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What Is the Future of NATO?

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Yesterday I had the great pleasure to participate in a roundtable at The Atlantic Council, where we discussed the future of NATO in light of the Libyan intervention. The discussion was fairly wide-ranging, as one would expect it to be, covering topics from defense spending to the doctrine of R2P, or “Responsibility to Protect.” Audio from the round table is here, and I’ll summarize the discussion below.

There was general agreement that the intervention in Libya was bring about a “new” NATO. No one, however, was sure where it was headed: the reform process agreed to in Lisbon hadn’t started yet, and starting another expeditionary operation didn’t seem to mesh with that reform. Libya had drawn NATO into an operation it didn’t want and didn’t see coming. This new NATO has a different split, specifically in regard to Germany: Germany has not “stepped up,” however one defines that. They very publicly split with France, the UK, and the US, to side with Russia and China on the Security Council in abstaining from voting on the intervention.

The Libyan intervention also marks a new US engagement with NATO. For the first time, the US is participating in a NATO operation with caveats. One participant said it is now “emulating bad alliance behavior” first established by other member states like Germany. Libya will most likely expand on this process if it’s not arrested now: members picking and choosing how they participate in the alliance, which diminishes its power.

I framed my comments around the discussion of R2P. The war in Libya was sold on immediacy and severity, but what’s happened in Libya since then indicates that these concerns were largely overwrought: the areas Gaddhafi’s forces have cleared or continued to occupy haven’t seen the tens of thousands of bodies on the street. But, as the conflict has progressed, the justification for it has changed: from protecting civilians in Benghazni, to attacking Gaddhafi’s forces, to now regime change and reconstruction after Gaddhafi falls. The evolution of justification has, in fact, been dishonest, especially as supporters of intervention admit that they assumed this would happen all along, and thus isn’t “mission creep.”

Another concern is the idea of principle. No one really wants rigid, consistent actions, but being guided by consistent principles is important. And looking at the principles expressed to justify intervening in Libya, one must wonder why we’re not somewhere like Mexico, which has a high body count, “worse” atrocities, actual mass graves, and so on.

There was a lot of discussion about internal politics within NATO member states; frankly, that’s a bear to rehash so I suggest just listening to the audio (I promise, it is genuinely interesting). One participant noted that Libya represents a re-orienting of NATO from the East-West axis that guided its strategic considerations during the Cold War, to a North-South orientation where they view the primary threat coming from unstable states in the Mediterranean. I disagreed with this somewhat, as the Eastern Bloc member states still view Russia (e.g. “the East”) as a major threat they must respond to, while the Western bloc states do not. So maybe the war in Libya was also revealing some deeper geographic shifts in NATO’s strategic logic (one panelist noted that the further east and north you move in Europe, the less enthusiasm you find for the Libyan intervention).

One topic of particular interest was what this new expeditionary mindset means for the future of defense spending. NATO is taking on new, out-of-area operations (two now in the last decade), both of which imply a huge, long-term military and economic commitment. Only every single member state — including, soon, the United States — is cutting its defense budgets. The UK and France are gutting their Navies even while they push for a new operation in a primarily naval environment (e.g., offshore in Libya). The US has failed to recapitalize on many of its air and sea assets to focus on the land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; however, now the operation is naval, and air-based, and possibly amphibious.

To put it simply, there is a fundamental break between NATO becoming “The UN’s Team America for R2P,” as I put it, and the alliance-wide defense cuts driven by both the global recession and simple war exhaustion from Afghanistan. The Alliance needs to figure out its primary strategic outlook if it’s to avoid a painful, possibly catastrophic break when these two trends start to conflict.

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