Libyan Fallout: Does NATO Divide the Atlantic Partners? Part II

Despite internal divisions, Europe handily leads the military campaign in Libya, taking on global-policing duties long shouldered by the US. NATO’s objectives have shifted and expanded since 1949, with members divided about threats and strategy. This YaleGlobal series analyzes the transformation in the NATO alliance resulting from the Libyan crisis. Members share common goals, and thus the alliance has become a flexible transactional compact, explains Tomas Valasek, director of foreign policy and defense for the European Centre for Reform, in the second and final article. Members identify and assess threats and “take part in missions not because they share a sense of threat but in exchange for future help from the rest of NATO,” he explains. A defense collective remains invaluable for members, and rumors of the alliance’s demise are premature, Valasek contends. Selection of future conflicts and members’ roles could depend on the outcome of intervention in Libya. – YaleGlobal

Libyan Fallout: Does NATO Divide the Atlantic Partners? Part II

Expecting cherry-picking from NATO members, the US delegates security tasks to Europe
Tomas Valasek
Thursday, May 12, 2011

Protect and train: NATO fulfills the UN mandate to protect Libyans from Gaddafi’s attacks

LONDON: History will remember the Libya war by how it ends, not how it began. And it’s far too early to declare success or failure.

The manner in which the war started though, allows us to draw three broad conclusions: Barack Obama successfully delegated the burden of global policing. Europe, for all its self-flagellation, has been found both willing and capable of leading a campaign that prevented bloodshed in Benghazi. And lastly, NATO continues to be the go-to platform for Europe and the US to fight wars. The alliance, however, has become a more transactional place in which individual countries pick and choose which missions to support.

The key lesson of the war is that Obama has accomplished one of his top foreign-policy goals: convincing the allies to take greater responsibility for their own affairs. The administration has made clear that the US, exhausted from fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and economic crisis at home, will be less keen than before to enter new conflicts. “The nation that I am most interested in building is my own,” Obama said in 2009. By implication – in a complete role reversal from the 1990s, when the United States led the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo – the allies in Europe must take primary responsibility for military operations.

Some in Europe – particularly the continent’s eastern parts – charged the US with abandoning its traditional allies. This is wildly inaccurate: Obama pushed NATO to draft contingency plans for the defense of the Baltic countries. The US, the message says, will not hesitate to lead “wars of necessity,” those in defense of Europe. However, the US will not necessarily lead ”wars of choice” in and around Europe, such as those fought in the name of human rights. This burden rests now with the Europeans.

Libya is the first test case for the US policy. True to its word, the US military turned over the conduct of the war to the Europeans once the conflict’s initial stage – for which US missiles and airplanes were indispensable – concluded. While the United States “will not allow the operation to fail” – as a senior US official responsible for Europe said recently – it will only step in when and if its allies lack the necessary means to win. In practice, this has meant that the US provides niche weapons, such as unmanned Predator drones, and has more forces on standby, but on a day-to-day basis Europeans and Arabs fly the vast majority of bombing missions.

Presumably, there will be future exceptions to this new policy: Should the US feel endangered by terrorists or other threats coming from Europe’s periphery, it would probably lead the military response. However – and this is the main lesson of the war so far for Europe – America’s allies must prepare to fight some wars on their borders with the US playing only a supporting role. This is not the end of the transatlantic alliance, but it does amount to a dramatic new redistribution of roles.

The second key lesson of Libya is that Obama’s policy has had the desired effect on Europe: it energized it.  European allies grumbled about US inattention to Libya in the run-up to the war, but eventually responded by taking the political lead. President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron spearheaded the campaign for a UN Security Council resolution on Libya. European militaries performed the brunt of the bombing raids since the US military destroyed Libya’s air defenses and withdrew most of its planes.

There are those who argue that Europe has failed because its main institution, the European Union, has not taken lead in Libya, largely because Germany opposed the war. But surely, a flag is less important than the substance of the action itself. Europe acted by definition because France and the UK, the continent’s largest military powers, have between them provided about half the force flying over Libya. The downside to the EU’s inability to agree on Libya is that countries not members of NATO, such as Austria or Finland – have no say on the conduct of the war. But most do, by virtue of their NATO membership. In a sense, Libya is the anti-Bosnia: When bloodshed in Bosnia broke out in the 1990s, many in the EU proclaimed that the “hour of Europe” – the time when it turned into a proper military power – had arrived. But then key European capitals hesitated, and the US led the NATO intervention that ended the civil war. In Libya, European powers acted quickly, almost certainly preventing a massacre in Benghazi. And though they did not fight under the EU flag, this has been a good few weeks for Europe.

And while the operation exposes some military weaknesses on their part, it has on balance demonstrated that Europe can fight relatively big wars with limited US support. Critics point to NATO’s difficulties in dislodging Gaddafi’s forces from the besieged city of Misurata. Without weapons that the US withdrew from the area of conflict, the argument goes, the Europeans cannot prevail. But few involved in day-to-day NATO consultations on Libya concur. What NATO tries to do in Misurata – attacking individual, small Libyan government units from the air, in the middle of a large city, without killing nearby civilians and rebel forces – is inherently difficult, they contend. Absent the deployment of ground forces – for which neither Europe nor the US have the political appetite – the best solution is a slow, daily campaign of attrition from the air, combined with improved support for rebel forces. This sort of war is within the Europeans’ grasp, though they needed significant US help in destroying Libya’s air defenses.

The third key lesson of the war concerns NATO. Rumors of its demise because of difficulties in Libya are premature. The war has highlighted divisions among NATO allies – Germany’s refusal to vote for the UN Security Council resolution on Libya in particular was grating. But these divisions are not dramatically different from those exposed by the wars in Kosovo or Afghanistan. The US-European alliance weathered those conflicts reasonably well. NATO's conduct in Libya reconfirms that the transatlantic community lacks a single unifying threat or strategy.

Instead, allies remain bound by a new kind of bargain: Countries take part in missions not because they share a sense of threat but in exchange for future help from the rest of NATO. This new NATO is a “transactional” alliance. And frequently some allies choose to sit out a particular mission.

This sounds messy but the allies have made it work. Both Afghanistan and now Libya have been fought on such transactional terms, with many allies joining because they wanted to preserve alliance solidarity. NATO members remain bound by common values and the realization that collective defense – even if it means support from most rather than all NATO countries – is cheaper and more convincing than managing security alone. As one senior US official pointed out, the key danger of the new transactional NATO is that allies will develop incompatible forces as each focuses on separate threats. Failure to win convincingly in either Afghanistan or Libya would also make allies more reluctant to enter operations not deemed central to their national interest. How the war in Libya ends could yet undermine the transactional principle at the heart of the new NATO.  


Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defense for the European Centre for Reform. He has written extensively on transatlantic relations, common European foreign and security policy, and defense industry issues. He is also a senior advisor to the Brussels office of the World Security Institute.
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