NATO and Libya: It’s Time to Retire a Fading Alliance

January 2, 2012 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes on January 2, 2012.

Russia’s United Nations ambassador recently proposed investigating the killing of civilians by NATO in Libya. His American counterpart, Susan Rice, complained that Moscow was attempting “to obscure the success of NATO.”

The trans‐​Atlantic does a great job fighting little wars. Conflicts essentially without opponents.

Some 16 years ago the U.S. and Europeans bombed the ethnic Serb forces in a three‐​way civil war in Bosnia. A dozen years ago the world’s most powerful military alliance took on beleaguered Serbia, the remnant of the polyglot Yugoslavian state. This year NATO challenged slightly deranged Moammar Qaddafi as he attempted to fight off armed rebels.

NATO advocate Ira Straus enthused: “The alliance is three for three.” Next up is an invasion of Monaco.

Of course, none of these incredible feats of military prowess could have been achieved without the U.S. France and Great Britain led the charge for war in Libya but found that the European members of the alliance were ill‐​equipped to take on even the decrepit Libyan forces. Only eight governments contributed militarily; several of them ran short of munitions. Most NATO members contributed nothing of consequence.

The U.S. was responsible for destroying anti‐​aircraft defenses, launching constant drone attacks, resupplying the Europeans with weapons, and providing 80 percent of aerial refueling. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta observed: “the Libya operation would have had a very difficult time getting off the ground or being sustained” without American participation.

This didn’t stop Herman Van Rompuy, one of three European Union “presidents” (how the EU loves bureaucracy!) from asserting that “We acted in time and without Europe nothing would have been done at the global level or at the UN level.” What he meant was that without European nagging the U.S. would not have intervened, in which case nothing would have happened.

Actually, about the only thing Europe is good at militarily is taking credit. Leading Europeans have been promoting the idea of a separate continental defense identity for nearly 60 years. The latest ineffective iteration is the so‐​called Common Defense and Security Policy.

Even during the Cold War, the European members of NATO rarely fulfilled their promises to spend more on their militaries. With the end of the Cold War the very raison d’être for the alliance disappeared. Moscow’s allies even switched sides, rushing to join NATO. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland “There is no there there.”

U.S. policy seemed to be a great success. America’s prosperous and populous allies — now with around ten times the GDP and three times the population of Russia — had achieved security independence and self‐​sufficiency. They could defend themselves.

However, the NATO bureaucracy and the interests that had grown up around it were determined to preserve the organization. NATO decided to become a regional policeman of sorts, focused “out‐​of‐​area” activities — essentially when neither Europe nor America had any security interest at stake. Normally alliances are created to prevent or win wars. Now NATO would go to war to justify its continued existence.

But while the Europeans desired to preserve NATO, they didn’t intend to spend more money on their militaries. Noted former Pentagon official Jed Babbin: “For almost twenty‐​five years, few of the NATO nations have made a significant investment in their own defense.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates similarly observed: European defense budgets “have been chronically starved for adequate funding for a long time, with the shortfalls compounding themselves each year.”

As a result, Europe turned into a military pygmy. The group Notre Europe reported that after the end of the Cold War “European countries cut, sometimes radically, their defense budgets.” This resulted in “some alarming shortfalls in the areas of strategic transportation, communication, intelligence, logistics and satellites, requiring the implementation of costly reforms in terms of resources.” Although the Europeans had 1.8 million men under arms, just five to six percent of them, or 80,000 to 100,000, “are equipped and sufficiently trained to be able to be deployed in crisis theaters.”

The Lisbon Treaty, ratified in late 2009, allowed “Permanent Structured Cooperation” in defense. Notre Europe observed hopefully that “the very existence of these provisions leaves the door open to a possible acceleration of cooperation between member states in the framework of the European institutions.”

The door may be open but no one is likely to go through it. With the collapse of European finances military outlays are everywhere on the budget chopping block. Notre Europe warned: “The situation of defense capabilities in Europe is pretty dire. As we have underlined, the budgetary crisis that is afflicting member states of the Union is likely to mean more cuts in national defense budgets.” With only slight exaggeration argued James Russell at the Naval Postgraduate School: “The European countries have made a strategic‐​level to disarm essentially.” The International Institute for Strategic Studies detailed cuts in France, Poland, Spain, Austria, Germany, Italy, and others. Even Great Britain, America’s premier European military ally, is slashing outlays by 7.5 percent in real terms over five years, reducing the number of personnel and dropping weapons systems.

Obama administration officials, desperately attempting to protect America’s bloated defense budget — double the real spending levels of just a decade ago — acknowledge facing similar financial pressures. Still, Washington continues to lobby Europe to do more. Explained National Security Adviser Tom Donilon: “We know that allies need more advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. They face shortages in helicopters and transport aircraft. They need to make greater investments in the precision munitions and unmanned systems that are critical on today’s battlefields and will be even more important in the future. As President Obama prepares to host the next NATO summit in Chicago in May, he is asking the alliance to ensure that it has cutting‐​edge capabilities.”

Good luck.

Dominik Jankowski at Poland’s National Security Bureau believes he has the answer: “the political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic should remind their people that security requires a strong and united NATO as well as permanent U.S. engagement in Europe.” Secretary Panetta made a similar argument: “We need to use this moment to make the case for the need to invest in this alliance, to ensure it remains relevant to the security challenges of the future.”

Yup, that should do it. Just tell the European people that they should sacrifice social benefits to maintain big militaries despite the absence of a serious let alone existential military threat. No problem.

NATO’s Rasmussen is more realistic, calling for “smart defense,” which means “money spent more effectively. It is shared defense. It is efficient defense.” In the same vein Notre Europe proposed a variety of steps to improve continental defense cooperation and remove barriers to a European military market.

No doubt Europe could spend better. But without resources no amount of reform will maintain military capabilities. Which means continued and even increased reliance on America.

Donilon claimed that NATO provides “real burden‐​sharing for the American taxpayer.” In fact, the alliance creates far more responsibilities than capabilities. In practice, NATO stands for North America and The Others. The U.S. must defend Europe and fight for European interests outside of Europe. Which requires increased American defense outlays. The problem has been made worse by the expansion of NATO eastward to countries far more likely to draw America into war than to contribute to the peace.

The Cold War required an extraordinary defense commitment from the U.S. But no longer. Europe still matters, but it faces no genuine military threat. Whatever happens politically in Moscow, there will be no Red Army pouring armored divisions through Germany’s Fulda Gap. Washington has much to worry about, but Europe is not on the list.

Of course, the Europeans still have geopolitical concerns. Civil wars in the Balkans and Libya threatened refugee flows and economic disruption. However, the Europeans are capable of handling such issues.

Potentially more dangerous is the situation in Eastern Europe and beyond, most notably Georgia and Ukraine. But not dangerous to America. The U.S. has survived most of its history with these lands successively part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Nor is there any evidence that Russia wants to forcibly reincorporate its “lost” territories into a renewed Soviet empire. Rather, Moscow appears to have retrogressed to a “great power” like Imperial Russia. The new Russia is concerned about international respect and border security. Threaten that, and war might result, as Georgia learned in 2008.

It makes no sense for America to risk war on these nations’ behalf. (In fact, with far more at stake Western Europe almost certainly won’t do so.) Border security is vital for Russia. Preserving vibrant, boisterously independent countries along Russia’s border is not vital for America. Supporting such countries might be nice, but is not worth war, especially nuclear war. And Moscow demonstrated that it is prepared to fight, even with a country nominally slated for NATO membership with a close military relationship with the U.S.

It would be foolish to bet that Moscow would back down in any confrontation. Gen. Nikolai Makarov, chief of the Russian General Staff, warned about the danger of continuing NATO expansion: “In certain conditions, I do not rule out local and regional armed conflicts developing into a large‐​scale war, including using nuclear weapons.” The dramatic decline of Russia’s conventional forces has increased Moscow’s reliance on nuclear weapons as the great military equalizer.

Is there any benefit for America from defending Europe? Doing so may aid Washington in browbeating the Europeans into helping the U.S. in its misguided wars elsewhere, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. However, that is small comfort. The latter never should have been fought, while the former should have ended with the expulsion of al‐​Qaeda and overthrow of the Taliban. In any case, Libya reversed even this theoretical benefit, with Europe dragging the U.S. into its unnecessary war.

Earlier this year Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn announced that stopping Qaddafi “requires military action.” Not that Luxembourg would do the stopping. The landlocked Grand Duchy has a population of less than a half million, no air force or navy, an army of 900 men, and a paramilitary gendarmerie of 612. Just whose military did Minister Asselborn expect to do the stopping?

Naturally, U.S. officials are frustrated at Europe’s determination to do so little. In June Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned of “a dim if not dismal future” for the alliance. He added “that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.” In October his successor, Leon Panetta, sounded slightly kinder, but no less frustrated, warning of “legitimate questions about whether, if present trends continue, NATO will again be able to sustain the kind of operations that we have seen in Libya and Afghanistan without the United States taking on even more of the burden.”

The answer obviously is no.

Washington should change course. For years it opposed any independent European defense capability. However, that now should become America’s objective. U.S. troops, currently about 40,000, should come home from Europe. The automatic defense commitment should be abrogated and the U.S. force structure reduced accordingly.

The point is not to leave Europe undefended, but to let the Europeans, with a larger collective economy and population than America, do the defending. It is a distinction apparently missed by the NATO forever crowd.

A decade ago neoconservative activist Bruce Pitcairn Jackson worried that without NATO “the United States would be without an immediate brake on Russian imperial recidivism. We would be unable to moderate and guide the rise of German power. We would lack incentives to keep Turkey engaged in Europe. The reinforcement and defense of Israel in extremis would be vastly more difficult. The boundary lines within which we now contain rogue states and pursue the containment of weapons of mass destruction would have to be abandoned and moved thousands of miles closer to the territory of the United States. The defense of the Gulf States would be problematic at best. And a credible Pacific security policy would be heavily burdened by the requirement to maintain major forces in an unsettled Atlantic region. At a minimum, the disestablishment of NATO would require military expenditures at near wartime levels.”

But the end of U.S.-dominated NATO would mean no such thing. Rather than the end of NATO, there would be a new form of NATO, whatever the name, without the U.S. That reconstituted alliance, along with the EU, could contain Russian imperial recidivism, guide the rise of German power, and create incentives to keep Turkey engaged in Europe — all of which matter much more to Europe than to America.

Jackson’s other claims were even more bizarre. From whom does Israel, a nuclear‐​armed regional superpower, need to be defended? Washington retains the ability to bomb rogue states without being a member of NATO, though the disaster in Iraq should dissuade U.S. policymakers from promiscuous intervention in the future. Europe, long tied to America and heavily dependent on Gulf oil, likely would remain ready to cooperate with the U.S. in efforts to promote stability in the Middle East. And how the Pacific, where American allies such as Japan and South Korea also unnecessarily rely on the U.S., benefits from Washington’s defense subsidies to Europe is unclear.

The only way to get Europe to do more is for America to do less. Ira Straus denounced this idea as “a dark form of American nationalism.” But expecting allies to do their share on their behalf is simply good sense — and in this case essential to protecting U.S. security and prosperity.

During the Cold War it was necessary for Washington to prevent an antagonistic hegemonic rival from dominating both Europe and Asia. Today no such threat exists. The principal danger facing America in Europe today is being drawn into useless peripheral operations at the behest of allies. Nor can the U.S. afford to continue doing everything for everyone. A recent NATO report worried that the alliance’s “value is less obvious to many than in the past.” The value is less obvious because the value is less.

NATO was created at a different time in a different world for different circumstances. It is time for Europe to take over responsibility for its own defense. The U.S. and Europeans would still have much on which to cooperate — economically, politically, and militarily. But the time for America to act as Europe’s defense guardian has passed.

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