Whither NATO?

Apr 15, 2011

Steve Metz concludes a sharp piece on NATO thusly:

It is time for this debate over NATO’s viability to take place. While NATO may serve as an institutional reminder of the shared democratic values of the Atlantic community (and NATO’s not-so-Atlantic new members) and help with interoperability between its members’ military forces, the Alliance, in its current form, has proven it cannot lead and execute complex, sustained operations in today’s world. Three strikes in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and now Libya may not be enough to put NATO out of business, but it certainly should be enough to place the question of its value on the table.

He rightly points out many of the problems when NATO is involved in an operation–conflicting goals, restrictions on the troops (my fave topic of caveats), and so on.  However, while I have raised many questions about the limits of NATO in my blog and in work underway, the question is really not NATO or not but NATO versus what else?  That is, we need to consider what we expect NATO to do, whether it meets, exceeds or falls short of our reasonable expectations, and what would replace it.
So, working backwards, if we did not have NATO and we had countries seeking to do some kind of military operation together, would we still have challenges to unity of command and of purpose?  Absolutely, even in coalitions of the willing where there is no alliance obligation to show up, there are caveats and conflicts over the way ahead.  In Iraq, many of the contributing countries had restrictions on what their troops could and could not do.  These problems of multinational warfare exist all the time, regardless of the institutions governing the effort because countries NEVER just hand over hunks of their military and then do not influence how they are used.*  During WWII, Australia’s Prime Minister rejected the requests of FDR and Churchill when the Aussies were being redeployed back from Africa, insisting that these troops be sent to defend Australia and not to Southeast Asia.  Countries always exert some kind of control, via caveats, phone calls, deliberately limited capabilities (sending only six helos to Afghanistan, for instance), standard operating procedures and the like.  And countries will not have complete consensus on goals, strategies, operations, tactics, etc.  Even the US and UK fall out all the time (see the notable case of Gen. Wesley Clark kindly demanding that the Brits confront the Russians at the end of the Kosovo campaign).

*  The exceptions would be the really small countries that just embed within the US formation like Macedonia. 

These challenges arise with NATO, with the UN, with regional organizations, and with ad hoc operations.  So, one might suggest that the only way to war is by oneself, so Metz may find himself in agreement with Napoleon–better fight a coalition than be in one.  

Ok, the second question is: has NATO failed in its previous efforts?  That depends, of course, on how you define success, but here is the list:

  • Bosnia: NATO intervention stopped a nasty civil war and then enforced a peace that did not have a single significant violation, handing over to the European Union force a pretty settled if not optimal situation.  This compares pretty well to the UN effort which seemed to prolong the war, creating hostages (both the peacekeepers and the residents of the “safe areas”), and helping to enrich the criminals (see Peter Andreas’s book, Blue Helmets and Black Markets).  Yes, there were restrictions affecting how things played out after 1995, especially American casualty aversion, but not a bad outcome.  Ask the Bosnians (especially the Muslims) about the UN and NATO.
  • Kosovo: Ok, holding constant for a second whether it was a good idea or not to support the KLA, NATO bombed Serbia into submission.  Literally.  Despite a variety of self-induced handicaps (again, as much American as NATO–no use of helos, no real ground threat until late in the game), NATO got Milosevic to give up a hunk of territory that was seen as essential to Serb identity.  This ultimately helped to get Milosevic knocked out of power.  Is this a failure? Depends on what you are expecting.  Given that Metz himself has tweeted about impatience, a three month campaign that cost $$ but no interveners’ lives is not a bad outcome. 
  • Afghanistan: I have written/spoken extensively and published not so extensively on the various restrictions that have limited NATO’s effectiveness in Afghanistan.  Of the NATO members and partners, only the Americans, the Danes, the Canadians, the Brits, the Poles, and a few others have been quite flexible in how they are used, and they have paid a price for it.  France joined this club in 2007 once Chirac was replaced by Sarkozy.  But they never had enough folks on the ground to do real COIN.  Is this NATO’s fault?  Or is it Rumsfeld’s?  I like to blame Rummy for everything since it is so fun, but the reality is that the efforts in Afghanistan have faced a variety of significant challenges with NATO restrictions being only one of them (don’t tell the publishers to whom I am flogging my next book).  Poppies, Pakistan and Karzai, along with the American distraction with Iraq have been far more consequential.  Caveats do pose challenges, that NATO countries disagree about how to proceed and are essentially fighting their own wars independent of each other–these are real issues.  But if NATO fails in Afghanistan, the limits of NATO are only part of that story with the US fixation on Iraq, Pakistan and Karzai playing a much greater role.
  • Libya: too soon to really judge.  Yes, there is an uneven distribution of effort.  Yes, US capabilities seem to be needed to carry through with the effort.  But the problems are not so much about NATO as an institution (although as an institution, NATO does public diplomacy/info ops/propaganda very poorly) as much as differences among the countries that are involved and not so much involved.  The basic idea of trying to change a regime from the air with no ground commitment is a problematic one.  If it took NATO three months to get Serbia to give up Kosovo, shouldn’t it take more time to get Qadaffi to give up power?

Thus, the big question is this: what is NATO’s added value?  We are always going to have wrangling among countries (no unity of purpose), caveats (limited unity of effort), and so on, regardless of the institutions involved.  So, what does NATO add?  Besides the technical stuff of interoperability (ammo, communications, etc), there is the software of interoperability–that the military officers at the various levels have histories and relationships with many of the folks they have to work with in the field.  They have learned the limits of their partners (stated and unstated caveats, talents, limited capabilities, etc), and they have some trust with some of the partners.  This means that they can work with each other at sea, in the air and occasionally on the ground.  It does not mean that the are super-efficient, but they are more effective than countries that have not developed these relationships fighting together for the first time.  Just consider how poorly the Americans and British fought in North Africa in 1942.

NATO’s involvement does more than bring in the soft side of trust and relationships.  It makes it far easier for some countries to contribute.  Having a multinational patina makes it easier for the Canadians, Danes, and Norwegians to participate, and most of the time, these kinds of folks do add some military value.  Italy needed the cover of multilateralism to allow their country to be used as a base for Libyan operations.  The US needs multilateral cover or else it looks to be a blundering imperial power.  How long ago was 2003 anyway?

NATO is an inherently inefficient organization.  The need to gain consensus critically constrains how the organization operates–where caveats and their ilk are simply part of how the countries and organization operate.  Any other substitute would have the same problems.

Finally, the real problems in Libya and Afghanistan are that countries simply do not share a completely convergent view of how to proceed.  This is in part due to domestic politics and in part because these are hard missions with very few clear and obvious ways to proceed.  Of course countries will disagree.  The alliance helps to finesse these differences, but these differences will exist nonetheless.

The real alternative to NATO is simply not doing any kind of intervention.  Doing it alone has its costs and doing it with others has costs as well.  Only by refraining entirely will the US or any other country avoid the challenges inherent in intervention.  But whether to intervene or not is another question entirely.


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Steve Saideman is Professor and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict; For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres); and NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone (with David Auerswald), and elsewhere on nationalism, ethnic conflict, civil war, and civil-military relations.