The Consequences of the Libyan War for NATO

By Daniel Larison

Nicholas Gvosdev made an intriguing argument about what the Libyan war means for the future of NATO...

Nicholas Gvosdev made an intriguing argument about what the Libyan war means for the future of NATO:

However, Moscow’s lack of existential concern over the Libya mission and Warsaw’s cool reaction to it are more understandable when we consider that both Russia and Poland sense the operation may prove to be a turning point in the future direction of the North Atlantic alliance.

For NATO, however, this could be a “Tilsit” moment. Just as Napoleon Bonaparte reached an accord with Tsar Alexander in 1807 that stopped France’s eastern advance, permitting Paris to focus more time and attention on the empire’s southern flanks, the Libya mission could be the alliance’s first step toward formally abandoning any further eastward expansion. By this argument, the stabilization of the Baltic basin has been accomplished: Europe’s natural frontiers in the east have been reached at the Vistula and the western shore of the Black Sea, and now it is time to look south.

In doing so, NATO would effectively acknowledge that the status quo achieved in the borderlands between Europe and Russia is likely to last, with Ukraine under President Viktor Yanukovych assuming a “neutral” status marked by the pursuit of a balanced approach to both Moscow and the West. Tilting the axis of NATO away from an East-West divide and toward a North-South bridge diminishes the relevance of Western “beachheads” across the Black Sea: If the future of the alliance is the Mediterranean basin, not the Eurasian plains, a NATO-aspirant country like Georgia becomes far more distant and peripheral to the alliance.

If Gvosdev is right, there could be some small silver linings to the Libyan war in that Russia might start to perceive NATO as less of a threat, expansion of the Alliance to the east would drop off the agenda entirely, and would-be NATO members would be stymied. Then again, I would point out that it was just five years after Tilsit that Napoleon invaded Russia, so it may not be so encouraging for Russia or the U.S. to think of the Libyan war this way. Put Gvosdev’s argument together with what Gideon Rachman was arguing last week, and things look a bit different. If Libya is the “last hurrah” of Western-led humanitarian interventionism, perhaps it will also be NATO’s last “out-of-area” operation and mark the last time that several major NATO governments will be willing and able to coordinate military action outside Europe.

Americans have been mostly preoccupied with the question of how much the U.S. can actually extricate itself from the Libyan war and “hand off” the war to NATO, but it can’t be stressed enough that NATO as an alliance has even less business in Libya than any of its member governments do. For almost two decades now, NATO has become an enforcer of certain U.N. missions and also a useful forum for bypassing the U.N. when necessary, but it is supposed to be a purely defensive alliance. Member states have no political or legal obligations to those allies when they choose to take military action for any reason except retaliation against an attack. The idea that the U.S. “owes” it to other members of NATO to continue participating in the Libyan war for the sake of the Alliance’s credibility is not convincing.

Juan Cole posed the following questions to Glenn Greenwald, but I will try to answer:

So my question is whether, given that NATO allies such as Britain and France were so insistent on meeting their UN obligations with regard to Libya and on bringing NATO allies into the effort, would it have been worth breaking up NATO and destroying America’s longstanding alliances in order to stay completely out of Libya? Note that even Turkey, which initially opposed NATO involvement, in the end acquiesced in it and even offered to patrol Libyan ports as part of its obligations to the organization.

Britain and France were insistent on crafting U.N. authorization for a military action they were already prepared to take. France didn’t want to bring NATO into it at all, because it claimed that this might alienate Arab governments and didn’t want to yield control to the Alliance because Sarkozy feared it would hamstring the operation by bringing in governments that were opposed to toppling Gaddafi. At the same time, Italy would not allow its bases to be used for the war unless NATO were involved. This was a way to give Berlusconi political cover to take an action that he doesn’t really want to take by saying that he was doing it for the sake of the Alliance. Some other NATO governments, notably Norway, insisting on participating only as part of a NATO mission.

Britain also favored shifting the operation to NATO control, but this was a matter of practicality more than anything else. Germany pointedly refused to support the NATO mission directly, but didn’t want to harm its relations with other allied governments, and instead agreed to shift resources to Afghanistan to free up other governments’ forces for the Libyan campaign. Turkey isn’t fulfilling its obligations to NATO by enforcing the arms embargo; it is enforcing that part of the U.N. resolution that calls for an arms embargo on Libya. Turkey remains opposed to participating in the enforcement of the no-fly zone, and will have nothing to do with the bombing missions directed at Gaddafi’s forces. Bringing the war under NATO’s control became an acceptable compromise for Turkey, because Erdogan wants to make sure that the intervention does not escalate beyond its original mandate. Sarkozy opposed NATO control for the same reason.

After the passage of UNSCR 1973, France and Britain didn’t need NATO to do what they’re doing. They did need the U.S. for the initial strikes on Gaddafi’s forces. Switching to NATO control is a political decision mainly to provide cover for Italy to continue supporting the mission and for the U.S. to reduce its role in the conflict. Without U.S. participation in Libya, it is hard to see why or how NATO would have become involved as an organization. Absent U.S. involvement, France and Britain would have undertaken the mission largely on their own.

Had the U.S. stayed out of Libya completely, it is doubtful that the U.S. would have pressed for passage of UNSCR 1973, and France and Britain would have had to decide whether they wanted to proceed with an attack on Libya without U.N. authorization. In the event that the U.S. had supported the resolution, but refused to participate in the mission, this might have put some modest strain on the relationships with France and Britain, but this would have been temporary. Had the U.S. not been so heavily involved in the early weeks of the war, it is unlikely that NATO as an alliance would have been called upon to participate at all.

There was no question of fracturing or breaking NATO through U.S. inaction in Libya. The far greater danger to the Alliance from the Libyan war is handing over responsibility for the war to it. NATO was already very divided over intervening in Libya, and the longer that the mission drags on the greater the strains on the Alliance. Essentially, three of the major NATO governments gambled the future of the Alliance on a North African civil war that posed no real threat to the security of the Alliance’s member states. If we look at things as they are, we will see that it is participation in the Libyan war that threatens the unity and future of NATO. Arguments that the U.S. had to intervene for the sake of the Alliance gets things backwards. NATO would never have been involved without the U.S., just as the credibility of the U.N. would never been put at stake had the U.S., France, and Britain not insisted on pushing for a resolution on Libya. It is NATO allies that are doing the U.S. a favor by taking over the operation from the U.S., so the idea that the U.S. is “supporting” them in repayment for their presence in Afghanistan is very hard to take seriously.
The American Conservative