Afghanistan and Libya: Lessons for the U.S. and Europe

Libyan rebel near Ajdabiya, Libya, April 14, 2011.

From Kurt Volker, the Christian Science Monitor:  The lessons Americans and Europeans may take from these episodes are as different as they are telling. Americans will likely blame Europeans for never doing their share in Afghanistan. And whether Libya is a success or failure, it will prove to Americans that the US should no longer offer defense capabilities that Europe itself will not fund.

Europeans, meanwhile, may conclude it was a mistake to follow the US into Afghanistan in the first place, and that the drawn-out operation in Libya further proves that expeditionary missions are a bad idea. Europe should stay close to home and practice genuine self-defense.

The one thing both sides would agree on is that for whatever we face in the future, NATO is not up to it. But in a world in which ideological, military, economic, political, and sheer chaotic threats are growing, shouldn’t Europe and North America, these twin pillars of democratic values in the world, act together more closely than ever before?

If so, what are the real conclusions allies should draw from NATO’s current operations? Here are some suggestions:

Lesson One: NATO and US must both take ownership

First, for NATO to mean anything, both sides of the Atlantic need to take ownership of the alliance.

At the moment, for both America and Europe, "NATO" has become synonymous with "them." When an American president speaks of "handing over to NATO," he means "Europe" – as though America, long the leader of NATO, is no longer in it. At the same time, for Europe, "NATO" has been long equated with "the Americans." The alliance is hollowing out from within.

Lesson Two: Europe’s defense cuts undermine alliance

Second, as underlined by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the demolishing of European defense budgets is hastening this effect. Europe lacks the capabilities to accomplish basic combat missions without the US. This was a problem long before the Libya operation put it in stark relief.

If Europe continues to shed real defense capabilities, there will be no alliance to speak of. . . .

Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO, is managing director, international, for BGR Group and senior fellow and managing director of The Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University‘s School of Advanced International Studies. Amb. Volker is member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group. A version of this essay originally appeared in Italy‘s La Stampa newspaper.  (photo: AP)

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