NATO: A Victim of U.S. Smothering

By Ted Galen Carpenter

European leadership of the second phase of the military intervention in Libya has not gone especially well. Although the United States officially transferred responsibility for the operation to NATO, that change was more impressive in the realm of press releases and organizational charts than substance. Even the notion of a “NATO” command was largely an illusion. It really meant transition to a British and French-led mission with token support from some other European NATO members. Several key alliance players, especially Germany and Turkey, are noticeable by their absence. In fact, both Berlin and Ankara have refused even to endorse the mission, much less contribute military forces.

There have also been embarrassing intra-alliance squabbles. Paris and London accused other NATO members of failing to bear their fair share of the military burden—a barb that seemed primarily directed at Germany. Americans who have made similar complaints about European free-riding on U.S. security exertions for the past six decades might find it difficult to suppress a bitter smile.

And once U.S. aircraft and missile attacks during the initial phase of the intervention subsided, the effectiveness of the subsequent NATO measures has been unclear. Although British and French military commanders deny recent rumors that their forces are running low on laser-guided munitions, the capabilities of those forces at least appear to be stretched. Indeed, after a brief hiatus, Paris and London quietly asked the United States to resume some operations.

In short, European leadership of the follow-up stage of the Libya intervention appears to be half-hearted, fraught with divisions and squabbling, and rather ineffectual. For those pundits who assert that U.S. leadership is indispensable, the Libya venture will be cited as another piece of evidence.

But the United States has the NATO it created and nurtured. Administration after administration fostered European dependence on America’s security shield and leadership. U.S. officials treated even the mildest aspirations for a significant, independent European security capability with suspicion, and they took active measures to discourage and undermine such ambitions. When those officials spoke of the need for greater “burden sharing,” they implicitly meant greater European contributions to advance policies formulated by the United States. For all the talk of a transatlantic partnership and an alliance of equals, the reality has always been very different.

Nearly two decades ago, writer and analyst Alan Tonelson aptly described Washington’s approach to its European allies (and its East Asian allies as well) as a “smothering strategy.” It has preserved U.S. leadership, but at a disturbing and rising cost. That cost includes a steady decline in the defense spending levels and tangible military capabilities of NATO’s European members.

Even worse, the smothering strategy has made those members timid and ineffectual in dealing with security problems in the European theater and on Europe’s volatile southern and southeastern perimeter. That phenomenon was evident during the 1990s when the NATO allies ultimately looked to Washington to take the lead in dealing with the turmoil in the disintegrating Yugoslav state—a problem that they should have been willing and able to handle on their own. The disorganized, fractious intervention in Libya suggests that matters have not improved much. Nor will the situation get better until Washington stops trying to dominate transatlantic military affairs and finally creates the incentives for its allies to grow up and take responsibility for the security of their neighborhood.
The National Interest