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NATO and the UN: Together at Last

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


On Friday, the NATO Ambassadors met in an emergency session of the North Atlantic Council, the primary decision making body of NATO, in response to the zombie apocalypse-like conditions in Libya.  There have been some terrifying reports leaking out of the country since protests started 11 days ago, and NATO sort of has an obligation to mull its options on trying to make the situation better.

While most people knew NATO’s options were pretty limited—except for Fidel Castro and this guy–the North Atlantic Council did the right thing by considering a no-fly zone, making a vague threat, and punting the decision to the UN.  Despite recent outreach to other areas, NATO is still an inherently transatlantic organization, and Libya lies outside the Area of Operations for NATO forces not acting on Article 5.  The UN however, has the right mix of monitoring, civilian pressure, and international clout to enact sanctions on Kaddafi and his crew that are effective and legitimate.  Also, unlike NATO, the UN Security Council can extend jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court to places so bad even China and Russia are appalled.  Like, say, the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.

The effective interplay between NATO and the UN is the result of a relationship that has been growing stronger over the last two decades.  The UN began warming up to NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which would never allow the UN to sanctioned a mission with an imperialist organization like NATO .  Since then, however, the two organizations have been two intergovernmental peas in a pod: NATO expanded its AO in Afghanistan as the result of a UN mandate, and NATO intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo at the behest of the UN.  There’s also been better information sharing and closer contacts between the leaders of the two organizations, especially after September 11th.  Finally, in 2008, the SecGens of both NATO and the UN signed the “Joint Declaration on UN/NATO Secretariat Cooperation,” which made the deeper UN-NATO relationship all but Facebook Official.

Better relations between the UN and NATO is a force multiplier that allows both organizations to act more effectively.  By acknowledging each other’s comparative advantages, the two organizations can work on problems they are designed for, while trusting the other to do the same.  And although the descendents of Thomas Hobbes probably get a migraine every time it’s written, it’s true that IGOs can be positive-sum actors in international politics. Although very different intuitions, it is becoming more difficult for NATO and the UN to act without each other– far from being at the opposite side of the spectrum, they form an effective means of international cooperation. Libya is only the latest international problem where the organizations acted efficiently to best serve those who need help the most.  It probably won’t be the last.


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