A Post-Libya NATO Assessment

The past year has exposed the alliance's significant weaknesses. What we need to do to keep NATO afloat.

The last year has revealed to the Europeans three important truths about the American defense posture. First, spending on the military in the United States has reached such heights—almost $700 billion—that it has become too large for deficit-cutters to ignore. Therefore, reductions in defense expenditures are inevitable. The only remaining uncertainty is their magnitude.

Second, the United States has become more eager than ever to accept a backseat role in any “war of choice” breaking out in Europe’s neighborhood. The war in Libya was instructive. Indeed, it was Europe that stepped forward. The two most prominent European military powers—France and Great Britain—initiated the political campaign in the UN Security Council and continued it in the NATO forum. Hence, the Libyan campaign marks a new opening for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and underlines a reversal of the roles played by Europe and the United States in the skies of Serbia and Kosovo twelve years ago. Then it was America at the forefront.

Third, the U.S. defense interest continues to shift towards Asia. A rising China has an incentive to seek gains at the margins that entail the highest possible geopolitical payoff for the lowest possible price. Therefore, China will continue to probe the strategic U.S. periphery.

It seems axiomatic, therefore, that America will slacken its engagement in Europe. But the gradual and practical implementation of NATO’s latest Strategic Concept, adopted in Lisbon, reassured frontline U.S. allies in Europe. The United States has politically and militarily invested in numerous military maneuvers—such as “Baltic Host” and “Sabre Strike”—in the Baltic states. What’s more, Poland and the United States signed an agreement that foresees a U.S. Air Force detachment permanently stationed in Poland. According to its provisions, the deployment of U.S. soldiers will focus on servicing F-16 fighters and C-130 transport aircraft—types of planes operated by both militaries—whose pilots and personnel will train together. Furthermore, Poland and Romania have become two vital pillars of the new American approach to ballistic-missile defense in Europe. According to it, by 2015 Romania will host land-based SM-3 ballistic missile-defense interceptors. A second SM-3 site is to be installed by 2018 in Poland. Finally, the U.S. administration decided not to withdraw two of its four combat brigades in Europe and is keeping three of them in place. All this reflects a U.S. commitment to NATO’s mutual-defense clause and American readiness to champion the potential “wars of necessity.”

Still, the past year has revealed the weaknesses of both multinational organizations present on the Old Continent—NATO and the EU.

From the NATO perspective, two worrisome trends have emerged. First, despite the political backing for operation “Unified Protector,” fewer than one-third of NATO allies actually participated in strike missions, and fewer than half contributed contingents. That raises a question: Why so few? Some countries, especially the more recent entrants, have been extensively engaged in other NATO operations (Afghanistan, Kosovo). They may believe a contribution to another mission would overstretch their capabilities. Others lack the necessary air and naval assets that would mesh operationally with those of their allies. Both situations reveal, however, another pan-European weakness: the decline in defense spending.

The financial crisis has become the new normal. It changed the logic of international relations, ushering in a new era marked by intensifying “zero-sum” geopolitical rivalries. Thus, only four European countries are meeting the minimum threshold of 2 percent GDP expenditures on national defense.

From the EU perspective, the situation seems even worse. One of the recent issues of the prestigious European magazine Europe’s World contained an eye-catching advertisement for NATO: “Question: Which organization adopted a new vision of its geopolitical role in Lisbon? Hint: It wasn’t the European Union!” The ad’s not so subtle jibe has been borne out by the Libyan crisis, which caught the EU by surprise. In fact, there is a growing sense of ambiguity about the real outcome of the EU’s crisis-management policy. Despite being the subject of occasional good news, it is hardly an unalloyed success. That is in part because of two main operational obstacles the EU continues to face. First and foremost, the EU still lacks adequate civilian and military capabilities. The second obstacle is inherent in the EU’s institutional structure and how it works. The bureaucracies responsible for foreign and security policy—including the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic corps—are still essentially under construction.

Fortunately, there are three remedies to these problems. The first comes with a sense of fiscal reality. Indeed, the armed forces on the Old Continent should undergo the necessary reforms. Numerous European states need to complete the modernization of their militaries by further phasing out Cold War-legacy equipment and continuing to invest in modern materiel. The minimum threshold of 2 percent GDP defense expenditures is not solely a hint. It is a must, especially considering that defense spending globally continues to grow.

The second is a sense of shared purpose, which probably can be achieved only with a joint departure from Afghanistan. As the late General Franciszek Gągor, Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces, used to say: “Afghanistan does not constitute a test, but a task for NATO.” It’s a task that must be completed.

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