Twenty years ago today, NATO conducted its first combat operation in history. Since that precedent-setting event, the alliance has engaged in numerous ‘out-of-area’ combat operations, from Kosovo to the Khyber Pass. As the alliance prepares to end its combat mission in Afghanistan this year, doubts have been raised over whether NATO’s longest, largest operation beyond Europe’s shores might be its last. Such a view is long on the politics of today and short on strategic perspective though, and there is growing evidence to suggest NATO will remain as committed to defending its interests beyond its members’ territory, continuing a trajectory begun exactly two decades ago.
In the skies over Bosnia in February 1994, the allies were responsible for enforcing a no-fly zone established by the United Nations. The UN had initially set up the no-fly zone in October 1992, asking organizations like NATO to assist in monitoring compliance. However, as the war in Bosnia intensified later that year and into the next—and as evidence grew of increased Serbian attacks against civilian and military targets within Muslim enclaves—the UN formally requested NATO assistance in enforcing the no-fly zone, and the alliance obliged.
Arriving at that point—that is, conducting military operations outside the territory of the alliance members—was no small step. Today, given NATO’s decade-long involvement in Afghanistan, it seems almost quaint to imagine the alliance deliberating over whether it should conduct out-of-area operations. But the debates were indeed heated as alliance members argued over the many implications, including for European security, domestic politics, military force and command structures, public opinion and roles and missions vis-à-vis the European Community and its successor, the European Union.
Since 1994, the alliance has conducted an array of military operations, some very far from the shores of the North Atlantic—such as Afghanistan, the Gulf of Aden, off the Horn of Africa, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan—and others just beyond the territory of its members—such as Kosovo, Libya, Macedonia, and across the Mediterranean Sea. Together, these operations represent an explicit acknowledgement of a consensus now twenty years old that the shared interests of alliance members extend beyond Europe. Perhaps more importantly, NATO’s out-of-area operations exemplify the willingness of alliance members to use NATO in ensuring the defense and security of their common interests, including those beyond their alliance territory.
But will members of the alliance continue to pursue and defend their interests in this way? Today, it’s nearly conventional wisdom that after the experience in Afghanistan, NATO is collectively exhausted, unwilling to conduct any similar long-term mission so far from Europe’s shores. This sentiment is reinforced by the defense austerity that continues to unfold on both sides of the Atlantic, but which is particularly acute among some of Washington’s closest, most capable NATO allies, raising questions about their ability to defend interests far from Europe.
However, this perspective is short-sighted for several reasons. First, the question of whether the alliance is going to focus on either out-of-area crisis management operations or the collective defense of its member states has been settled. Time and again over the last two decades—and most recently in the alliance’s 2013 strategy—NATO members have answered clearly that the alliance will do both.
Second, not all is gloom and doom when it comes to defense spending among alliance members. Certainly among many NATO members, including the United States, defense budgets are decreasing and military forces are shrinking thanks to both the continuing effects of sovereign-debt crises and a historically typical post-conflict drawdown following the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, according to figures released just this month by NATO, there are some countervailing trends—for instance, defense spending in constant figures actually increased last year in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Elsewhere, France, Germany and Greece all held defense-budget cuts in 2013 to less than one percent over 2012 levels.
Third, there is reinforcing evidence that NATO member states remain interested in defending important and vital interests beyond Europe’s shores, and are willing to do so. For instance, last year’s French defense white paper reiterated the role of the military as a policy tool for French strategy, and emphasized Paris’s continued willingness to defend interests in Africa, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. More recently, the new coalition government in Germany has declared its intent to expand the number of German troops engaged in peacekeeping operations in Somalia and elsewhere in Africa. Additionally, NATO’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has reiterated an alliance offer to provide peacekeeping support to Israelis and Palestinians if both sides requested it as part of a future peace treaty.
Finally, if vital interests are at stake, NATO’s European allies have shown a clear willingness and ability to reprioritize and reallocate resources. Evidence for this could be seen in the alliance’s response to the Libyan civil war three years ago. At the height of the surge in Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of European NATO troops were deployed at the time, the alliance—led by European members such as France and the United Kingdom—conducted Operation Unified Protector. Similarly, just a year ago, French forces, along with smaller contingents from Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, helped prevent a radical Islamic force from taking over Mali.