What Libya says about future NATO operations

What Libya says about future NATO operations

Tomas Valasek
26 August 2011

by Tomas Valasek

Libya has been a difficult war for NATO. It has shown the alliance divided: only eight out of 28 allies sent combat forces. Some of them ran out of ammunition and Italy withdrew its aircraft carrier in the midst of the conflict because the government needed to cut expenses. The Americans’ frustration with European performance boiled over in June, when the then-secretary of defence Robert Gates warned that NATO faced a ‘dim and dismal’ future.

Yet critics of NATO’s performance are missing a bigger story: in Libya, the Europeans have for the first time responded to Washington’s calls to assume more responsibility for their neighbourhood. In complete contrast to the Balkans in the 1990s, they have taken decisive military action. As a result, the United States could take a back seat while the Europeans have absorbed most of the risks and costs of the ultimately successful war. This should be cause for cautious optimism about NATO.

Libya is an unheralded triumph for US diplomacy. One of Washington’s consistent aims has been to convince its allies to relieve the US military burden. In Libya, the US at last did what it had long threatened to do: the Obama administration, never too keen on the intervention in the first place, turned over most operations to allies shortly after the war’s initial stage, which had been led by US forces.

The US’s policy has had the desired effect on Europe: it has energised the key allies. French and British air forces, along with other European, Canadian and Middle Eastern colleagues, have performed the majority of the bombing raids since early weeks of the six-month war. In a sense, Libya is the antithesis to Europe’s failure to act in Bosnia. When bloodshed in the Balkans broke out in the 1990s, senior politicians on the continent hailed the ‘hour of Europe’, when an economic power would become a security player. But key European capitals could not summon the political will to use force, and, embarrassingly, it fell mostly to the US to end the civil war in Bosnia. In Libya, European governments acted swiftly, and helped the rebels win the war. In the process, the allies established a new division of labour for NATO operations on Europe’s borders, which should be encouraged and developed further.

This is not to say that all is well in NATO. Germany’s refusal to support the mission is worrying; Europe’s diplomacy and military operations in Libya lacked the punch they would have had with the continent’s largest country on board. Money is also a concern. The new division of labour inside NATO can only work if European governments continue to invest in their militaries. They are failing to do this: over the past few years, European countries have cut defence budgets dramatically. The Libyan conflict has done little to change the trend: the fiscal crisis is ensnaring more governments each month, prompting deeper and deeper cuts in government expenses including defence. On present trends, the Europeans may well lose the ability to mount another Libya-style operation in the future.

However, as a recent CER essay points out, there are things that the governments in Europe can do to avoid such outcome: from getting rid of legacy Cold War equipment to buying new weapons jointly and integrating their exercise ranges, maintenance facilities and military academies. There is evidence that the Europeans are moving in the right direction – the French and the British recently agreed to share the costs of building and maintaining nuclear weapons; they also plan to buy missiles and drones together in the future. More governments are exploring other ideas for collaboration, and the Dutch and the Belgians as well as the Nordic countries have been doing so for several years. These measures will not completely offset the impact of budget cuts but they may soften the blow until the fiscal situation in Europe improves.

For their part, the American military leaders need to challenge overly negative assumptions about the alliance in the United States. The success of US efforts to delegate responsibility to Europe has gone almost completely unappreciated in Washington’s political discourse, whose focus has been on European military failings. This damages the image of NATO in the US, with potentially serious consequences. The US-European defence relationship can only work if the Americans continue to see the alliance as useful for their own security. And this should not be taken for granted: as time passes, politicians and the military in the US tend to be less and less informed by the experience of the Cold War, and less inclined to view Europe as their default partner. Undue criticism of allies’ military shortcomings only accelerates the de-Europeanisation of US foreign policy.

Encouragingly, the message from Washington has changed in recent days, with the new secretary of defence, Leon Panetta, praising NATO’s operation as an example of international cooperation. The success in Tripoli, along with the new-found will in London, Paris and other European capitals to assume greater responsibility for the security in its own neighbourhood, ought to give the Americans more reasons for optimism.

Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the CER.