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Separated by a Common Alliance

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

100415a-HQ28-001 NATO Headquarters Brussels.

So now we’re in-fighting in NATO over the whole Libya thing.  Thirteen days into the NATO-led bombing campaign against loyalist forces in Libya, and the alliance is already showing signs of strain.  The Hawks, led by France and the UK, have expressed their displeasure over the small impact the bombing missions have made thus far (the sorties have yet to stop the shelling of tenuously-held Misurata ), and are pushing to send arms to the poorly-equipped rebels. The Doves, led by Belgium and the empty seat Germany used to sit in, are questioning the legality of arming rebels under a UN mandate that only calls for “protecting civilians.”

While the latest spat within the Atlantic Alliance isn’t that surprising (we’re still fighting about deployments to Afghanistan) there might be some extenuating circumstances that are exacerbating tensions present in any NATO-led mission.  A general lack of political will and low levels of European defense spending are obviously contributing to the recent fracas, but operational factors may also be putting an undue strain on the alliance.  NATO commanders have all but admitted that constraints put on people and machinery by their home countries, such as limiting aircraft to a support role, is restricting the efficacy of the bombing campaign.  It may be these tactical and operational failings that are causing rifts at much higher levels.

There’s also the red-white-and-blue elephant in the room that no one seems to be mentioning much.  The U.S. pulled out of bombing missions when NATO took over, leaving French, British and other member- countries to fill the hole in manpower and equipment left by Uncle Sugar’s withdrawal.  But it’s tough for Europe to fill that gap on its own—the U.S. spends twice as much on defense as all other NATO countries combined, and NATO is designed to rely on U.S. defense capabilities.  Consider this quote from the Council on Foreign Relations in 2006:

“Imagine a NATO operation with Norwegian special forces being dropped off and picked up by a Polish airlift team, protected by US satellites, an aircraft carrier and its warplanes. What makes NATO effective is its integrated military structure and its mutual defense pledge.”

The author is speaking somewhat hypothetically here, but it’s a good illustration of how people have been thinking about NATO’s force structure.  The United States provides a firm base for operations, and if you take that essential piece away, it’s going to make things a lot harder for the alliance.

Going forward, moving away from consensus decision-making at the committee level would make the Alliance more nimble, and revamping some common funding elements would better distribute the financial and military costs among all members.   This would ensure the Alliance’s effectiveness even if individual member states objected to an operation, and would allow for both financial and military contributions.  The 21st century is going to require a stronger alliance to combat a host of new threats, and better integration is the only way NATO can adapt.


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