Guns And Butter In The NATO Alliance

The Article: Libya, Europe and the future of NATO: Always waiting for the US cavalry by the Economist.

The Text: It looked, for a moment, like a return to the days of European interventionism. For the first time since Suez, Britain and France led an intervention in the Middle East. And unlike the disaster in Egypt in 1956, the action in Libya of 2011 was supported by America and by part of the Arab world too.

America was visibly reluctant to get involved, let alone lead the action. And, having helped to knock out Libya’s air defences and conduct some of the initial air-to-ground strikes, it pulled back from the front-line operations. But America’s role remains essential, not least in providing air-to-air refuelling, as well as intelligence and reconnaissance for the European allies.

The war in Libya, far from heralding a new era of European activism, has once again highlighted the limits of Europe’s military power, as Robert Gates pointed out today in his valedictory speech in Brussels. He is not the first American defence secretary to complain about low, often declining, defence spending in Europe (The Economist recently ran an interesting chart). Nor is it the first time Mr Gates himself has bemoaned the weakness of European allies. Last year he said the “pacification” of Europe, at first a great achievement, had gone too far and posed a threat to Western security. But his comments today were delivered with the sharpness of a man who knows he is at the end of his career and no longer needs to beg for favours. The speech is worth reading in full. But here is one passage that should make Europeans cringe.

To be sure, at the outset, the NATO Libya mission did meet its initial military objectives – grounding Qaddafi’s air force and degrading his ability to wage offensive war against his own citizens. And while the operation has exposed some shortcomings caused by underfunding, it has also shown the potential of NATO, with an operation where Europeans are taking the lead with American support. However, while every alliance member voted for Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission. Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.

In particular, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets are lacking that would allow more allies to be involved and make an impact. The most advanced fighter aircraft are little use if allies do not have the means to identify, process, and strike targets as part of an integrated campaign. To run the air campaign, the NATO air operations centre in Italy required a major augmentation of targeting specialists, mainly from the US, to do the job – a “just in time” infusion of personnel that may not always be available in future contingencies. We have the spectacle of an air operations centre designed to handle more than 300 sorties a day struggling to launch about 150. Furthermore, the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country – yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference.

As well as a paucity of European military resources, NATO faces two other dangers, Mr Gates said. One is the passing of his generation of American leaders, like himself, for whom the security of Europe was the over-riding pre-occupation of their careers. The second is that America, itself under pressure to cut defence spending to curb high deficits and debt, might soon give up on Europe: if the European taxpayers do not want to pay to preserve their own security, why should Americans shoulder the burden? Only five of the 28 NATO allies meet NATO’s recommendation that countries should spend at least 2% of GDP on defence: America, Britain, France, Greece and Albania. Today America’s key security interests are in the Middle East and in Asia. Europe will be the obvious place for America to cut expensive overseas commitments.

Europe has more soldiers than America, but can deploy far fewer of them on overseas operations. This is partly the result of history: in the cold war European armies were built to hold the line in Europe, while awaiting reinforcement by American forces which, by definition, had to be designed for expeditionary warfare. Another is that “Europe” is not a sovereign state, but a collection of small- and medium-sized countries. Its considerable defence spending is hoplessly fragmented among a multitude of armies, air forces and navies.

Specialisation, pooling and sharing equipment is the obvious way forward. Defence experts across Europe have known this for a long time and, here and there, countries have embarked on some important experiments. A recent paper by the Centre for European Reform, and think-tank in London, makes some sensible recommendations ( PDF). But what is rational in terms of defence accounting too often falls foul of political and operational reality. Many smaller countries have little interest in international commitments. And the bigger states that still retain some kind of global vision, like Britain and France, do not want to be dependent on smaller states for their military capability.

Poland, which takes over the presidency of the European Union next month, plans to make a renewed attempt to boost European defence co-operation. It is also pushing for a bigger EU autonomous military headquarters, though the need for this is unclear, given that even the NATO air operations centre had to be reinforced by American experts, as Mr Gates noted acidly. Moreover, Poland is among those countries singled out by Mr Gates for failing to do enough in Libya.

That said, Mr Gates did pick out some allies for praise in carrying out a disproportionate share of the bombing campaign in Libya: Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Canada. Why have they stepped forward when so many have not? Perhaps, suggests one American officials, it is because the action in Libya is seen by them not as an act of big-power bullying, or as part of an endless and ill-defined “war on terrorism”, but as a humanitarian action: the first test of the UN’s new doctrine of “responsibility to protect”. It is not just the fate of Libyans that is in the balance in the war against Muammar Qaddafi, but the commitment of Europeans to maintain – and, when necessary, deploy – serious military forces. Responsibility to protect requires, first and foremost, the means to protect.


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