Future Role and Relevance of NATO

Is the intervention in Libya a harbinger of things to come for NATO? Wikistrat explores the future of the alliance.

NATO has searched for relevance ever since the threat of global communism against which it was originally devised disappeared in the early 1990s. Since then, it has proven useful time and again however, both as an extension of American superpower and as a means to protect the security and interests of Europe, in the Balkans, Afghanistan and, recently, in Libya. Whether the alliance will continue to operate on an ad hoc basis and wait for the next crisis or formalizes its role as globalization’s police force has profound implications for the global security environment of the twenty-first century. That is why Wikistrat‘s upcoming “strategic issue” will explore the future role and relevance of the most powerful military alliance in the world.

The Atlantic alliance has been extremely successful, not just as a defensive pact of Western nations; it has also strengthened a shared commitment to liberal democracy and (relatively) free trade.

For the newest member states in Central and Eastern Europe, NATO’s security commitment remains relevant as Russia occasionally has to remind the world that it still matters. But for Western Europe, the prospect of direct military engagement is virtually nonexistent. NATO thus has to reinvent itself if it is to remain relevant as anything more than a strategic backstop for its members.

One of the biggest challenges, according to Robert Edwin Kelly of the Asian Security Blog, is a lack of coherence among the Atlantic nations. “The policy struggles over NATO action in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya suggest this tussle will be a regular feature in the future,” he predicts which could tempt to Americans to increasingly go it alone.

The United States have always born the brunt of the endeavor and up to this day, they are responsible for the bulk of defense spending within NATO. The explicit American security guarantee is part of the reason why European allies spend far less on defense relative to their GDPs; the lack of a credible threat within the European Union being another. Europe is indeed free riding on American power and unlikely to change course.

The vast divergence in money and manpower that both sides of the Atlantic contribute to the alliance has been most obvious in Afghanistan and Iraq. With the exception of Great Britain, which cherishes its “special relationship” with the United States, “Old Europe” largely wouldn’t participate in the opening salvos of operations and wasn’t able or willing to provide more than token support for security and reconstruction efforts even if such contributions came at considerable costs to smaller nations.

In Libya, the situation has been quite the reverse with Britain and France leading the charge. No matter their enthusiasm, even Europe’s two largest military powers needed a quick and powerful American offensive to clear the ground for the enforcement of a no-fly zone — a painful reminder of the military impotence of European nations if left to their own devices.

What can be done? For all the talk of “reviving” NATO and despite recent and bold “strategic concepts,” the organization is likely to continue to operate on an ad hoc basis in the near future though a somewhat more defined role may be imminent. If anti-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa and the “humanitarian” intervention in Libya are harbingers of things to come, NATO may see more European action within Europe’s direct sphere of interest.

Afghanistan was NATO’s first test of whether it could go “out of area” and no one really liked it. “Perhaps Afghanistan was too far away and too contentious to Europeans for its connection to the much disliked War on Terror,” suggests Kelly. Even if Somalia and Libya reinvigorate NATO’s interventionists streak, European publics remain largely unsupportive of large footprint operations. “Minimalist ‘bombing for peace,’ as in Kosovo and Libya, seems like about all the ‘out of area’ European publics are ready to tolerate.”

The strategic issue “NATO – Role and Relevance” will soon be open to Wikistrat contributors and subscribers. Click here for more information.