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NATO and the UN: Hand in Glove?

By Griffin W. Huschke, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow


There’s been a lot of news out of Libya recently, with the UN approving a NATO-led no-fly zone, and the Libyan government offering a “cease-fire”  in rapid succession.  While only time will tell if the Qaddafi government will stick to its word regarding the cease fire, the recent collaboration between the UN and NATO–two organizations which sometimes seemed to have mutually exclusive mandates–is worthy of some discussion.

There’s been astonishingly little work done at the think tank level on NATO-UN cooperation (except for this trenchant piece), which is surprising considering the magnitude of the issue and the sheer number of people doing research on international organizations.   All the trend-lines are encouraging for the prospects of further cooperation as well: NATO leaders continue to interface with UN officials on a regular basis, sharing information on both of the organizations’ interests and actions. Coordination between NATO and the UN during the Libyan crisis and other operations in Africa, including the joint African Union-UN mission to Sudan, shows that the UN and NATO can work well on the ground, too.

Part of the reason the UN needs NATO so much is because of the West’s awesome logistical capabilities.  Called “legs” by the folks in uniform, NATO member states (especially the U.S.) have an unparalleled ability to deploy troops and supplies all over the world, using a combination of cargo ships, landing craft, and big, big helicopters.  Even during the Cold War, NATO could afford to chill “over the horizon” from possible conflict areas, because they could deploy well trained fighting men and women to anywhere in the world in a flash.  And when the UN is trying to stop genocide in areas that are hard to get to, à la Sudan, NATO is really the only organization that can get people and things where they need to be to stop horrific bloodshed.

But NATO needs the UN just as much.  NATO has always had a bit of an image problem with Non-Aligned countries and some members of the former Warsaw Pact, who were suspicious of the organization they saw as a tool of capitalist/imperialist countries messing in places they shouldn’t be.  But when NATO acts on a UN Security Council resolution, it gives the Alliance an air of legitimacy and respect from nations that may otherwise be wary of NATO troops far outside of Europe.  It also shores up support for domestic constituencies in the Alliance—publics in many European countries aren’t that psyched about deploying members of their military of faraway places, and the Security Council can help citizens in NATO countries realize that Alliance action is sometimes very necessary.

There are likely to be some hiccups in the relationship ahead, however.  Going forward, the UN and NATO are going to have to figure how to make their relationship more concrete without upsetting Russia, which still sees the Alliance as a bit of a home-wrecker.  But a clear institutional bond between the two organizations will give specific responsibility to both groups and enhance their short- and long-term success.   Hopefully, with further cooperation, these roles will become apparent, and strengthen the institutional links and provide better security and international governance for all.


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