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Swan Song

Is Libya the end of NATO?

From the moment the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO’s future was in question. While it had been the most successful multinational alliance in history, partnerships of that sort seldom survive once their enemies are gone. As the Berlin Wall came down and Stalin’s empire shattered, NATO’s clock was ticking.

Amazingly, though, the Alliance persisted, largely by transforming itself. It staved off a challenge from a proposed European Union Defense Force, which might have supplanted it; provided an institutional framework for continued U.S. involvement in European security; and then, helped stabilize the former Soviet bloc by adding new members from the old Warsaw Pact. For a while, this seemed to be enough. But, as it became clear that its members were unlikely to face direct attacks but were likely to be threatened by instability outside their borders, many began to wonder whether NATO was still valuable.

As new challenges arose around the world, NATO’s role and worth became increasingly unclear. Now, with internal divisions stymieing progress in NATO’s intervention in Libya, the Alliance’s future is all the more uncertain. Indeed, as the crisis in Libya turns to a stalemate, a question looms: Are we witnessing NATO’s swan song?

The first of the challenges to NATO’s role in the world came as the former Yugoslavia fragmented and devolved into a series of civil wars. While the United States willingly played the dominant role in NATO when it faced the Warsaw Pact, the Clinton administration hoped that the European states would stabilize the Balkans with American support, thus allowing the United States to concentrate on the Persian Gulf and Northeast Asia. Unfortunately, this did not pan out: NATO airstrikes did help end the civil wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, and Alliance peacekeepers helped keep the calm. But, in both instances, the United States was compelled to become much more deeply involved than it wanted, largely because the other NATO states could not or would not do it on their own. In both the military and political realms, NATO remained, for all intents and purposes, the United States plus junior partners.

The Balkans campaigns also demonstrated how unwieldy NATO was. Most operations and strikes had to be approved by every nation involved. A few times, national contingents were denied permission to undertake an operation, leaving force commanders to scramble for substitutes or redesign their operations. Luckily, this did not prove disastrous, but it was a sign of deep problems.

The second challenge to NATO came following the September 11 attacks. NATO invoked Article 5 of its Charter, which said that an attack on one member was an attack on all. The test of this assertion soon came in Afghanistan—and it was major. Unlike the Balkans, Afghanistan was very far from NATO’s traditional area of concern and was a very different sort of war than those the Alliance was created to fight. NATO was designed to fend off a massive Warsaw Pact armored assault, but, in Afghanistan, it was cast into the tedious and difficult job of counterinsurgency in an alien culture.

The difficulties of the mission became starker as the United States became heavily involved in Iraq. NATO agreed to take over the U.N.’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, but, other than the United States and the United Kingdom, few NATO nations provided large troop contingents. Some contingents faced rigid restrictions on their activities. The Germans, for instance, focused on police training but could not engage in combat, which limited their utility. Coordination between national groups also created endless problems, including ones as dire as a nation being unable or unwilling to come to the rescue of another nation’s force when it was in trouble. As the Afghan insurgency spread and intensified, these problems were elevated from simple annoyances to serious dangers.

Once again, NATO as an organization was not up to the challenge it undertook. As the situation grew worse, the United States took the reins and dominated the operation. While the outcome in Afghanistan still hangs in the balance, many observers in both the United States and Europe contend that, if NATO fails there, it clearly has little utility in today’s world.

And now, there’s Libya, where failure would be another nail in the coffin of NATO’s existence as we know it. When the UN Security Council authorized the use of force against the Qaddafi regime, NATO seemed better-suited to the challenge than it did in Afghanistan. Geography made the Libyan conflict more pressing for Europe, and the anticipated military missions—using air and naval power to protect Libyan civilians—played more to European strengths than had protracted counterinsurgency operations. The United States and the United Kingdom pressed for NATO to take control of the operation, believing that this would give the action greater international legitimacy and encourage more European states to participate, thus lessening the burden on their own militaries, both heavily committed in Afghanistan. Indeed, President Obama seemed even more determined than President Clinton in the Balkans and President Bush in Afghanistan for the United States to play a supporting role.

But, once again, NATO has not met the challenge. As the operation has developed, the French and British have been forced to undertake most of the combat missions. A few other nations, including Norway, Denmark, and Canada, have flown strike missions, but their air forces are small. Some other participants will patrol but not attack targets. And other NATO states—most importantly Germany—elected to sit out the fighting entirely.

With no end to the conflict in sight, London and Paris, the latter of which opposed having NATO at the helm, have grown increasingly frustrated. The United States continues to provide reconnaissance, aerial refueling, and some other specialized capabilities, but the French and British have asked for the U.S. to also return to offensive strike operations—something that President Obama has so far refused. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and British Foreign Secretary William Hague have called for a greater contribution from the other NATO states. Juppe openly complained that what the alliance is doing “is not sufficient.” French Defense Minister Gerar Longuet amplified the point, complaining that his nation and Britain were carrying “the brunt of the burden.”

And so, for the third time since the end of the cold war, NATO has accepted a major mission and then demonstrated that it does not have the unity of purpose or the military capability to perform it. At least, not without the United States dominating. Meanwhile, the United States has not fully grappled with the idea that NATO may have outlived its usefulness: Its costs may outweigh the contribution it makes to American security, and the notion that the U.S. needs to remain heavily involved in European security seems less and less evident.

It is time for this debate over NATO’s viability to take place. While NATO may serve as an institutional reminder of the shared democratic values of the Atlantic community (and NATO’s not-so-Atlantic new members) and help with interoperability between its members’ military forces, the Alliance, in its current form, has proven it cannot lead and execute complex, sustained operations in today’s world. Three strikes in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and now Libya may not be enough to put NATO out of business, but it certainly should be enough to place the question of its value on the table.

Steven Metz is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.

Follow @tnr on Twitter.