NATO: Lessons From Libya

Lord Ismay, the first Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), once declared that the purpose of the Alliance was to ‘keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down’. More than sixty years after NATO’s creation, the ongoing crisis in Libya has shed light onto the current and future key challenges that the Alliance faces, and calls for a comprehensive reassessment of the Alliance’s missions and mechanisms.

The World Today Updated 10 March 2020 Published 1 May 2011 3 minute READ

Onl y a few months following the long review process which led to the adoption of a new Strategic Concept identifying new security threats and challenges, NATO is at a crossroads again. Its credibility, relevance and adequacy have been called into question in the run-up to the Libyan crisis. Recent geopolitical developments have in fact hindered the Alliance’s modernisation process.

On the operational side, the Alliance is still heavily involved in Afghanistan.Despite renewed efforts,marked by the Barack Obama administration’s addition of 30,000 United States (US) troops in early 2010, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is still struggling on the ground. On March 27, NATO nevertheless took over command of the military operation in Libya, whose mandate is, for nowat least, to enforce the no-fly zone and the arms embargo. Regardless of the moral necessity to intervene in Libya, the new mission risks overstretching NATO resources and diverting its attention from Afghanistan.

A New Paradigm?

From a political perspective, the Libyan crisis has exposed key strategic challenges within NATO. Firstly, economic considerations have been an exceptionally great concern. Both in theUS and in Europe, governments and external observers pointed at the financial restraints that countries had to bear in mind before engaging in another military operation. In addition to the immediate cost of military engagement itself, the recent budget cuts implemented across the Alliance have allegedly constrained many countries’ ability to make a positive and significant impact on the ground in the long term. Defence spending by the European Alliance members declined by more than 45 billion dollars between 2009 and 2011,which led US Defence Secretary Robert Gates towarn that NATO was facing ‘very serious, long-term, systemic problems’ because of ‘Europe’s demilitarisation’. However, the US itself will need to implement similar budgetary reductions in the near future. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly declared that the US national debt was now the country’s single biggest security threat.

Secondly, the US now wishes to keep a lower profile in global security. Its reluctance to intervene against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya stems in a large part from the argument previously raised. In otherwords, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’. Traditionally, wars were argued to be positive for a country’s economic growth. Now, with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have cost more than a trillion dollars since 2001, these assumptions clearly need to be reassessed. The US, which eventually took command of the initial operations in Libya, has left political leadership to France and Britain,while passing over military command to NATO on March 27. Perhaps more tellingly, Washington is keen to pull out from Libya altogether as quickly as possible.

Thirdly, largely because of the leadership vacuum left by the US, France and Britain have acted as themain driving forces in the Libyan crisis. President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron were instrumental in securing the vote for the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973. While this bilateral leadership has been facilitated by years of strategic rapprochement between the two biggest powers in European defence, strategic differences re-emerged during international summits on Libya. France suggested that a Franco-British military command should take the lead in the operations, clashing with Britain’s insistence that NATO is the most appropriate organisation to take on this responsibility. Evidently, France characteristically attempted to opt for a more independent path, despite the country’s recent reintegration into NATO’s military command.

Fourthly, international negotiations on Libya have led to political clashes between a number of countries, including Germany, Italy, Turkey and France. Germany’s willingness to stay behind has exasperated most of its foreign allies, primarily France and Britain. Italy multiplied efforts to suggest that a deal could bemade to find a safe haven for Gaddafi, much to the irritation of other leaders. France’s Interior Minister Claude Guéant portrayed President Sarkozy’s activismin the Libyan crisis as a ‘crusade’,which infuriated Turkey’s political leaders, urging France to ‘evaluate its own conscience’. Turkey has in fact played a key role in the international negotiations, reasserting its own global influence, by notably offering to act as a broker between NATO and Libya.

A Catalyst For Change?

The Libyan crisis could very well be a historic turning point, similar to the Suez crisis in 1956 or the Balkanwars in the 1990s. Many commentators both inside and outside the Alliance have expressed scepticism over NATO’s ability to effectively respond to modern conflicts. To a certain extent, recent adjustments implemented during the war in Afghanistan and introduced by the new Strategic Concept have made NATO a more flexible organisation. ISAF in Afghanistan has become a wide coalition of allies and external partners,with almost fifty countries contributing troops on the ground. Additionally, there seems to be an increased awareness of the necessity forNATOto increase its civilian capacity, whether internally or via improved cooperation with the European Union (EU) and the UN. NATO’s willingness to broaden its scope is certainly salutary and a testimony of its willingness to change.

Nonetheless, more ad hoc mechanisms or so-called ‘coalitions of the willing’ may in the future become the most appropriate format for crisis management. In general, larger organisations are less likely to react and adapt rapidly. Spontaneous coalitions may also circumvent legacy issues more easily. Several countries (France and Turkey in particular) warned that NATO’s damaged reputation in the Middle East amidst the Afghan stalemate could in fact annihilate its capacity to act as a credible force in Libya.

Overall, there is a clear trend towards more flexibility in security and defence. It makes strategic and economic sense for smaller groups of countries to further cooperation on defence equipment and operational purposes. The EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PSC) mechanism, which allows core groups of member states to further their common defence efforts, follows this rationale, but is unfortunately currently blocked by political obstacles within the EU. The Helicopter Initiative, the Strategic Airlift Capability and the more recent Franco-British cooperation treaties (the Combined Joint Expeditionary Forces, in particular), are other examples of potentially useful - if not immediately successful - cooperation schemes between smaller groups of countries.

On the ground, NATO must improve its capacity to think strategically. By easing transitional processes towards better governance, the Alliance will avoid being drawn into other long-term and counterproductive military operations. This can be done through better early strategic assessments of the security, political and economic challenges on the ground. Moreover, NATO is not a civilian body and cannot generate a long-lasting solution to a conflict. The Alliance clearly needs to improve its coordination mechanisms with other organisations such as the UN, the EU and relevant NGOs. To rephrase Lord Ismay’s words, NATO should now try to keep its finances tight, the UN and the EU close, and its own military ambitions down.