November 1, 2011  

NATO after Libya

Campaign burnished Europe’s leadership yet underscored spending shortfalls

A year ago, in an article published at the Center for European Policy Analysis, we argued that “some voices increasingly insist that the age of Homo Atlanticus is declining. Though the trans-Atlantic relationship will face numerous crucial challenges in the future, the ‘Atlantic man,’ an unquestionable pillar of NATO, will still play an essential role.”

Few would have predicted then that the Atlantic alliance would lead a “war of choice” in Libya, yet the campaign has touched off a debate over the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance, with a chorus of security policy experts bemoaning its supposed strategic decay. But is it true that NATO is on the brink of collapse?

The last 12 months have revealed two truths.

First, Libya is cause for prudent optimism for NATO. Despite initial frictions within the decision-making process, the unprecedented scale and pace of execution of Operation Unified Protector made it clear that the alliance is ready, capable and willing to act effectively. Moreover, it allowed Europe to burnish its leadership credentials while the U.S. took a political back seat.

America did not hand off the mission in Libya to its European allies by saying, “Let NATO handle it.” On the contrary, the two most prominent European military powers — France and Great Britain — initiated the political campaign in the U.N. Security Council and continued it in the NATO forum. What is more, the European allies have provided roughly two-thirds of the total number of aircraft. Moreover, countries from outside the alliance have contributed to this operation. By comparison, the U.S. has provided less than 30 percent of the operation’s total sorties, though they were indubitably essential to the air campaign.

Hence, the Libyan campaign marks a new opening for NATO and underlines a reversal of the roles played by Europe and the U.S. in the skies over Serbia and Kosovo 12 years ago, when America stood at the forefront.

Second, NATO’s latest strategic concept adopted in Lisbon, which is being gradually implemented, mollifies the front-line U.S. allies who worry about the future of American engagement on the continent. In recent months, Washington has given myriad evidence that it remains ready to champion “wars of necessity” related to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. NATO, to a large extent under American pressure, has finally tangibly reassured Central Europe by taking several measures. NATO’s planned reduction of its command structure does not encompass the only existing installation in Central Europe, the Joint Force Training Center. The NATO Response Force — its fire brigade for bad weather — is now more realistically tailored, better manned and thus more prepared to act than a few years ago. The U.S. has politically and militarily invested in numerous military exercises — such as “Baltic Host” and “Sabre Strike” — in the Baltic states.

What is more, Poland and the U.S. signed an agreement that foresees a U.S. Air Force detachment permanently stationed in Poland. According to its provisions, the U.S. troops will focus on servicing F-16 fighters and C-130 transport aircraft — types of planes operated by both militaries — whose pilots and personnel will train together.

Furthermore, Poland and Romania have become two pillars of the new American approach to ballistic missile defense in Europe. By 2015, Romania will host land-based SM-3 ballistic missile defense interceptors. A second SM-3 site is to be installed by 2018 in Poland. Finally, the U.S. administration decided not to withdraw two of its four combat brigades in Europe and is keeping three of them in place. All this reflects how the U.S. remains committed to fulfill the mutual defense clause.

Worrisome Weaknesses

Some may say this is seeing NATO through rose-colored spectacles, or is solely boilerplate rhetoric. And indeed, the recent 12 months have also exposed two worrisome weaknesses of the alliance.

First, despite the political backing for Unified Protector, fewer than one-third of NATO allies have participated in strike missions, and fewer than half have contributed contingents of any sort. But it is also reported that some more have tacitly augmented their personnel to the headquarters that commanded the operation or provided other support to the mission. However, this à la carte approach is how NATO always has worked, particularly when it comes to “wars of choice” that are not related to the defense of alliance members.

Still, its scale in the Libyan campaign brings some doubts. What is, therefore, a compelling answer to the question “Why now so few?” Some countries, especially the more recent entrants, have been extensively engaged in other NATO operations: Afghanistan, Kosovo. Therefore, a contribution to another mission would simply overstretch their capabilities. Others lack the necessary air and naval assets that would be fully interoperable with those of their older allies. Both situations reveal, however, the second NATO weakness embodied in the relative decline of European defense spending.

The financial crisis has become the new normal. It changed the logic of international relations, ushering in a new era marked by a dysfunctional world economy and intensifying “zero sum” geopolitical rivalries. Despite this fact, it is truly a shame that only four European countries are meeting the minimum threshold of 2 percent gross domestic product expenditures on national defense. Moreover, the debt crisis that still hovers over the U.S. prevents officials from the Pentagon from making plans for multiyear programs and missions. If these trends continue, they will have a detrimental effect on trans-Atlantic security. In fact, some member states cannot participate in operations because they are short of the necessary capabilities or remain overstretched. They cannot, however, purchase required military equipment and munitions as well as complete indispensable defense reforms because they lack the financial resources. This vicious circle cannot prevail.

Fortunately, there are three remedies to these problems.

First, a sense of fiscal reality. Indeed, the armed forces on the Old Continent should undergo the necessary reforms. Numerous European states need to complete the modernization of their militaries by further phasing out Cold War legacy equipment and continuing to invest in modern materiel. The minimum threshold of 2 percent GDP for defense expenditures is not solely a hint. It is a must, especially since defense spending globally continues to grow in recent years.

Second, a sense of shared purpose. It can be achieved only when we jointly depart from Afghanistan according to the plan agreed upon in Lisbon; i.e., after we set sufficient conditions there. As the late Gen. Franciszek Gagor, the chief the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces, used to say, “Afghanistan does not constitute a test, but a task, for NATO.” Let’s accomplish this task properly, and move on.

Third, a sense of a renewed vigor. The political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic should remind societies that security cannot be taken for granted. A strong and united NATO is the best option on the table. The fact is that there are still states whose national goal is to join the alliance — for example, Georgia and Macedonia. There are others whose entrance, as reckoned by numerous security pundits, remains just a matter of time — for example, Finland and Sweden. This confirms that the alliance still has its allure. Ultimately, trans-Atlantic security depends on the ability of European and U.S. statesmen to see the larger stakes beyond the narrow regional interests.

Let us imagine that we could ask the “Atlantic man” himself about his condition. What could his answer be? Most probably he would quote Mark Twain: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

However, there is plenty of work to do before the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago. AFJ