Opinion An Alliance without a Strategy

The current mission in Libya is an illustration of greater problems within the NATO alliance -- the member states are no longer able to agree on a common strategy. The alliance has failed in its ability to redefine its mission in a post-Soviet world. NATO lacks ideas and unity, and Germany shares responsibility for this failure.
Von Jörg Himmelreich
The NATO foreign minister conference in Berlin on April 15: The alliance has seldom in its history seen the lack of unity it is currently experiencing.

The NATO foreign minister conference in Berlin on April 15: The alliance has seldom in its history seen the lack of unity it is currently experiencing.

Foto: Carsten Koall/ Getty Images

The NATO foreign ministers gathered in Berlin for a summit earlier this month may have worn diplomatic smiles on their faces, but the expressions seemed quite artificial -- and their ostentatious display of unity came off more like a masquerade than reality.

The truth is that the alliance is currently experiencing a lack of solidarity on a scale that has been rare in its history. Every country in the alliance appears to be pursuing its own national agenda, with few showing much willingness to compromise with their other partners. To name but a few examples:

  • The German government seemed almost dead-set in its determination to steer down the wrong path to international self-isolation with its abstention in the vote on March 17 on United Nations Resolution 1973, which granted military protection to Libya's civilian population. With its move, Germany frittered away  any of the credibility it might have needed to be taken seriously in any further discussion on the military intervention. With state elections taking place just days after the vote, the government appeared to be more concerned with the ballot box at home than issues abroad.
  • In a U-turn on its previous policy on Libya, France -- which has recently re-engaged itself  as a NATO partner under President Nicolas Sarkozy -- conducted military air strikes on its own while NATO foreign ministers meeting in Paris were still discussing whether NATO should take over command for the military intervention in Libya from the United States. Previously, France had sought to keep NATO out of Libya for as long as possible, to provide a unique opportunity for Sarkozy to bolster his domestic standing in the run-up to French presidential elections next year.
  • Recently, NATO partner Turkey has begun to see it as self-evident that it should act in a role as mediator between the Arab world and the West. In order to ensure that its role would not be damaged, Ankara prevented the alliance from acting for a decisive number of days.
  • As the NATO alliance leader, the US also decided at rather short notice to demonstrate ambition in the fight against the dictators of the world. With Obama's re-election campaign starting there, Washington's moves also appeared to be motivated by domestic political considerations.

Obama is erraneously hoping that the NATO intervention can succeed without US leadership. The US president could lead -- both politically and militarily -- but he doesn't want to. Among the Europeans, it is Sarkozy who would most like to lead the mission, but he is incapable of doing so -- French munitions are already in short supply. And German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is still insistent that no German soldier should set foot on Libyan soil, but in the next breath he says that Germany will provide military protection to humanitarian transports to Libya.

Otherwise, leaders in Berlin are crossing their fingers that the murderous Libyan despot, out of remorse, will voluntarily exit the stage into self-imposed exile.

NATO Lacks a Strategy

With such deep differences of opinion, it is currently impossible for NATO to develop a common strategy on how to proceed in the face of the present impasse in Libya. With air strikes alone, NATO will be unable to topple Gadhafi, but the current UN mandate doesn't even cover the necessary use of ground troops. Without obtaining arms from abroad, the rebels will also be incapable of gaining the upper hand. And even if they do manage to obtain weapons, it remains an open question whether or not they can prevail.

One thing the NATO foreign ministers were able to agree on at their Berlin summit was that Gadhafi's war against his own people -- and, thus, the NATO intervention -- will last longer than originally anticipated.

There are deeper reasons behind NATO's inability to agree on a common policy for the Libya intervention. The current problems are tied to profound strategy deficits within the alliance.

During the Cold War, the undisputed raison d'etre of the alliance was the US-led joint defense against a Soviet attack on the territory of a NATO member state -- anchored in the famous Article 5 of the NATO charter, which stipulates that an attack on Europe or North America would be considered an attack against all and obligates the other members to come to its aid. Germany, especially, benefitted from the protection offered by Article 5. With the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, though, NATO lost its enemy and the original reason for its inception.

Since then, numerous task forces and innumerable NATO summits have experimented with new strategy proposals. At the same time, though, the international security situation has been in a constant state of flux and has changed in revolutionary ways. NATO had a strong historical -- and praiseworthy -- role to play in the transformation process of the former Warsaw Pact member states, culminating in 2005 with the accession of the Eastern European countries to NATO. But by the time of the Russian-Georgia conflict in 2008, at the very latest, NATO's enlargement euphoria had dissipated.

Profound Differences over Future Role

Today, the 28 NATO member states have profoundly different opinions about what the alliance's future course should be, a fact that even the new NATO strategy plan adopted at a summit in Riga in November was unable to conceal. It contains little by way of answers to some of the most pressing questions:

  • What role should Russia be given in the efforts to develop a common missile defense to protect Europe from missiles that could be fired from the Middle East?
  • Should NATO act as the global police in every conflict hot spot around the world?
  • Should NATO troops be deployed to secure strategic marine trade lanes and commodity transports in the new era of African pirates?
  • Can cyber attacks trigger an Article 5 collective response from NATO?

Opinions among the member states diverge greatly on each of these questions. And the member states are currently unable to agree to a common NATO strategy on any of these issues that is politically palatable for each country. Indeed, NATO today lacks the kind of supreme strategic objective that united all NATO partners up until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

And as long as there is no solidarity or political will among all the member states to establish a substantial new strategy that goes beyond painless closing statements at summits that pay diplomatic lip service but add little in terms of content, NATO's ability to act militarily will remain compromised. And the more it loses its ability to act collectively, the more we will see individual NATO member states seeking out "coalitions of the willing," if those alignments better serve their own strategic interests. The result is the loss of one of NATO's key assets, the integration of the security policies of its 28 member states.

German Provincialism

In the face of this lack of will on the part of the Europeans, the United States' readiness to rapidly and constantly support the pursuit of European interests out of solidarity to the alliance will also diminish, as is currently illustrated in the case of Libya. The consequence of this is that NATO may transform into a forum for nonbinding trans-Atlantic political discourse. With solidarity fading away within the military alliance, the Europeans would be relegated to ensuring their security on their own in the future.

That is a scenario that surely cannot be in Germany's interests if it wants to pursue a serious, credible and responsible security policy. However, Germany's present self-isolation leaves the international community with the fatal impression that Germany, the former main beneficiary of NATO, is no longer available to shape a NATO strategy for the future. And why isn't it? Because of ignorant, nationalist-pacifist provincialism.

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