NATO in 2004


By James Joyner
Foreign Policy, April 15, 2011

Edited by Andy Ross

The NATO alliance represents the developed world. Operating under its name confers a legitimacy that national flags don't. In its 62 years of existence, the alliance has deployed its might sparingly for operations with widespread international approval.

In the case of Libya, the NATO aegis takes much of the edge off the use of hard power. It demonstrates that humanitarian interest, not a thirst for foreign oil, is the motivation for action. The call for action by the Arab League and the imprimatur of the UN Security Council provided additional cover.

NATO has made sure that different countries' command structures and systems can work together. Alliance members train together and fight together. While an American has always been supreme allied commander for Europe, major operations have been commanded by generals and admirals from almost all major NATO partners.

NATO's engagement in Libya shows that the alliance has a place in the post-Cold War world. In 1993, U.S. Senator Richard Lugar famously declared that NATO must go out of area or out of business. Otherwise, there was little incentive for the United States to invest in an alliance that would not be able to fight outside Europe. Then NATO conducted several operations in the Balkans. In those wars as in Libya today, after an initial lead role during intense air operations, the United States handed over to the Europeans.

The post-9/11 mission in Afghanistan proved NATO's relevance beyond Europe. For the first time ever, NATO invoked Article 5, which said that an armed attack on one member be treated as an attack on all. The glow faded in Afghanistan as the mission of retaliating against those who had attacked a member state morphed into one of nation-building. Many allies have pulled their forces out entirely.

Many NATO members are highly dubious of intervention in Libya's civil war. But once the United States, Britain, and France decided to intervene, NATO was the platform. The chief issue underlying NATO's problems in Libya is lack of consensus on the desired end state. The limitations are not the fault of NATO but rather of the United Nations.

NATO faces the problem that the Europeans are unwilling to adequately fund their own militaries. Instead, they allow the Americans shoulder the burden. The British and French still see themselves as world powers, but NATO remains dependent on the United States to do the heavy lifting. Maybe Libya will be a wake-up call for Europeans.

AR  Well said, James.