Interview with Elisabeth Skons
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 04/14/2003
- How serious is the current rift in NATO over the Iraq question?
The rift in NATO over the Iraqi question has been described as the most serious rift within NATO since 1966 when France left the military structures of NATO. However, the issue over Iraq is not yet resolved, so it is still impossible to say how serious the rift will be. What we do know is that there is a strong interest on both sides of the Atlantic to save the cohesion of the NATO alliance. Although US public opinion is strongly in favour of going to war with Iraq, it is equally strong in saying that this should not be without the consensus of the allies. On the European side, there has been a strong reliance on the United States in military matters ever since NATO was founded in 1949, even if there have been periods of ups and downs. Since the end of the cold war, we are in an era of transition, in particular as regards security and defence policies and military doctrines. It still remains to be seen which route countries will ultimately follow. As it currently stands, the United States has adopted a strategy that relies heavily on military means, while European countries are more in favour of non-military means of conflict resolution, although there is also some variation between European countries in the regard. In this perspective, the Iraqi issue can be seen as one of several junctures on the road to post-cold war policies and military doctrines.
2. How does the question of NATO enlargement affect the current deliberations about Iraq?
I have not followed the question of NATO enlargement closely, but I cannot see that it should have any major effect. The new NATO member countries (those that already joined-the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland-and those that have been approved to join in 2004-Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia) are generally eager to become fully accepted and integrated into the Western world and have a very positive perception of the United States, so they tend to be supportive of US policies. However, they do not have a strong impact within NATO and I cannot see that they would be likely to affect the deliberations about Iraq. The United States has tried to play this card by alluding to the ‘new’ and the ‘old’ Europe, where the new would encompass the new and incoming members of NATO and the European Union. However, I think that, if anything, this would rather have a negative effect for these ‘new’ countries in that it could create friction with some of the ‘old’ European countries, with whom the new countries have much stronger trade and aid relations than with the United States.
3. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says the split in NATO is not between the United States and Europe, but within Europe itself. Is the US trying to drive and/ or exploit a wedge between the countries of Europe?
Yes, it is obvious that the United States tries to exploit the differences of opinion in Europe, but it is also clear that such differences existed already before. However, I think there are two types of differences that become confused in the issue over Iraq. One issue concerns the general relationship between states, where the two extremes are France and the United Kingdom. While French-US relations are somewhat distanced, the UK has a long-standing close relationship with USA, but so have many other European countries, including Sweden. The other issue is the approach to conflict resolution, including the balance between military and non-military means, where most European countries take a more cautious approach. The difference in opinion on the Iraqi question concerns more the latter issue than the former. The accusation of a European hatred of the United States misses this distinction.
What is also worth noting is that there seems to be a difference between governments and public opinion on the Iraqi issue. Opinion polls show strong opposition to the war in virtually all European countries, East and West. The difference is most pronounced in countries where the governments are strong supporters of the US approach to he Iraqi issue. In Spain, the polls show 65% of the people against the war even with a UN resolution and similar figures apply in Italy. The most recent poll in the United Kingdom showed opinion 52%-29% against war in general. Asked about a war without a UN Resolution, opposition was much stronger, some sources quote up to 90%, while when asked about a war with a UN resolution, there was a majority supporting a war. If public opinion continues to be negative towards a war, this may have some impact on official governmental policies in Europe.
4. Last year one of the serious issues facing NATO was if the vast disparity between European defense expenditure and the US defense budget was going to hamper the viability of the alliance. Nicholas Burns, the US Ambassador to NATO said it threatened to ‘create a two-tier alliance’, while Lord Robertson said Europe had become ‘military pygmies’. Is this still a problem?
Yes, the defence expenditure gap is still a very dominating topic within NATO. However, it has also become increasingly clear that the European countries will not be able to increase their defense budgets as much as originally expected at the time when NATO’s new Strategic Concept was adopted in April 1999. The Defence Capabilities Initiative that was adopted at the same time, and which included a number of capabilities that needed to be created or improved, would have required a significant increase in European defence budgets. However, at the NATO Summit meeting in Prague in November 2002, the scope of target capabilities was reduced to more realistic levels.
5. How have NATO leaders and generals responded to this issue? Have the European NATO states increased their budgets as a response to this problem?
There has been little or no increase in West European defence budgets until now, but from 2003 both France and the United Kingdom will be embarking on significant increases – as the biggest military powers in Europe they are the countries that are most concerned about being able to keep up technologically with the United States. Italy is also making a modest increase in 2003. But others such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain are keeping their military expenditure flat or are even cutting it. The picture is somewhat different for the future NATO members in Eastern Europe, who have been increasing military expenditure as part of their efforts to be accepted for membership and to make their forces NATO-interoperable.
6. Do the disproportionate budgets of member states really affect their ability to function together?
No, there is no direct link as such, but of course, there is some connection. The ability to function together is a matter of technology, both the level of technology (technological sophistication) and the kind of technology (interoperability). These two are connected, because technological interoperability to a great extent means using technology of the same degree of sophistication. The debate within NATO has for a lone time focused on interoperability. The problems experienced in joint military operations in former Yugoslavia reinforced the interoperability problems that have always been some kind of a problem within NATO. Since the United States has the leading edge in military technology, at least when it comes to applications (developed and produced systems in service) due to its much larger defence budget, interoperability means primarily that European countries should adapt to US military technology. There have been no cost estimations of such adaptations. And of course adaptations can take place at many different levels, and thus at different cost levels. Thus, while it is clear that a general increase in defence budgets would not raise the interoperability of the armed forces of NATO member countries, it is also true that a significant degree of interoperability would require much higher defence expenditure in European NATO countries.
7. What has been the response among euro zone military planners and military budget setters to the threat of war with Iraq? Has it affected attitudes to defence expenditure in Europe?
The EU Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) of 1997, has an impact on the level of defence expenditure in some European countries, since it sets a ceiling on budget deficits. However, it has been suggested by leading EU officials that these EU rules could now be lifted. Thus, the President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, has called the rules stupid and the EU Commissioner for Monetary Affairs, Pedro Solbes, said last week that the ceiling on budget deficits could be suspended in the event that a war against Iraq leads to recession in European economies. This would rest on the interpretation of “exceptional changes” in the SGP, and those interpretations differ.
8. What are Euro army feelings about current expenditure and politician’s attitudes to war and expenditure?
I do not have an overall picture of the views in the European armed forces. There are examples of retired military officers with critical views, but I cannot say how representative they are of officers in service. One such example is the article in Guardian of 18 Feb. 2003, by a former British general, David Ramsbotham, who retired from the army in 1993. See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,897644,00.html
9. Americas defence expenditure is 11% higher than average cold war levels; if NATO increases its expenditure to stay in touch with America’s does this constitute a new arms race of sorts?
First, it is highly unlikely that European NATO will increase its defence expenditure at the same rate as the United States. However, there will be increases in some countries and these can perhaps be seen as in some way propelled by the increases in the US defence budget. However, this is not an arms race between adversaries, but rather an effort with Europe to keep up with the United States as a cooperation partners and military allies. There are voices in Europe now that Europe needs to take on the responsibility of constituting an alternative power to the United States in the international system, but so far these voices constitute a very small minority.
10. What of the planned ‘ready response force’? Will it require an increase in expenditure?
Two different response forces are being developed. One is the European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF) of 60,000 troops to be operational by May 2003, as decided at the Summit meeting of the European Union in Helsinki in December 1999. The other is a NATO Response Force (NRF) of 21,000 troops, which was decided upon at the NATO summit meeting in Prague. There are no estimates available of the expenditure increases the creation of these forces would require. A more realistic way of perceiving the cost impact of these initiative is to think of them in terms of military transformation, that is that rapid reaction forces are replacing cold war types of armed forces, trained and equipped for a large scale war in Europe between two military alliances. The more rapid the transformation process is the less costly in the long run. Thus, the cost depends very much on how fast cold war type forces are reduced and replaced with smaller, more professional and mobile forces. However, there is inertia in all transformation processes and the risk is that cold war forces and armaments programmes are maintained, simultaneously with the build-up of new forces. Then, there will be a significant extra cost involved in developing these new forces.
11. Is Washington guilty of sending mixed signals on one hand chastising their allies for failing to keep up defense spending and on the other unwilling to share technology as it may jeopardize their lead in the arms industry?
Yes, this is a continuous argument from the European side in the transatlantic dialogue. The US argument is that the Europeans do not want to contribute or sacrifice anything but want the Americans to do the job for them. This tendency has become reinforced during the Bush Administration. However, I think that the issue of alliance cohesion is probably so important to both sides, that there will be some change in the position within the near future. The US arms industry is not against increased technology sharing. It is in their interests because it would facilitate cooperation with European defence companies, which in turn, most often is a condition for being accepted as a prime contractor for European arms procurement programmes. The opposition against increased technology sharing comes from the US Department of Defence and is motivated by national security concerns.
12. How much sway, if any, does the arms industry have in the decision to go to war against Iraq?
I do not think the arms industry has had any direct sway in the decision to go to war against Iraq. This is not the way I see the working of driving forces. I see it more in terms of systems and structures. I think the propensity to go to war is linked to factors, such as type of military force and military doctrines, the type of industry and industrial capabilities, and the type of military alliances and international cooperation. In all these respects, Western countries were slow to adjust to the more peaceful post cold war environment. Thus, when confronted with the challenge to respond to armed conflict, such as in Africa and in former Yugoslavia, the option of military intervention without casualties has become a tempting alternative, which has led on to the current temptation to strike at Iraq in order to eliminate a perceived, but not yet proved, threat of weapons of mass destruction.