The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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A Conversation with Kurt Volker
Published on June 19, 2012

Only over the past decade or two have Americans come to view the European Union as the principal symbolic organization of the continent. Throughout the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an alliance established in 1949 to balance against the communists, received most of our attention. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, it has tried to take on new missions to prove its utility. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke of its “dim if not dismal future” in 2011. Perhaps, I figured, we could better understand the self-conceptions of each European state if we saw them through the very narrow lens of the principal military alliance on the planet.

Reading Kurt Volker’s biography is like reading a battlefield history of Operation Desert Storm. In retrospect, victory was just inevitable. He interned at the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm and served as a graduate fellow at the Central Intelligence Agency. He subsequently joined the Foreign Service and found himself working on a whole range of important issues in the 1990s. He helped manage the relationship with Hungary during the Balkans crisis and its accession to NATO, and developed NATO’s strategic thinking during the period. He worked for the Secretary-General of NATO during the period of NATO enlargement from 1991 to 2001, and then bounced around between the National Security Council, where he covered Western Europe, and the State Department, where he also covered Western Europe. Finally, he is trilingual: French, Hungarian and Swedish. When President George W. Bush nominated him to become the ambassador to NATO—the so-called U.S. Permanent Representative—in 2008, few in Washington should have been surprised.

Volker now works for the McCain Institute for International Leadership, affiliated with Arizona State University. He also teaches at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

“The EU has tried to be exceptional”, Volker began. “They have tried to create a hybrid that is neither a country nor a collection of countries as an international organization, but something in between. It has succeeded in some respects.”

The problem Europe faces is that the member states delegated their sovereignty to the Commission on non-essential issues, but not on issues that are of significant consequence. The result has been gridlock.

“Some people compare it to the Articles of Confederation”, Volker said. “You can’t be half in and half out. You’ve got to choose. We [the United States] chose to go into a full federation, but they’re not going to choose to do that in Europe.”

Talk of the Eurozone breaking up and increased pressure on the European Union itself has led to renewed interest in the vitality of the nation-states that comprise the organization.

“Start with the UK”, Volker said. “That’s the most salient of all of them. The UK still sees itself as a great power—not as a superpower, but as a great power. It has global interests and a global perspective, and they think of themselves as being strategic, as well. The first place you go to find a decent think-tank outside of Washington is London.”

The list includes Chatham House, the Royal United Services Institute, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the Legatum Institute.

“They’re the seafaring nation, the trading nation, the open nation, but by virtue of being that way feel they’re also more worldly, more globally engaged”, he continued. “Within NATO, they view themselves as a country that is militarily capable, willing to deploy and use force, having global reach, nuclear power, deterrent. Until recently, they’ve had carriers. It’s kind of the first ally among others in terms of their approach to the U.S. and their role within NATO.”

“The French role within NATO has recently gone through a 180-degree transformation”, he said, as deftly as if he were lecturing in a classroom. “For decades under Charles de Gaulle’s approach, which was carried right through Jacques Chirac, France kept a distance within NATO. They didn’t take part in the integrated military structure, didn’t take part in nuclear planning, generally tried to limited whatever role NATO had or might play, to keep NATO on a short leash.”

He continued: “The theory was that France is great power, but is made greater by leading Europe, and so with French leadership and German muscle France would still be on the world stage. That didn’t work out so well, especially with the war in Iraq, where France kind of marginalized itself. It was left out of all the decision-making. It was tied to a Germany that was becoming more and more pacifist and isolated from the UK and the U.S., and it wasn’t really able to lead Europe anymore.”

The enlargement of both the EU and NATO during the 1990s also meant that the votes of each member-state were diluted in their importance. France had sought to secure a seat at the table by leading Europe, but it had failed.

“Nicolas Sarkozy had this insight, which I think is probably his biggest contribution to French policy”, Volker said. “Instead, you ought to do the opposite: get along with the U.S. and be at the global table, and that will make France more of a leader within Europe, especially when Germany is kind of floundering. So, that’s what they’ve done. They’ve reintegrated into the NATO military structure, they’re playing a leading role in Libya, they started contributing in Afghanistan. France has sort of adopted a national, global role, and in doing so, increased its leadership of the EU.”

Volker then turned to Germany. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he said, German policy was conceptualized by a tripod. This consisted maintaining productive relationships with three key players in the region: the United States (and NATO), France (and the EU), and Russia. And then, in 1998, Gerhard Schröder became Chancellor.

“Schröder ditched the U.S. and NATO, didn’t care about Europe that much, and put all the effort into the relationship with Russia”, said Volker. The center-right political leader Angela Merkel replaced Schröder in 2005, but pacifism had already taken root. “Frankly, Germany has been a stick in the mud, whether it’s on counter-piracy operations, where they wanted the EU to take the lead; on Afghanistan, where they had caveats on their own forces; on Libya, where they abstained at the UN and limited NATO to only doing what the UN mission said, and then didn’t take part in the end anyway. Germany has been very reluctant to get involved with any of these NATO things anymore.”

The Eurozone debt crisis has also raised tensions between Germany and its neighbors, particularly France, formerly an important component of the policy tripod. Volker continued: “Germany sees itself, however, as the responsible core of Europe. They manage their finances, they are productive, they’re hard-working, they have rule of law, they have order, they export, and they think the rest of Europe ought to be more like them. They are the anchor that keeps Europe together and they don’t like having to be asked to pay for that.”

A Space for Self-Governance

After the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990–91 period, the question arose: what do we do with NATO? The alliance, after all, had been created to defend against the Soviets. No Soviets, no NATO. And yet the alliance not only endured, but it expanded to include many countries that were once part of the Soviet sphere of influence, including Poland, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

“NATO was, in some sense, a negative proposition: prevent the Soviet Union from threatening and attacking Europe”, Volker explained. “But it was also a positive proposition. We believe the best way to organize societies is for people to be able to choose their governments, to have individual freedom, to have market economies, to have rule of law even as the government is governed by law, and protection of human rights and human dignity.” This, he argued is the Western heritage, starting with the Magna Carta in 1215 and continuing all the way up to the Enlightenment, as well as the American and French revolutions.

He continued: “NATO was basically about protecting the space where that way of governing people—or people governing themselves—can exist. When the Berlin wall came down and the Soviet Union fell apart, the opportunity was suddenly there for more people to be part of such a community, where they can govern themselves that way and be secure.”

The establishment of democracy and the free market in all NATO members and especially along the periphery remains very much a work in progress, Volker conceded.

On the question of whether NATO redeemed itself in the overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya, Volker was quick to say it was a good thing the dictator has been removed. However, that doesn’t mean all is well with the alliance.

“NATO had a whole bunch of problems long before Libya came on the scene, and the Libya operation didn’t solve any of them, so to conclude that everything’s fine because Qaddafi’s gone, and therefore NATO’s in good shape, is a complete misreading”, said Volker. “I don’t think the Libya operation redeems that. In fact, I think it points out some of these problems.”

These issues include the pacifism or at least lack of will to use force. “If you’re not actually willing to use your military forces, then what are you bringing as an alliance?” The result was a certain “squeamishness” about the mission, as it was conceptualized and executed; the mission was civilian protection rather than regime change. NATO members also insisted that the United Nations provide an explicit mandate. “That, again, is a limitation on NATO and on purposes that NATO had never accepted before.” Volker concurred with Dobbins’ assessment that the Europeans simply lacked the capability to carry out the operation without American help, but added a further point: “You have problems with solidarity because only eight allies took part. You agreed on a NATO mission and eight of them take part and the rest sit it out?” Finally, Volker argued, “the U.S. set a very bad precedent by putting limits on our own role.”

Aside from an initial surge of involvement, the American role was largely facilitating in the background. Interestingly, the Arab Spring took off just months after France and Britain signed their historic defense pact, which heralded unprecedented cooperation in both the sharing of aircraft carriers and in nuclear weapons research.

“They were looking for a way both to provide political cover for major national defense cuts”, Volker explained, “and for ways to get efficiency in doing some things together, which they wouldn’t’ be able to do at all if they had tried to do it separately.”

The war in Libya, Volker noted, “pointed out that these military establishments are already on a shoestring.” The French aircraft carrier suffered maintenance issues during the operation significant enough to withdraw from the fight, and Britain employed military assets that were scheduled for decommissioning. Surely, I suggested, this reality may clash with the self-conceptions of these two nations.

Volker replied: “That’s a big problem for Britain because they have the image of themselves as this global player, but they’re dramatically cutting their capacity to carry it out. This fits the British notion of frugality — ‘we’re being efficient in the use of resources, in order to maintain a footprint while living more within our means.’“

Across the English Channel, the French have a different view. They are rescuing the British, but not for altruistic reasons. “For the French”, Volker explained, “it’s critically important that the UK maintain a nuclear deterrent. The French don’t want to be alone in Europe maintaining a nuclear arsenal.” The reason is that they would become the sole target of the anti-nuclear movement, without diplomatic allies. “By helping build this partnership and getting some more efficiency out of British defense expenditures and other places, they hope the British hang on and keep their Trident [missile] deterrent.”

Ultimately, however, Volker is not optimistic about the future of NATO. He arrived at his ambassadorial post just after the Russians invaded Georgia. He recalled that the alliance had spoken with a single voice not even a decade earlier during his time with the Secretary-General’s office, but by August 2008 things had changed.

Volker’s European counterparts offered up a full range of excuses for why a NATO statement could not be issued, outlining what the combined alliance’s policy was towards the conflict. Some said there wasn’t enough time, that all the important political leaders were on summer vacation, and most curiously that a statement from NATO would “militarize” the conflict.

“Which is just insane, given it was a raging war”, Volker added. “That was a pattern throughout the whole year I was there: lots of excuses for NATO not to do things, rather than debating what to do and how.” Echoing Robert Gates, he said: “We don’t have the resources among NATO allies and we don’t have the political will to take on all the missions that NATO says it’s going to take on.” These missions include missile defense, expeditionary capabilities, cyber attacks, terrorism, deterrence, crisis management, and more.

“So there’s a whole range of things NATO says it’s going to do, but no one has the capability or the will to do it”, he said. “If you want NATO to be successful, you need to ratchet back your level of ambition and say, ‘We’re going to come back to basics of NATO protecting European territory.’ The only thing I would tweak there is that it’s not just against military attacks, but against the wide array of threats that exist. But for the expeditionary missions, where you have to be able to deploy and sustain forces in the field, and be willing to use force aggressively to knock out a government, that’s better done by a small group of countries rather than by NATO per se.”

Ideas, Blood, and Soil

For Volker, there is no doubt about American exceptionalism, even if Europeans may dismiss the notion.

“The U.S. was founded on a set of ideas, not on geography and not on ethnicity, but a set of ideas about the way people organize themselves and form governments”, he said, channeling his inner professor. The European states are organized in a similar political structure today, but it was not always so. “They’re based on geography and ethnicity, language, blood and soil. They have a hard time thinking otherwise, whereas I think we genuinely see ourselves as different in terms of what we are as a country.”

“Now, that doesn’t mean that we don’t make mistakes or get overextended”, he cautioned, “and I think you could argue that especially in the last couple decades we’ve just taken on more than we really can afford or sustain.”

Volker concluded: “Part of our self-identification—despite the arguments over immigration law reform—is that we are a nation of immigrants. Everyone is attracted to the idea of equal opportunity, which is really embedded in the country here. That makes us fundamentally different from all these European countries.”

Tristan Abbey is senior editor of Bellum: A Project of the Stanford Review.