been complex, nuanced, and ambivalent. Historically, America’s
national identity has expressed itself in both the embrace, and rejection, of
Europe. In some ways America and Europe are alike, and in other ways they
are very different. So the fact that there are today transatlantic differences over
culture and values should not surprise anyone. The real question is, does it
matter? And in terms of geopolitics, the answer is: probably not. Notwith-
standing transatlantic myth-making (which extends back to the late 1940s),
alliances are based on common interests, not on common values and a shared
culture. In assessing the future of NATO, and US–European relations, the
crucial issue is whether Europe and the United States still share enough
common interests to hold them together in an alliance relationship.
Another commonly accepted explanation for the current difficulty in the
transatlantic relationship is that this is attributable to the George W. Bush
administration’s policies. Those who adhere to this interpretation believe that
once the administration leaves office in January 2009, the wounds inflicted on
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the US–European relationship will heal. This is not a very convincing

argument, however. Doubtless the Bush administration’s heavy-handed
assertion of US power has aggravated transatlantic relations. However, its
unilateral policies are not the fundamental cause of widening rift between the
United States and Europe, which is the product of much deeper and more
fundamental factors.3 This is not to deny that the administration has acted in
defiance of European policy preferences, but it hardly is the first to do so.
Indeed, the idea that the United States — until the George W. Bush
administration — preferred to act multilaterally is more myth than fact.4
Following World War II the United States created a web of security and
economic institutions to solidify its hegemony in the non-Soviet world and
promote its own grand strategic ambitions. The United States sought to avail
itself of its allies’ strategic resources (and keep them from drifting into the
Soviet sphere) but it never intended to be constrained by them — and seldom
has been.5 All post-1945 administrations ‘have believed that the only way’ the
United States could attain its most critical grand strategic goals ‘was to keep
others from having too much influence’ (Sestanovich, 2005, 13). In the Suez,
Berlin, and Cuban missile crises, and during the Vietnam War, the United
States acted unilaterally. Similarly, according to Stephen Sestanovich, it also
did so during the Euromissile crisis of the early 1980s, and during the
negotiations on German reunification. And although, the US-led NATO
interventions in Bosnia (1995) and Kosovo (1999), may have appeared to be —
and certainly were sold by Washington as — multilateral actions, in fact they
were not. As Walt observes, ‘America’s European allies complained during
both episodes, but could do little to stop the United States from imposing its
preferences upon them’ (Walt, 2005, 46). In truth, when they felt that US
interests required doing so, preceding administrations acted no less unilaterally
than has the current administration.6 On the other hand, the George W. Bush
administration’s policies have driven home to the Europeans the consequences
of American hegemony, and by so doing have cast a long shadow over the
future of the transatlantic relationship.7

The ‘Hegemony Problem’ in Transatlantic Relations

In one form or another, hegemony has been an issue in US–European relations
since the United States emerged as a great power in the late 19th century.
During the first half of the 20th century, the United States fought two big wars
in Europe because it feared that if a single great power (in those cases,
Germany) attained hegemony in Europe, it would be able to mobilize the
continent’s resources and threaten America in its own backyard. The
conventional wisdom holds that America’s post-World War II initiatives —
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the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty — were driven by similar fears of
possible Soviet hegemony in Europe. Thus, the standard interpretation of US
strategy toward Europe — most notably articulated by John Mearsheimer — is
that it has been ‘counter-hegemonic’ (Mearsheimer, 1998, 2001a, b). That is,
the United States acts as an ‘offshore balancer’ toward Europe and intervenes
only when the European balance of power appears unable to prevent a single
power from dominating the continent. According to this interpretation of
American strategy, whenever it is compelled to intervene militarily on the
Continent, rather than staying on to play the role of regional stabilizer or
pacifier, the US packs up and goes home once a geopolitical equilibrium has
been re-established.
There is, however, little evidence supporting the view that American strategy
toward Europe has been counter-hegemonic, and much that contradicts it. If
America’s strategy toward Europe really was driven by counter-hegemonic
concerns, the United States should have ‘come home’ from the Continent when
the Soviet Union collapsed. Indeed, if it had been pursuing a counter-
hegemonic strategy, the US could have withdrawn from Western Europe at
any time from early 1960s onward — by which time the Europeans had
recovered sufficiently from World War II to defend themselves from the Soviet
threat — and passed the buck to Western Europe for the Continent’s defense.
This is precisely what the US ought to have done if had been following a
counter-hegemonic (offshore balancing) strategy toward the Continent.
Finally, the fact that even US hard-liners understood that the Soviet military
threat to Western Europe had largely vanished by the late 1950s is another
important piece of evidence that tells us that America’s European strategy was
much more than counter-hegemonic in its scope and ambitions (Ikle, 1990, 14).
The reason that US troops have remained in Europe after the Cold War
(albeit now in significantly reduced numbers) — and that NATO still is in
business — is because the Soviet Union’s containment was never the driving
force behind America’s post-World War II commitment to Europe. Even
before World War II ended, the US was determined to drive for global
hegemony in the postwar system, and to assume a preponderant role on the
Continent (Layne, 2006). The conventional wisdom, of course, is that NATO
was created to ‘keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans
in.’ In truth, however, the Alliance’s raison d’eˆtre was, from Washington’s
standpoint, somewhat different: to keep America in — and on top — so that the
Germans could be kept down, the Europeans could be kept from being at each
other’s throats militarily, and the Europeans kept from uniting politically and
constituting themselves as a ‘third force’ geopolitically. The reason NATO still
is in business today is because it advances long-standing American objectives
that existed independently of the Cold War and that have survived the Soviet
Union’s collapse.
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America’s Hegemonic Aims in Europe

Doubtless, some may view skeptically the argument that America’s postwar
European grand strategy was driven more by non-Cold War factors than by
the Soviet threat. But Washington’s post-Cold War actions support this claim.
For example, the George H. W. Bush administration concluded quickly that
the Soviet Union’s collapse did not necessitate any reconsideration of the US
military commitment to Europe, or of NATO. As Philip Zelikow and
Condoleeza Rice, both of whom served as foreign policy officials in that
administration, have observed:

[The] administration believed strongly that, even if the immediate military

threat from the Soviet Union diminished, the United States should maintain
a significant military presence in Europe for the foreseeable future.y The
Bush administration was determined to maintain crucial features of the NATO
system for European security even if the Cold War ended. (Zelikow and Rice,
1995, 169–170, emphasis added).

As one former State Department official avers, the Clinton administration

similarly believed NATO had to be revitalized after the Cold War because
American interests in Europe ‘transcended’ the Soviet threat (Asmus, 2002,
290). And, using phraseology reminiscent of Voltaire’s comment about God,
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, ‘Clearly if an institution such as
NATO did not exist today, we would want to create one’ (Asmus, 2002, 261).
As the Cold War wound down to its conclusion, American policymakers
recognized that they faced a big problem: without the Soviet threat, how could
Washington keep NATO as a going concern, and continue to justify the
deployment of US forces in Europe? To achieve its strategic objectives in post-
Cold War world, Washington realized that it would have to reinvent NATO,
and invest the Alliance with new roles and missions that would provide a
convincing rationale for keeping it in business. Above all, Washington was
determined to ensure that the United States remained a ‘European power’ with
the preponderant voice in managing security in post-Cold War Europe
(Holbrooke, 1995; Asmus, 2002, 118–119, 124–125, 132, 178–179, 260–261,
290–291) Albright’s views encapsulated those of the US foreign policy
establishment. As one official who served under her recounts, ‘Albright firmly
believed that America’s interest and role in Europe transcended the Soviet threat,
but that the Alliance had to be reshaped if it was to survive’ (Asmus, 2002, 178).
As it evolved during the Clinton administration, the ‘new’ NATO was
committed to a policy of ‘double enlargement’ based on both NATO’s
geographic expansion (by admitting Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic
to the Alliance), and the expansion of the Alliance’s roles and missions.
NATO’s geographic enlargement reflected Washington’s concerns with
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ensuring stability in Central and East Central Europe (Ausmus, 1997;

Holbrooke, 1995, 38, 42).8 By expanding NATO, the US sought to defuse
the potential causes of turbulence in Europe while simultaneously consolidat-
ing free market democracy in East Central Europe. As President Clinton put it,
‘I came to office convinced that NATO can do for Europe’s East what it did
for Europe’s West: prevent a return to local rivalries, strengthen democracy
against future threats, and create the conditions for prosperity to flourish’
(Clinton, 1996).
The second component of the Alliance’s double enlargement was the
expansion of NATO’s roles and missions. Increasingly, American officials
believed the post-Cold War NATO would have to ‘go out of area, or out of
business’ by focusing on security threats emanating from beyond the Alliance’s
traditional geographical purview (Lugar, 1993; see, also Asmus et al., 1993).
Well before 11 September, American policymakers were arguing that the new
NATO had to assume responsibility for combating ‘out of area’ security
threats — whether ethnic turmoil in the Balkans, rogue states like Iraq, or
Islamic terrorism.9 US policymakers argued that NATO had to prevent
instability in Europe’s peripheries from spilling-over, and affecting Europe
itself. In reinventing the Alliance, President Clinton said, the US was ‘building
a NATO capable not only of deterring aggression against its own territory, but
of meeting challenges to our security beyond its territoryy’ (Clinton, 1999).
Washington’s post-Cold War European strategy during the 1990s was
successful. So much so, that American hegemony in Europe ‘was more secure
at the end of the 1990s that it had been at the beginning’ (Cox, 2005, 211). The
fact that American policymakers did not miss a beat when the Cold War ended
with respect to reaffirming NATO’s continuing importance tells us an awful lot
about the real nature of the interests that shaped America’s European grand
strategy after World War II, and that continue to do so today. Since its
inception America’s postwar European grand strategy has reflected a complex
set of interlocking ‘Open Door’ interests (Williams, 1962; Layne, 2006). To
begin with, US officials believed that America had key economic interests in
postwar Europe. In 1947 George F. Kennan argued that even if there was no
communist threat to Western Europe, the United States had a vital interest in
facilitating Western Europe’s economic recovery because of ‘Europe’s role in
the past as a market and as a major source of supply for a variety of products
and services’ (Nelson, 1983: 31). The second Open Door interest driving
postwar American strategy in Europe was the need to prevent the Europeans
from relapsing into their bad habits of nationalism, great power rivalries, and
realpolitik — because such a reversion would imperil US economic interests
on the continent. To ensure stability in Europe after World War II, the
United States aimed to create a militarily ‘de-nationalized’ and economically
integrated, but not politically unified, Europe. Washington would assume
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primary responsibility for European security, thereby precluding the emergence

of the security dilemmas — especially that between France and Germany —
that had sparked the two world wars. In turn, Western Europe’s economic
integration and interdependence — under the umbrella of America’s military
protectorate — would contribute to building a peaceful and stable Western
Europe. Here, US economic and security objectives meshed nicely.
Starting with those who were ‘present at the creation,’ successive generations
of US policymakers have feared the continent’s reversion to its (as Americans
see it) dark past — a past defined by war, militarism, nationalism, and an
unstable multipolar balance of power. From Washington’s perspective, Europe
has been a dark continent whose wars have spilled over across the Atlantic,
threatened American interests, and inevitably have sucked-in the United
States. Consequently, after World War II, Washington sought to maintain US
interests by breaking Europe of its bad old geopolitical habits. Even during the
Cold War, American policymakers acknowledged that, quite apart from the
Soviet threat, the United States needed to be present in Europe militarily to
create a political environment that permitted ‘a secure and easy relationship
among our friends in Western Europe’ (Department of Defense, 1964–1968).
As Secretary of State Dean Rusk said in 1967, the US military presence on the
continent played a pivotal role in assuring stability within Western Europe:
‘Much progress has been made. But without the visible assurance of a sizeable
American contingent, old frictions may revive, and Europe could become
unstable once more’ (Rusk, 1967).
The US goal of embedding a militarily de-nationalized, but economically
integrated, Western Europe within the structure of an American-dominated
‘Atlantic Community’ dovetailed neatly with another of Washington’s key
post-1945 grand strategic objectives: preventing the emergence of a new pole of
power in the international system — either in form of a resurgent Germany or
of a united Europe — that could challenge America’s geopolitical preeminence.
Since the 1940s, Washington has had to perform a delicate balancing act with
respect to Europe. While encouraging, for economic reasons, Western Europe’s
integration into a single market, the United States has sought to block Western
Europe’s (and now the EU’s) attainment of political unification and
acquisition of a military capacity independent of NATO.
To prevent the emergence of a politically unified Western Europe, successive
US administrations sought to neuter Western Europe geopolitically by
constricting its ability to act independently of the United States in the high
political realms of foreign and security policy. Embedding West European
integration in the American-dominated Atlantic Community would stop the
Europeans from veering off in the wrong direction. Acheson stated American
strategic concerns with crystal clarity when he spoke of the necessity of a ‘well-
knit grouping of Atlantic states within which a new EUR grouping can
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develop, thus ensuring unity of purpose within the entire group and precluding
[the] possibility of [a] EUR Union becoming [a] third force or opposing force’
(Acheson, 1952, 324). Europe’s military absorption into the Atlantic
Community went hand in hand with its economic integration. The American
diplomat Charles (Chip) Bohlen cut to the heart of the US de-nationalization
strategy when he said, ‘Our maximum objective should be the general one of
making common European interests more important than individual national
interests’ (Bohlen, 1950, 622). For the United States, therefore, institutions
such as NATO, the aborted European Defense Community, the European
Coal and Steel Community, and the Common Market were instruments it
deployed to contain the West Europeans. The American aim was to create
‘institutional machinery to ensure that separate national interests are
subordinated to the best interests of the community,’ and achieving this
subordination was deemed essential if the United States was to accomplish its
grand strategic purposes in Europe (Department of State, n.d., 133).

Europe’s Response to American Hegemony

Following World War II the West Europeans understood that America had
established its own hegemony over them. As realist international relations
theory suggests, the West Europeans have tried to do something about it. At a
time when some international relations scholars are arguing that the United
States is exempt from counter-hegemonic balancing because it is a ‘benevolent’
hegemon,10 West European attempts to balance US power during the Cold
War are especially instructive. To be sure, West European counter-balancing
was constrained by the Cold War, because although they feared American
power, the West Europeans feared the Soviet Union even more. Moreover,
unlike the Soviet Union, in the years following World War II (and thereafter),
Washington had many carrots to dangle before the West Europeans who
bandwagoned with the United States to avail themselves of these benefits.
These considerations notwithstanding, however, West European inclinations
to balance against American power were never far from the surface.

Britain’s attempt to create a ‘third force,’ 1945–1948: In the years immediately

after World War II’s end, Britain aspired to emerge as a ‘Third Force’ in world
politics to balance against both the United States and the Soviet Union. As
Sean Greenwood observes, ‘in the late 1940s, Britain was, and intended to
remain, a world power’ (Greenwood, 2000, 73).11 Although London under-
stood clearly that Britain’s status was under assault by both superpowers, it
especially feared America’s global ambitions because of Britain’s growing
dependence on the US.12 Under Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin’s direction,
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during the period from mid-1945 to mid-1948 Britain tried to regain co-equal
power with the United States and the Soviet Union, by constituting itself as a
Third Force geopolitically.13 Bevin’s ambition, Michael Hogan observes,
‘stopped at nothing less than the preservation of Great Britain as a major
power in a world increasingly dominated by the United States and the Soviet
Union’ (Hogan, 1987, 109). As Bevin and his Foreign Office advisers
appreciated, however, because of its diminished relative power in the
international system, to match the postwar power of the Soviet Union and
the United States the UK would need to hold onto the Middle East, and
supplement its power through close association with some combination of
France, Western Europe, and the British Empire/Commonwealth. ‘By such
means and others,’ observes Zara Steiner, ‘Britain tried to free herself from
American domination and to forge an independent foreign policy’ (Steiner,
1994, 73). In the end, of course, for a number of reasons Britain’s attempt to
establish itself as a geopolitical Third Force failed — most importantly because
Britain lacked the hard power capabilities to support its policy. But British
strategy during the late 1940s was clearly driven by the aspiration to create a
counterweight to American power.

French counter-balancing under De Gaulle: De Gaulle’s challenge to US

hegemony in the early 1960s is another example of attempted balancing against
American dominance. De Gaulle believed that, because of its overwhelming
power, the Untied States was driven ‘automatically’ to extend its influence and
‘to exercise a preponderant weight, that is to say, hegemony over others’
(Quoted in Kolodziej, 1974, 91). This was especially true in transatlantic
relations. Following Washington’s successful facing-down of the Soviet Union
in the 1962 missile crisis, De Gaulle concluded then that the world had become
‘unipolar’ — dominated by a hegemonic America, and he was concerned that
Europe had surrendered its military and diplomatic independence to the US
(Kolodziej, 1974, 91). De Gaulle’s strategy aimed to constrain US power, and
regain Europe’s autonomy by creating a new pole of power in the international
system that was independent of American control. Specifically, he sought to
create an independent French nuclear force, cement the Franco-German
alliance as the basis of an independent Western Europe, and construct a
common West European defense policy.14
US policymakers recognized that by raising the prospect of Western
Europe’s emergence as an independent pole of power in international politics,
De Gaulle’s ‘Grand Ambition’ threatened to undermine the cornerstones of
America’s West European grand strategy. As President John F. Kennedy said,
‘If the French and other European powers acquire a nuclear capability they
would be in a position to be entirely independent and we might be on the
outside looking in’ (Kennedy, 1963, 486). ‘Here,’ comments Frederic Bozo
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(2001, 81), ‘we are at the heart of the Franco-American misunderstanding.

Despite its rhetoric on the subject since the early 1950s, the interest of the
United States consisted in avoiding Europe of the Six being transformed into
an autonomous strategic entity that would radically modify the givens of
the transatlantic situation and would compromise US preeminence in Europe.’
The United States pulled out all the stops in an (unsuccessful) attempt to derail
the French nuclear program. And — with smashing success — it played
hegemonic hardball with West Germany to compel Bonn to vitiate the 1963
Franco-German Treaty as a vehicle for an autonomous West European
defense capability. As Marc Trachtenberg (1999, 375–376) observes, not only
did the Kennedy administration force West Germany to chose between France
and the US, it also told the Germans that if they did cast their lot with the
United States, ‘it would have to be on American terms.’ America’s ‘terms’ were
acceptance of US hegemony in Western Europe. Washington’s hard-line
response to De Gaulle’s bid for West European strategic independence from
the United States underscores that US policymakers realized that if Western
Europe successfully slipped the constraining leash of American primacy, the
foundations of US hegemony would collapse. For the same reasons that it
opposed De Gaulle, some four decades later the United States now opposes the
European Union’s efforts to create and autonomous defense capability.

The European Union: A Geopolitical Counterweight to American

Three considerations predict that the EU will counter-balance the US in
coming years. First, EU military capabilities constitute a hedge against future
American policies. Although ‘the US may be a benign hegemon today, there is
no reason to assume it will always be so’ (Posen, 2004, 9). Second, Europe is
concerned about how its overall political and economic position in the
international system is affected by American power (Art, 2004, 180). Indeed,
there is ‘a growing sense among many Europeans that the current and deeply
uneven distribution of power leaves them far too dependent on an America
whose views on world politics it does not necessarily share’ (Cox, 2005, 226).
Third, by investing itself with the capability to act autonomously of the United
States in the realm of security, the European Union can also gain bargaining
power to force the US to respect European interests abroad rather than
running roughshod over them. As Barry Posen (2004, 9) has said, the EU’s
drive to build-up its own military capabilities is consistent with the expectation
that in a unipolar world, those actors that can do so ‘will at a minimum act to
buffer themselves against the caprices of the US and will try to carve out the
ability to act autonomously should it become necessary.’ If the EU’s drive to
gain military independence from Washington through the European Security
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and Defence Policy (EDSP) is successful, the result would be the creation of a
new pole of power in the international system which would (along China’s rise)
restore multipolarity — and bring American hegemony to an end.
From the moment the Cold War ended, the Europeans manifested ‘stirrings
of independence bordering on insubordination’ that reflected their growing
restiveness with US dominance of transatlantic relations (Howorth and Keeler,
2002, 7). The Maastricht Treaty committed Europe to developing the
capabilities to pursue an independent foreign and security policy, and the
break-up of Yugoslavia seemingly offered the EU its first post-Cold War
opportunity to step out of Washington’s shadow. Indeed, the EU proclaimed
that with the Yugoslav crisis, ‘the hour of Europe had arrived.’ However, the
EU’s failure to develop a coherent, effective response to Yugoslavia’s
unraveling demonstrated that Europe’s view of itself as an autonomous
geopolitical actor was rhetorical, rather than real. However, the Kosovo War
was a turning point.15 Kosovo was the moment when Europe began to move
concretely toward becoming an independent actor in international security
affairs, and deliberately set out to constitute itself as a geopolitical counter-
weight to American hegemony.
In the aftermath of Kosovo, the West Europeans vocally expressed their fears
of American hegemony and US ‘hyper-power.’ The Kosovo War dramatized for
the West Europeans the vast disparity between their military power and
America’s, especially the US superiority at the high-end of military technology.
Alarmed by their military inferiority to the United States, and resentful of their
continued dependence on Washington, Kosovo jolted the West Europeans into a
recognition that they needed to give substance to the concept of a common
European defense and security policy by developing their own advanced military
capabilities (including satellite reconnaissance, C3, precision guided munitions,
and power projection) (see Dahlburg, 1999; Whitney, 1999).
At its Cologne (January 1999) and Helsinki (December 1999) summits, the
EU took an important step toward military autonomy by adopting the
ESDP.16 ESDP was envisioned as the backbone of an independent European
security policy — that is, a security policy determined by the Europeans
themselves without American input, and sustained, without relying on the US,
by Europe’s own hard power capabilities. As Barry Posen (2004, 15) argues
‘the timing and reasons for the development of ESDP suggests that they can
largely be traced back to the problem of unipolarity.’ Specifically, EDSP
reflects the EU’s desire to invest itself with the capability to act independently
of the US in the realms of security and foreign policy, create more options for
itself geopolitically, and its overall dissatisfaction with Europe’s security
dependence on the United States (Posen, 2004, 15).
The US reacted negatively to the ESDP’s decision to create a 60,000 man EU
Rapid Reaction Force with a chain of command, headquarters and planning
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staff separate from NATO. Washington demanded that NATO — the

instrument through which it exercises hegemony in Europe — must not be
undermined, and Secretary of Defense William Cohen, declared that if the EU
created an independent defense capability outside the Alliance’s structure,
NATO would become a ‘relic of the past’ (Quoted in Hamilton and Aldinger,
2000). To uphold NATO’s primacy, the Clinton administration proclaimed the
so-called ‘Three D’s’: ESDP must not diminish NATO’s role, duplicate
NATO’s capabilities, or discriminate against NATO members that do not
belong to the EU (Albright, 1997).17
Transatlantic frictions arising from European efforts to build an indepen-
dent military capability flared again during the Iraq war. For many European
policymakers and analysts, the key ‘lesson learned’ from the Iraq War is that
Washington will pay little heed to European views on international political
issues unless Europe can back up its voice with real military capabilities. In
April 2003 France and Germany (along with Belgium and Luxembourg) met to
lay the foundations for an independent European military capability —
including a European military headquarters — built around the Franco-
German core of ‘Old Europe’ (Dempsey, 2003b). Explaining this initiative,
French President Jacques Chirac explicitly said the purpose was to begin the
process of building a pole of power capable of playing its role in a multipolar
system, and of balancing the US (Quoted in Dempsey, 2003b). Predictably
Washington reacted coolly to this initiative, which Robert A. Bradtke, the
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, called ‘not helpful’
(Quoted in Graham and Dinmore, 2003). In October 2003 the US Ambassador
to NATO, Nicholas Burns, voicing the George W. Bush administration’s
vehement hostility, called the EU’s plan to develop an independent military
capability ‘one of the greatest dangers to the transatlantic relationship’
(Quoted in Dempsey, 2003a). Washington’s reaction to ESDP reflects both
long-standing American fears that an equal and independent Europe would
throw off Washington’s tutelage, and Washington’s pervasive suspicion that, in
this regard, ESDP is the ‘camel’s nose in the tent’ — that is, that it will become
a rival to NATO’s supremacy in European security affairs (see Fitchett, 2000;
Kitfield, 2000; Williams, 2000). As Frederic Bozo (2002, 68) suggests, the
United States regards all European steps toward autonomy ‘with reticence
bordering on hostility,’ and is incapable of accepting any European defense
effort that it does not control.

What can be said about NATO’s future and the state of US–European
relations? Doubtless, Atlanticists both in Europe and the United States will
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point out — rightly — that from its earliest days, NATO’s history has been one
of frequent crises. Yet, even it its most perilous moments the Alliance has held
together. Drawing optimism from NATO’s track record of successfully
surmounting challenges to its unity, Atlanticists would argue that the Alliance
has bounced back from the dark days of 2003–2004 when the US invasion of
Iraq threatened to tear it apart. After all, even if only half-hearted, during its
second term the George W. Bush administration has made some gestures to
repair US relations with Europe. And, to the extent that the most recent
trouble in the transatlantic relations can be attributed to the administration’s
policies, its days in office are drawing rapidly to a close. By the same token, in
Europe the two key leaders who opposed the administration’s Iraq policy,
Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac, have been replaced, respectively, in
Berlin and Paris by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy, both of whom are
more Atlanticist, and more supportive of the US than were their predecessors.
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that NATO and the
transatlantic relationship have weathered the storm, and that the worst is in
the past. The appearance of renewed amicability on both sides of the Atlantic
cannot mask the fact that there are important points of friction that keep
pushing the US and Western Europe ever farther apart. First, there is Iraq,
which remains an open wound on both sides of the Atlantic. Second, there is
Afghanistan. From the US perspective, the NATO effort there is a double
disappointment. Not only are the US and NATO failing to win on the ground
in Afghanistan but also the European members of NATO are evidently
reluctant to make the additional contributions of troops and equipment that
Washington believes to be necessary to turn the tide.18 Failure to win in
Afghanistan ‘would undermine NATO’s claim to a broader global mission’ (de
Nevers, 2007, 66). Third, as the summer 2006 fighting in Lebanon between
Israel and Hezbollah reaffirmed, the US and Europe have very different views
about the Israel–Palestinian issue. Fourth, notwithstanding the December 2007
US National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that Tehran suspended its
nuclear weapons program in 2003, Iran remains a potential flashpoint in
transatlantic relations. Washington and Tehran are battling for dominance in
the Persian Gulf (and the Middle East generally) and although perhaps
somewhat reduced by the NIE, there remains a real possibility of conflict
between the US and Iran. Should war occur — especially if it is initiated by a
unilateral US military strike on Iran — the result could be a transatlantic crisis
that would dwarf that occasioned by the invasion of Iraq.
Looking ahead, there are other issues that could throw the Alliance into
disarray. One is global climate change. Among the advanced industrial nations,
the US stands alone in its refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Moreover, in the
wake of the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the
United States is badly out-of-step with the EU on how to tackle the problem of
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curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change could also heighten

European dependence on imported natural gas from Russia (or from Central
Asia through pipelines controlled by Russia). Already, with its own relations
with a resurgent Russia becoming more fraught, Washington has become
increasingly uneasy about the geopolitical consequences of Europe’s deepening
energy dependence on Moscow. Here one can see echoes of the 1970s–1980s
tension between the US and Western Europe that stemmed from the policy of
‘differential detente’ practiced by the Europeans toward the Soviet Union.
Another issue that invokes memories of Cold War era transatlantic differences
is the disagreement between Washington and some of the key European
NATO states about US plans to deploy ballistic missile defense systems in
Poland and Czechoslovakia.
Any of these issues could be the catalyst of a crisis that leads to NATO’s
demise, but none of them would be the fundamental cause of a transatlantic
rupture. Issues like Iraq are like the tip of the iceberg. The underlying sources
of discord in NATO are — and arguably always have been — primarily
structural in nature: the imbalance of power between the United States and
Europe. This transatlantic power differential has paradoxical effects. For the
US, NATO since its inception has been the instrument for maintaining
American dominance on the Continent. The US sought hegemony in post-
World War II Western Europe for reasons that were unrelated to the Cold
War, and would have pursued this policy (or at least attempted to do so) even
if there had been no Soviet threat. The interests driving America’s hegemonic
strategy transcended the Cold War, and outlived the Soviet Union’s collapse.
This is why the US did not ‘come home’ from Europe when the Cold War
ended.19 This is why the United States is not likely to withdraw from the
Alliance any time soon, notwithstanding several factors that seemingly point in
that direction.20
The United States is determined to maintain its regional hegemony in
Europe, and thus to keep NATO intact, in order to prevent the EU from
emerging as a rival pole of power in the international system. However, US
strategy has changed subtly. During the Cold War, the US needed large
numbers of troops in Western Europe to keep the Europeans from being at each
other’s throats; contain Germany; deter the Soviet Union; and prevent Western
Europe from developing the capabilities to act autonomously in the realms of
foreign and security policy. One might term the US strategic role in Europe
during this period as one of ‘positive hegemony.’ Today, however, although the
American goal of preventing the emergence of an independent pole of power on
the Continent has remained constant, the means of attaining it have changed.
The US no longer deems it necessary to maintain a huge military presence on
the Continent to control Europe. Instead of positive hegemony, the United
States has now embraced a policy of negative hegemony.
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Negative hegemony employs a variety of tactics to attain this objective,

including the classic ploy of divide and rule (by, e.g., pitting the ‘new’ Europe
against the ‘old’ Europe). Washington also maintains its preponderance
encouraging the European members of NATO to forego either national or
collective efforts to acquire the full spectrum of advanced military capabilities,
and instead to concentrate individually on carving-out ‘niche’ capabilities that
will complement US power, rather than potentially challenging it. Here the
United States prefers that the Europeans be relegated to post-conflict ‘clean-up’
rather investing in front-line combat capabilities (de Nevers, 2007, 61–62). At the
political level, the United States also is trying to do what it can to ensure that the
EU’s ‘state-building’ process fails, and thereby ensure that a united Europe never
emerges as an independent pole of power. Thus, the United States has pushed
for EU expansion — and especially for Turkey’s admission — in the expectation
that enlargement will create insuperable obstacles to the deepening and consoli-
dation of the EU’s institutions, which is a prerequisite if it is to have an effective
common foreign and defense policy (see Fisher, 2002; Vinocur, 2002).
In the short term, using NATO to perpetuate American preponderance in
Europe may prevent a new pole of power from emerging in Europe. That is the
conventional wisdom. But it is more likely that the current imbalance of power
between America and Europe will stimulate European efforts to balance
against American hegemony. That is, the harder the US presses to keep Europe
down, the more incentive the Europeans have to get out from under America’s
thumb. After all, the real reason that Washington was able to dismiss
European views on issues like Iraq is because Europe’s voice is not backed up
by hard power. Hard power counts in international politics, and if Europe
wants to be taken seriously, it must develop the kind of military capabilities —
and the willingness to use them to project power beyond the continent — that
will command the respect of others, not least of the United States.
Washington’s views about Europe’s drive to build up its independent
military capabilities are beset with contradictions. On the one hand, the United
States complains, as it has done almost literally since the day NATO was
created, that the Europeans need to shoulder a greater share of the Alliance’s
security burdens. Yet, as Washington’s near-hysterical reaction to ESDP and
the so-called April 2003 Chocolate summit indicate, the last thing the United
States wants is for the EU to develop significant independent military
capabilities. There is, however, something oddly paradoxical about Washing-
ton’s view of ESDP. Even as it voices apprehension about the EU’s moves to
gain strategic autonomy from the United States, Washington simultaneously
denigrates the significance of the EU’s attempts to build-up its military
capacity as mostly talk and little action.
Here, US officials may be engaging in wishful thinking. As the RAND
Corporation’s Seth G. Jones points out in an important new book (Jones,
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2007), Europe indeed is making major strides in enhancing its own defense
capabilities both through mergers and acquisitions in the defense industry —
intended to create European defense firms capable of competing against US
companies — and through co-production and co-development of weapons
systems among European firms. Many of the projects currently underway will
give the EU states high-tech capabilities, including precision guided weapons,
and reconnaissance and communications satellites that will enable them to
operate militarily independently of the United States. As the EU’s capabilities
increase, it will gain greater power projection capabilities. As Jones (2005, 7)
argues, ‘the stronger the EU becomes as a global international political,
economic, and defense power, the more likely it will be to stand up to the
United States when it disagrees.’
The conundrum for the US in coming years is whether it should attempt to
prevent the EU from emerging as an independent pole of power, or accept an
autonomous EU. Ironically, if the US elects to attempt to subordinate Europe
to perpetual American tutelage, over time transatlantic relations are likely to
be poisoned fatally. In other words, by attempting to exercise European
hegemony through NATO, the United States may hasten the Alliance’s
dissolution. As the EU acquires more robust military capabilities — and,
concomitantly, an independent foreign and security policy — NATO inevitably
will wither. The implications for the Alliance of the EU’s emergence were
prefigured in February 2005, when German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder
declared that NATO no longer was the ‘primary venue’ for the discussion of
security policy between the United States and Europe (Dombey and Spiegel,
2005). Schroeder was simply stating the obvious: NATO is the product of an
era that no longer exists, and the EU’s emergence as a potent security actor will
render it irrelevant.
For the United States, the time has to put transatlantic security relations on
a new footing. This means coming to terms with a Europe — the EU — that
increasingly is united and determined to assert its independence from the US.
Doubtless, as Henry Kissinger first argued in the mid-1960s, for the United
States there would be a down side to the emergence of a united Europe as an
independent pole of power, because such a Europe would no longer be
subservient to Washington and would pursue its own agenda in international
politics. What Kissinger said in the mid-1960s is even more true today: it is
naive for the US to believe that ‘Europe would unite in order to share our
burdens or that it would be content with a subordinate role once it had the
means to implement its own views. Europe’s main incentive to undertake a
larger cooperative role in the West’s affairs would be to fulfill its own
distinctive purposes’ (Kissinger, 1982, 131).21 Kissinger’s insight has lost none
of its validity. But as he also noted, there are reasons for that the US might
benefit if it pays the price of accepting a united Europe. This is even more true
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today than it was some 40 years ago. In the long run, the price of European
independence is likely to be less than the price of Europe’s continuing
subordination to the United States, which will fan resentment and recrimina-
tion on both sides of the Atlantic. Moreover, the US attempt to maintain its
European hegemony is likely to prove self-defeating, because it will serve
mostly as an incentive for the EU to accelerate its move to establish its military
and political independence from Washington.
It is increasingly apparent that the United States and Europe inevitably are
drifting apart. The only question is how this distancing will occur. The
challenge for the future is to ensure that the heavy hand of American
hegemony does not destroy the basis for future cooperation between the US
and a Europe that has become an independent pole of power in the
international system. In this respect, an amicable separation is better than a
nasty divorce. For the former to happen, however, the United States must
voluntarily give up its hegemonic pretensions and accept Europe’s emergence
as an equal pole of power in the international system. Whether the American
foreign policy establishment is prepared to accept gracefully the transition
from unipolarity to multipolarity is, however, an open question.

1 See, for example, Chace (1976), Steel (1977), Layne (1983, 1987), Ravenal (1985), and Carpenter
(1990). Previously associated with strong support for NATO, Walt now concurs with the
argument I advanced in the 1980s: that because NATO’s dissolution is inevitable the best course
of action is for the United States and Western Europe to begin a process of gradual
disengagement rather than risking NATO’s precipitous rupture in a future transatlantic crisis.
For his previous support of the US commitment to NATO, see Walt (1989).
2 As Waltz puts it (p. 209), ‘Alliances are made by states that have some but not all of their
interests in common. The common interest is ordinarily a negative one: fear of other states.’
3 For a similar argument, see Cox (2005).
4 A similar claim is that President Bush blundered by telling the rest of the world that after 9/11 it
had but two choices: either to be with the US or against it. However, the administration hardly
was the first to engage in such bullying tactics. During the height of the Cold War, for example,
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles argued that it was ‘immoral’ for the Non-Aligned Bloc to
remain neutral in the contest between the US and the Soviet Union.
5 Even during the 1950s — the supposed high-water mark of US multilateralism — key American
policymakers made no secret of their unilateralist preferences. Secretary of State Dean Acheson
declared that, ‘US leadership of the free world is crucial.’ Although he believed consultation
with the West Europeans would strengthen American leadership by enabling Washington to
explain its policies and the rationales underlying them, the trick was to find a way to
communicate with the allies ‘without limiting US freedom of action unduly’ (Acheson, 1952,
325). Similarly, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles stressed that the US could not allow its
allies in NATO, SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization), or the OAS (Organization of
American States) to have veto power over American foreign policy. As he told West German
Foreign Minister von Brentano: ‘We cannot, for example, agree not to act without consultation
in the North Atlantic Councily. We must sometimes act very quickly and, while we are anxious

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to see the North Atlantic Council develop into a useful consultative body, we do not wish to
have our capacity for action destroyed’ (Dulles, 1957a). Dulles explained the US view on
consultation to the National Security Council: ‘It was harder for the United states than for other
NATO nations to agree to full consultation on all policy matters, because of the world-wide
commitments and interests of the United States. However, we will agree to increase the exchange
of policy information around the NATO council table. After all, as far as the United States is
concerned, we have no policies which we seek to hide or are ashamed to acknowledge. All our
policies are designed to protect freedom in the world. Nevertheless, we do not want to be in a
position where we are unable to act promptly if necessary for the reason that we are obliged to
consult with the NATO Council before taking action’ (Dulles, 1957b) (emphasis added).
6 The problem with the George W. Bush administration’s Iraq policy is not that it was unilateral,
but that it was unwise. And it would have been just as unwise even if pursued multilaterally.
7 Cox (2005) makes a similar argument.
8 Polish and Czech leaders and American conservative supporters of NATO enlargement
frequently argued that expansion was needed as a hedge against a resurgent Russia. However,
the Clinton administration officials responsible for the Alliance’s first round of expansion
regarded as remote the prospects of a future Russian security threat to East Central Europe. See
Asmus (2002).
9 See Undersecretary of Defense Walter Slocombe (1995). The most robust version of NATO
expansion is Brzezinski (1997), which calls for transforming NATO into a Trans-Eurasian
Security System (TESS) that would encompass all of Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus,
and East Asia.
10 For statements of this thesis, see Mandelbaum (2005) and Ikenberry (1998/1999, 2002, 2003).
11 For Britain, living in a world dominated by the two superpowers was dangerous. As Hathaway
(1981, 227, emphasis added) comments: ‘‘London officials were determined to resist any
tendency to relegate Great Britain to a position of secondary rank or importance in
international affairs. This consideration, more so than fear of Russia or any other country,
led to the decision to obtain their own nuclear capability. To do otherwise would be tantamount
to forsaking great power status. Years later Atlee was to explain the decision to build a bomb by
referring not to the Soviet Union but to the Untied States. ‘It had become essential,’ he
remembered. ‘We had to hold up our position vis-à-vis the Americans. We couldn’t allow ourselves
to be wholly in their hands.’ ’’
12 As Eden (accurately) observed in 1954 of the Americans, ‘They want to run the world.’ Quoted
in Dimbleby and Reynolds (1988). During the war Washington increasingly treated Britain as a
junior partner in the Grand Alliance, and, as London realized, was likely to continue doing so in
the postwar world (Kent, 1983, 66–67). The literature on the wartime intensification of the
Anglo-American rivalry over economic, and colonial issues — and the US goal of displacing
Britain as the dominant world power — is extensive. For useful accounts, see Kolko (1968),
Louis (1978), Thorne (1978), Hathaway (1981), Kimball (1991), Aldrich (2000).
13 The standard work on Bevin is Bullock (1983). Bullock’s orthodox interpretation of Bevin’s
diplomacy — that his goal was not to create a Third Force, but rather was to draw the US into a
long-term peacetime military commitment to Western Europe — has been challenged by more
recent scholarship. On London’s flirtation with forming a West European bloc as the
foundation of Britain’s Third Force ambitions, see Kent (1983, 118–125), Hogan (1987, 45–48),
Greenwood (1996).
14 For two excellent recent discussions of De Gaulle’s strategy vis-à-vis the United States, see Bozo
(2001), Giauque (2002).
15 As University of Munich political scientist Ulrich Beck put it, ‘Kosovo could be our military
euro, creating a political and defense identity for the European Union in the same way as the
euro is the expression of economic and financial integration.’ Quoted in Cohen (1999).

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16 For background on how ESDP evolved from the European Security and Defense Initiative
(EDSP) — which was a classic transatlantic burden-sharing exercise designed to strengthen the
Alliance’s ‘European pillar’ — see Croft et al. (2000), Bozo (2002), Howorth and Keeler (2002).
17 The ‘Three D’s’ — especially the non-duplication, and non-diminishment proscriptions —
effectively would foreclose the EU from ever achieving strategic autonomy, and would ensure
Europe’s continuing security dependency on United States. This is because the US has a virtual
monopoly on NATO military capabilities in such key areas as intelligence, advanced
surveillance and reconnaissance systems, power projection, and precision guided munitions.
18 On NATO’s role in Afghanistan, see de Nevers (2007, 48–52). Also see Dempsey (2006), Moore
and Anderson (2006), Morarjee (2006), Anderson (2007), Fidler and Boone (2007).
19 On why NATO remained central to US strategy even after the Cold War, see Layne (2000).
20 Several factors suggest that the US commitment to NATO is waning. First, the primary focus of
American strategy has shifted from Europe to the Middle East, East Asia, and Central Asia.
Second, for both geopolitical and military reasons, the US has become less interested in
operating through NATO and more disposed to ad hoc security cooperation based on bilateral
relations or on ‘coalitions of the willing.’ Third, as an institution, NATO’s contribution to the
so-called War on Terror is minimal. For an excellent analysis, see de Nevers (2007).
21 Kissinger (1965, 40) first made this point in the mid-1960s, when he stated that a united Europe
would ‘challenge American hegemony in Atlantic policy.’


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