The Hollow Heart of the West

BERLIN – It is tempting to compare NATO and the European Union to the French and Italian football teams in this year’s Euro 2008 competition. What unites them, above all, is a process of “competitive decadence.” The EU and NATO may see themselves as potential rivals or complementary partners in the field of defense. But what their leaders say in private reveals a sense of common frustration.

“We fail to translate military presence into political influence,” says the NATO person, who sounds very much like EU representatives commenting on the Union’s role in the Middle East. “We have failed to transform economic aid into political influence,” they lament.

The crises that the two institutions now face in the wake of Ireland’s vote against the Lisbon Treaty and the deterioration of security in Afghanistan are of course very different. Yet both are ultimately identity crises. Both NATO and the EU have been forced to redefine how they function and rethink their purposes after a dual process of enlargement. From that standpoint, the challenge confronting NATO may be even more difficult, for enlarging the security organization not only means taking on new members, but also exercising new “out of area” responsibilities.

Moving from the North Atlantic to Afghanistan, and from deterrence to combat, has proved to be a major challenge for NATO – a test that may prove harder than the disappearance of the Soviet Union nearly 20 years ago.