NATO After Libya: Why the Alliance Is Worth Saving

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March 27, 2011: The aftermath of a NATO airstrike on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf, Libya. Ivor Prickett / Panos

It’s entirely possible that Operation Unified Protector will turn out to have been NATO’s defining post–Cold War moment. The alliance’s military intervention in Libya achieved big things: it prevented the destruction of Benghazi, bought time for the Libyan rebels, and played a crucial part in toppling Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship. Behind the scenes, the allies orchestrated a U.N. Security Council, rallied Arab League support for military action, and even enlisted some Arab states to participate.

But Libya was also a warning: NATO remains utterly dependent on American air power and munitions to beat even a third-rate enemy like Gaddafi. How much longer will U.S. lawmakers and taxpayers continue to provide that support? Why should they underwrite the performance of European militaries when Europe’s own taxpayers refuse to do so? In a farewell speech this past June in Brussels, then–U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates gave a dismal assessment of the alliance’s Libyan performance, warning that NATO had shown itself to be at risk of “collective military irrelevance.”

NATO’s membership has more than doubled to 28 countries since its inception in 1949, but its basic principle remains the same: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” Only once in NATO’s 62-year history has its mutual-defense clause been invoked: after the Sept. 11 attacks on America. More than 10 years later, NATO allies continue to fight America’s fight, with 40,000 non-U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan. That’s loyalty. Imagine how hard it would be for an American president to sustain involvement in someone else’s war after 10 years.

Yet NATO has been a good deal for the Europeans and Canadians: for the past six decades the world’s strongest military has been committed to their defense. Nearly 80,000 U.S. military personnel are currently stationed in Europe, working closely and routinely under NATO’s integrated military command, sharing expertise, plans, equipment, and training.

In fact, Europeans have more influence over U.S. policies in NATO than in any other forum. Its rules, originally drawn up for Western Europe’s defense, give the European allies so much leverage that Washington insisted that its treaty obligations be limited to “Europe or America,” carefully excluding the Europeans’ colonial possessions in Asia and Africa. (Times do change—in recent years the United States has been the leading proponent of NATO’s security responsibilities around the world.)

The allies can count on America to step in whenever they lack the required capabilities. The British and the French may have flown most of the missions during Operation Unified Protector, but it was U.S. personnel and equipment that destroyed Libya’s air defenses at the outset, firing more than 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles on the first day. As the intervention continued, the Americans provided 80 percent of the necessary intelligence; dispatched targeting specialists to make up for a shortage of qualified European technicians; and supplied additional munitions to the other allies when they ran short.

And it was practically inevitable that they would run short. Minus the United States, NATO’s members spend roughly $150 billion a year on defense, a figure that’s not even close to the U.S. expenditure—excluding war costs—of around $560 billion. That’s fully half the world’s total. Russia and China each spend about $100 billion (although it’s hard to be sure about China, because its reporting is so opaque). Libya itself spent $1 billion in the year before Gaddafi’s overthrow.

All told, the alliance has nearly 2 million military members, including battle-hardened veterans of the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Seven of the world’s 10 best militaries are European members of NATO. Even without U.S. participation, the Europeans should be able to defeat any potential enemy.

The trouble is, they no longer believe they can. Britain openly admits its dependence on the United States. Since 1997, the United Kingdom has predicated its defense planning on the assumption that it will not fight a war without American assistance. While Eurochauvinists may harbor notions of independence, the truth is that few of them are willing to fight unless America is at their side, no matter now noble the cause may be.

The Europeans don’t measure themselves against the enemy; they measure themselves against America. And compared with the United States, Europe has too few precision weapons, too slow a reaction time, and inadequate intelligence capabilities. The fear is that they’ll suffer more casualties, cause more collateral damage in combat, take longer to achieve their objectives, and have fewer military options. And those worries have very real political consequences. Going to war is a big decision for any democracy, and in NATO the choice has to be unanimous. The big risk is not whether the alliance can win whatever wars it chooses to fight. It can. The risk is that NATO will choose not to fight, that its members will withdraw into their own narrowly defined interests, close to home.

But there’s still hope for the alliance. Not all its member nations were enthusiastic about Libya; only 14 of them contributed forces to the operation. At the U.N., the Germans refused to vote for military intervention. They pulled their pilots from NATO planes and withdrew their ships from the area of operations. But when NATO took its own Libya vote, the Germans said yes.

And that’s why NATO is worth saving. A model has emerged, first in Kosovo and now in Libya: the NATO allies reach a collective judgment that intervention is needed in a conflict outside the member nations’ borders. Even if some members choose not to take part in that operation, their votes give validation to the members who are willing to fight. Some Americans may complain about the NATO members who didn’t fly strike sorties in Libya, but that misses the point: the NATO vote enabled the willing members to gain support both at home and internationally, and to get military assistance from the United States.

America’s political culture doesn’t require the approval of international bodies to act in defense of U.S. interests. In fact, in American presidential politics, a ritual proclamation of readiness to take unilateral military action is almost a precondition for becoming commander in chief. By contrast, the Europeans are much more respectful of international opinion. A NATO mandate can go a long way toward convincing them that military force is called for. It conveys the unanimous approval of 28 elected governments representing approximately 900 million people—the closest thing to a concert of democracies.

America may sometimes find its European allies tiresome, sanctimonious, and condescending. They contribute too little and expect too much. They often speak as if the United States were no different from its enemies around the world. Yet Europeans remain among America’s most reliable friends. Their commitment to human rights and democratic governance means they’re generally sympathetic to U.S. foreign-policy aims. Their militaries have been contributors in America’s wars, not just participants. And their long history of fighting beside the United States makes military teamwork relatively easy.

Nevertheless, Libya exposed serious flaws in the Europeans’ military power and political will. And those problems are not going away soon: the global financial crisis has put even greater strains on all the allies’ defense budgets, in Europe and America alike.

Still, the United States can’t afford to let its NATO partners slip away. No one else has the abilities and resources to accomplish what the alliance has done in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya. No one else has the depth of shared values. NATO doesn’t matter only for Europe; it matters for the United States. Without NATO, the United States would have more work to do in the world, not less, and the burden on America’s military and taxpayers would be even heavier. We need to get working to repair our frayed alliance.

This essay was published in Newsweek International's Special Edition, 'Issues 2012,' on sale from December 2011-February 2012.

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