By Ian Davis, NATO Watch
A four-star commander, who knows Europe, can work on a tight budget, a lot of travel required. Europeans and Canadians need not apply.
General John Allen, the outgoing Commander of the NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, will retire and therefore not become NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), as agreed by NATO’s North Atlantic Council (NAC) in October 2012. The announcement can’t have been unexpected, in Washington at least, as General Allen had informed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta several weeks ago that his wife’s condition might lead him to decline the nomination.
With Allen stepping aside, the gossip among NATO Defence Ministers currently gathered in Brussels will be, who is going to be the next SACEUR? It is a leading question, at least inside the Pentagon, where Allen's decision to withdraw from consideration for the top military job in Europe will have resulted in a sharpening of elbows in the jostling for what remains a popular posting. The personal spec tends to be someone who is already a four-star commander and, if possible, who knows his way around Europe. Affection for the road is also important since the job requires the commander to travel for as much as 25 days per month. While a number of names are already being floated inside the Washington beltway, don’t expect to see any European (or Canadian) nominations.
This is because NATO’s top general is always an American (and the top diplomat, the Secretary General, is always a European). The Defence Ministers role in Brussels will be simply to rubber stamp the decision made in the White House.
As it happens, NATO Watch questioned this cosy arrangement back in November when General Allen was first nominated. We couldn’t understand why the situation didn’t raise eyebrows in European NATO or the media. As no answer was forthcoming then, we thought we might as well try and ask it again.
SACEUR was established in 1951 with General Dwight Eisenhower as its first incumbent. All sixteen subsequent holders of the office have been Americans and simultaneously held the office of head of the US European Command.
But am I the only person to think that parliamentarians in other member states might like to have a voice in this decision-making process or that NATO perhaps might wish to look beyond the Pentagon’s octagonal walls for its Supreme Commander?
There are major differences between how Europe and the US see threats and how to respond to them, which are also at the root of the so-called transatlantic spending gap. But while Americans do pick up a disproportionate share of the NATO tab, does this justify automatic and permanent US military leadership?
Clearly, the US is also hyper-sensitive to placing its military forces under foreign command. Current US military doctrine is that, while its forces may be placed under foreign command, they are never placed under foreign operational control – although this been done previously by at least four US presidents.
The bottom line for ‘realists’ is that if the US didn’t have the command, they would lose interest, and European elites would lose their main reason for supporting NATO, which is to keep close to the global superpower and retain a US military footprint in Europe as a deterrent to Russia. In which case, why all the pretence that the alliance is about shared democratic values, partnership building and consensus decision-making?
Isn’t it about time that serious questions were asked about this perpetual merry-go-round of European civilian leadership and American military leadership of the Alliance? With the imminent closure of the Afghan chapter of NATO’s history, now would be a good moment to step off the carousel and ask whether this is still a good way to run a much-changed and enlarged 21st Century security organisation.
Would a US diplomat as Secretary General and a European SACEUR lead to a more balanced outlook within the Alliance? Perhaps, although there are plenty of other structural and ideological roots to NATO’s contemporary dividing lines, many of which have little to do with transatlantic (US-EU) divisions or the nationality of the military and political leadership. Nonetheless, a more open and transparent selection process for both of NATO’s top jobs is surely long overdue.