Besides the much-needed debate on the limits of the responsibility to protect (R2P), the Libyan mess has also provoked some good discussion of what NATO is supposed to do now, 20 years after the Cold War. It is a good question actually. Western publics are so accustomed to it, we just don’t even consider it much (such public opinion inertia is one reason it is still around). Conversely, the Chinese, and Russians especially, continue to suspect it as a ‘bloc’ that might somehow be used for future containment of them. Here and here are good articles Libya as a NATO-breaking event – a distinct possibility, especially if there is a push to extend NATO intervention into other Arab Spring revolts. Here and here are two defenses, that still struggle to define NATO’s military role.
My own sense is that NATO would be better off just openly admitting that it is now western military club for the general promotion of democracy and liberalism when its members feel so compelled. It is basically that ‘league of democracies’ idea, the formal proposal of which failed a few years ago. I understand that this is terribly messy, and it sounds pretty open-ended. But like the evolution of the R2P concept, just because it is open-ended, doesn’t mean the alliance needs to act on every possible scenario. We are learning how this works; there is no rush. Like the evolution of R2P, a more general mission for NATO would allow the members to pick-and-choose where interest, values, capabilities. Such ‘selective action’ is well-shown in the current Libya operation.
Yes, the Cold War brought a level of clarity to world politics that we all, disturbingly, seem to miss. But trying to force NATO into old boxes – ie, looking for a Soviet-style threat that brings ‘mission clarity’ or ‘threat definition’ is a fool’s errand by now. We really ought to know that 20 years after the Wall fell, and god help us if we place China into the Soviet ‘enemy box.’ As I argued earlier, the mess of crises of the future will be mostly ‘third world brushfires’ that like Somalia, Kosovo, or Rwanda. This should hardly be news to anyone who has followed the emergence of COIN in US military thinking in the last decade.
Such third world crises require different force postures among NATO allies, yes, but they are hardly a reason to dissolve or disdain NATO. The most obvious evidence for this is George W Bush’s dismissal of NATO assistance in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush thought NATO too encumbering, sluggish, and political for the rapid action he sought. But then both operations went south, and the US has tried repeatedly to pull NATO in.
Anyone who follows NATO knows the endless ‘out-of-area’ discussion discussion: should NATO go out of its European area into places like Afghanistan? I have no definitive answer – probably, but selectively. But far more important is that NATO is working this out, albeit slowly. This is why I don’t understand the pundit contempt for NATO ‘dithering.’ What is the alternative? Do neo-cons, eg., really want the US do all this stuff alone, again? Didn’t we learn that hard lesson in the last decade? And to those who think NATO is just irrelevant, should we simply close it? NATO is the closest thing we have to a club of democracies. As such, it carries enormous moral weight in world politics, beyond the simple aggregate of its military capabilities (which are, to be sure, atrophying). Yes, NATO bickers incessantly, but any show of unanimity from organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or ASEAN is almost certainly farcical and repressed – a representation of solely elite, frequently dictatorial, views. By contrast, NATO, because it is democratic, signals far more credibly. So while it takes awhile for NATO to get its act together (dithering), it is vastly more meaningful when it does – even if partially, as in Libya. And NATO ‘interoperability’ reduces the coordination costs among the democracies. Finally, its existence is minimally costly. Members can still free-lance as the US did in Iraq and France just did in Ivory Coast. NATO does provide room for ‘coalitions of the willing.’
In sum, the costs of NATO are low – some meetings and a lot of hassle. But the benefits are high – a credible, somewhat united democratic voice in global affairs with enormous moral prestige, a functionally meaningful and capable alliance (unlike the ‘alliances’ between China and NK, or Russia and Belarus that look more like gangs than real alliances), and retained national room to maneuver.
So why complain about NATO so much? It is muddling through pretty well it seems to me. It is stumbling toward a new role to project democratic force on a selective basis. A more R2P focused NATO will re-assure China and Russia that they are not the alliance’ targets (even if they will call R2P ‘human rights imperialism’). What great benefit does anyone in the West (not just the US, but anyone) get if we close NATO?
The real problem with NATO is not the endlessly harped-on issue of its mission: I really can’t read anymore of these sorts of articles with variants of the title ‘the future of NATO.’ It should be blindingly obvious that in a messy post-Cold War, post-colonial world, NATO’s mission focus will correspondingly be unclear (beyond basic member security). But so is the mission of the UN, ASEAN, and maybe even the EU (!), so this is not uncommon in generalist, big-theme international organizations. The real issue is member capabilities – specifically the precipitous decline of the European democracies to project power independently of huge US intervention. The well-known ‘free-rider problem’ debilitates the alliance no matter what its mission. This is a problem in Asia too (although the SKs try harder than Japan, to be fair.) The real issue for NATO is not its irrelevance – in world of ‘brushfires,’ it will still have relevance as Libya just showed – it is the willingness of members to provide resources.