Do defence cuts threaten Europe's post-Libya NATO role?
by Daniel Mason
When the Libyan rebels fought their way into the capital Tripoli last week – sending Colonel Muammar Gaddafi into hiding, his regime into near-collapse and his family into exile in Algeria – the six-month conflict appeared to be nearing its inevitable endgame. Immediately there was widespread and lavish praise for the role played by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, whose military alliance proved critical to the rebels as they closed in on a successful overthrow of Gaddafi's 42-year old regime.
Without NATO's military intervention, led by British and French forces – bombing key Gaddafi targets and supply routes, and enforcing an arms embargo and no-fly zone in accordance with the United Nations Security Council resolution – the rebels may not have made much progress beyond Benghazi in the east of the country. And, as an Economist editorial pointed out this week, the campaign was carried out without the feared "mission creep" – there is, for instance, no prospect of a western ground force being put in place to keep the peace post-conflict, not least because the rebels' National Transitional Council has said it does not want one.
While the United States played an important role in NATO's Libya alliance, including its obvious financial clout, one of the most notable aspects of the conflict has been that the US handed the operational lead to the Europeans. And for the most part – Germany was, of course, a notable exception – Europe has stepped up to the plate, thanks to the early leadership of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron. But the US strategy of taking a back seat role in overseas interventions, combined with significant and widespread defence cuts throughout the European Union, has raised questions at the highest level about NATO's ability to carry out a similarly successful mission in the future.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's Danish secretary general, writing for Foreign Affairs in June, said that Libya – the conflict was then only part way through its course at this point – had "revealed that NATO allies do not lack military capabilities". It was a reminder, he wrote, "of how important it is for NATO to be ready, capable and willing to act". But he indicated that it was "hard to see" how Europe could lead a similar campaign in the future, given the retreat on defence spending. To overcome this problem, Rasmussen said Europe should pursue a new "smart defence" approach, identifying where investment is required and setting priorities "on the basis of threats, cost effectiveness and performance – not budgetary consideration or prestige alone". He recommended that European nations work together in clusters to combine resources and build mutually beneficial capabilities.
There should also be closer cooperation between NATO and the European Union in the wake of the Arab Spring, Rasmussen wrote, as "both will have a role in helping states transitioning to more democratic systems" – though as the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton warned last week, there is a risk of international organisations duplicating their activities on the ground, something which must be avoided. Nevertheless for Europe, Rasmussen said, Libya should act as a wake up call to "prevent the economic crisis from becoming a security crisis" While recognising the difficult economic situation, the secretary general warned: "The way Europe responds to this challenge could determine its place in the global order and the future of security." Put like that, the stakes are high.
In July Rasmussen told the BBC that Europe's defence spending cuts would mean that emerging countries including China and India would increasingly dominate the international response to crises around the world. Likewise US defence secretary Robert Gates said, in a speech in June, that the Libya operation had already "exposed some of the shortcomings caused by underfunding". He added that the success of the campaign should be weighed against the opposition – like Rasmussen he was speaking part way through the conflict: "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."
And similarly, in a recent report Tomas Valasek, director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform think-tank, highlighted that Libya was the first time Europe had "responded to Washington's calls to assume more responsibility for their neighbourhood" – with Europeans absorbing "most of the risks and costs of the ultimately successful war". The leadership shown by the UK and France "energised" NATO," in Valasek's opinion, an antithesis to Europe's failure to act in Bosnia in the 1990s. But defence cuts, along with Germany's refusal to play a leading role, mean it might not happen again, unless a new strategy is devised.
Like Rasmussen, Valasek sees a solution in closer cooperation between EU members in defence spending. "There is evidence that the Europeans are moving in the right direction – the French and the British recently agreed to share the costs of building and maintaining nuclear weapons; they also plan to buy missiles and drones together in the future. More governments are exploring other ideas for collaboration, and the Dutch and the Belgians as well as the Nordic countries have been doing so for several years". Without this sort of cooperation the success of NATO in Libya would not be likely to be repeated in any future conflict.
Pooling resources will be essential for Europe, according to a report published by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Its author, Patrick Keller, described as a "popular European misconception" the idea that security can be achieved through development aid, diplomacy and economic interdependence. "In the end one needs to buy things – planes, tanks, rifles, computers – and pay the people using them," he wrote, adding: "The sooner Europeans come around to this insight, the more likely they will remain safe." He said Europe was cutting defence budgets at an almost existential level, and that to solve the problem nations should focus on particular strengths and pool resources elsewhere. But "weariness" for further integration in the EU makes it unlikely because it "tinkers with the sovereignty of the member countries" in a more profound way than any other policy area.
For Europe NATO must remain a vital military alliance, because there is no prospect of the EU expanding its common defence and security policy into a military role because of the reluctance of some member states to risk losing sovereignty – for example, when Ashton proposed, in July, the creation of a central EU operational military headquarters the idea was rejected out of hand by the UK, with foreign secretary William Hague saying the issue was a "red line" that the UK would not agree to now or in the future. Hague said the EU stepping up in a military sense might undermine NATO.
But if Rasmussen, Gates, and the plethora of voices repeating the same mantra, are to be believed, European NATO members including the UK are already undermining the alliance by cutting defence budgets to an extent that protecting civilians from massacre as it did in Libya will be impossible. Consistently, experts have proposed closer cooperation and the pooling of defence resources. As European leaders slap each other on the back over the action they took in Libya, they must consider whether they wants to have the ability to play a similar role in future conflicts.
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