The Atlantic Alliance Transformed

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As the US inclination and ability to act unilaterally decline, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization becomes an even more vital tool for foreign and defense policy. However, NATO will only be relevant to new US strategic priorities and geopolitical realities if it changes the way it does business.

Despite flaws in its execution, the ultimate success of NATO’s Libya campaign may serve as a model for Alliance operations in the future by working closely with key regional partners and acting as a coalition of the willing within NATO structures. For this model to work effectively in the future, NATO will need to transform its internal processes to become more flexible and adaptable, and the Alliance will need to build a broader and deeper array of global relationships for an uncertain world.

Lessons from NATO’s Libya success

NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya was flawed but ultimately successful. The Alliance—and by extension the United States—achieved its objectives with no allied casualties, minor collateral damage, and limited US engagement.

As President, you may wish to consider how the Libya operation provides a model for how the Alliance can operate in future contingencies as it winds down from over a decade of combat in Afghanistan.

Specifically, NATO responded to calls from a regional organization to intervene; secured United Nations authorization to act; rapidly integrated critical regional players into its mission; acted as a coalition of the willing using NATO structures; and relied upon allies and partners to lead combat operations. As you think about the future of the Atlantic Alliance and how to maximize its relevance for future US foreign policy objectives, and as you weigh our own declining appetite and resources to act alone, it would be useful to take into account the following lessons from the Libya mission:

First, NATO remains the world’s only institution capable of rapid and effective multilateral military action. When the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1973 calling for the protection of civilians and the Arab League called for international intervention, NATO was the only multilateral institution capable of undertaking the operation.

Second, many regional partners are seeking a deeper relationship with NATO to safeguard their security and enhance their global role, rather than engage in one-off, ad-hoc coalitions of the willing. Claims from skeptics that NATO’s intervention would be politically toxic in Libya were proven wrong. Critical partners in the Libya operation included the Arab League as well as the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose members have enjoyed long-standing partnership programs with NATO.

These partners bring global credibility, a regional blessing, and local capabilities to Allied operations and efforts.

Third, not all allies may choose to participate in discretionary non-Article 5 operations. Only eight of the twenty-eight NATO allies chose to participate in launching air strikes in Libya, while some allies participated in different ways, and still others—most notably Germany—chose not to participate at all. Differences in interests, capabilities, and strategic culture may produce similar divisions in the future but, as Libya demonstrated, that need not automatically preclude willing allies from using NATO assets and structures to accomplish the mission.

Libya demonstrated that more than two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Alliance can remain a vital and relevant tool for your presidency. For it to remain relevant, your administration will need to demonstrate leadership in NATO to convince the allies to embrace a more ambitious partnership agenda and undertake reforms to NATO’s decision-making processes.

A partnership agenda for the future

As President, you will be faced with a range of challenges that are covered amply in this compendium, including Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, economic competitiveness, the rise of China, and other urgent priorities.

NATO reform certainly cannot compete with these urgent challenges as a foreign policy priority of your administration. However, because the United States cannot fully address the challenges listed above unilaterally, your transatlantic allies will be the most effective partners in achieving your foreign policy goals.

At the same time, the emergence of new powers and global challenges means that the Atlantic community must develop closer linkages to partners outside the Euro-Atlantic area who can help address the challenges of a globalized world. Doing so with your European allies will be much more effective than the United States trying to do so without them.

NATO should remain an Atlantic alliance and should not consider global membership, as some called for several years ago. However, based on the lessons of Libya, it should strengthen its relationships with key regional bodies, international organizations, and major states around the world. Proactively forming partnerships and strengthening existing relationships will ensure that the Alliance is best equipped to act quickly and effectively if called on to intervene in a global security crisis.

In particular, NATO should strengthen its partnerships with the following major regional organizations:

  • Arab League: Turmoil and instability in the Middle East are likely to increase during your term. The crises in Libya and Syria have brought about greater coherence and activity from the Arab League in offering political leadership on regional crises, but its members still largely lack capability to provide effective action. In the case of complex military operations, the Arab League would still need to call on NATO or NATO members to act. NATO should enhance its political engagement with the Arab League, whose support would be critical in any future intervention or NATO peacekeeping role in the region.
  • Gulf Cooperation Council: Both the United States and its top European allies have major strategic interests in the security and stability of the Persian Gulf. In particular, Iran is a common threat to many members of the Alliance, as well as to the members of the GCC. Leading GCC members such as the UAE, Qatar, and Jordan have experience working with the Alliance and are eager to expand their partnerships with NATO. Your administration should make the strengthening of these partnerships a top priority.
  • African Union: NATO’s European members in particular have every interest in enhancing the capability and capacity of the African Union to address regional crises. NATO can make a significant impact on training and security sector reform in Africa at a relatively low financial and political cost to its members.
  • ASEAN: As the United States focuses more of its strategic attention on Asia, it should encourage the Alliance to strengthen its dialogue and interaction with ASEAN. Doing so will keep the United States’ transatlantic partners involved in strategic questions of the Asia-Pacific region and strengthen the multilateral approaches to the complex problems looming there.

In addition to its relationships with key regional organizations, NATO will also want to consider how it can best enhance important bilateral partnerships. NATO’s bilateral partnerships fall into two categories: operational partners and emerging partners.

Deepening operational relationships: NATO’s operations in Afghanistan and Libya have created particularly strong ties with key national contributors outside the Alliance from Europe to the Middle East and Asia. With NATO’s operations in Libya complete and coming to a close in Afghanistan, the Alliance must think about how best to preserve these close relationships with key operational partners in the years to come. NATO should focus in particular on how to maintain interoperability with these contributing partners and better integrate them into its strategic discussions at the North Atlantic Council in advance of any future operations, so that they share in the planning of contingencies where they may participate. NATO’s emerging ‘Smart Defense’ framework might be one such approach.

Strategic dialogue with emerging powers: NATO should strengthen its strategic dialogue and consultation with the emerging powers that are likely to take on a greater share of global governance in the decades to come.

These conversations with countries such as Russia, China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and others will not be easy nor readily produce results, but they will be important in building trust, transparency, and fostering joint approaches to the common challenges of a globalized world.

Reforming NATO decision-making

A second priority of your administration should be to encourage reform of NATO to allow the twenty-eight-member organization to best address the security challenges of the future.

NATO’s tradition of operating by consensus has become more complex as the Alliance has expanded its membership and as it faces an array of nontraditional security challenges that do not threaten all members equally.

The Alliance should change the way it addresses crises at the North Atlantic Council to avoid paralysis in the face of complex and fast-moving security challenges. When faced with a crisis, the North Atlantic Council should consider the following alternatives:

  • NATO acts as twenty-eight. In situations where the Alliance invokes Article 5, or where all members otherwise feel compelled to act for reasons of solidarity, such as in Afghanistan, NATO can decide that it wishes to act as twenty-eight, as envisioned by the Washington Treaty.
  • NATO as a coalition of the willing. In crises that have disparate impacts on Alliance members, NATO can decide that the crisis is of interest to the Alliance, but not all allies wish to participate in the operation. In this case, NATO command and control and assets can be used in the operation, as was the case in Libya. This means of operating is likely to be the future template for action for the Alliance in crisis management operations.
  • NATO declines to act. In situations where several key NATO members object to military action, the Alliance can decline to act as an Alliance to address the crisis. That would not preclude individual members, including the United States, from acting unilaterally or in conjunction with other willing NATO states.

If the United States leads NATO to undertake these important efforts, then your entire foreign and security policy agenda can become easier to accomplish. 

Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft is chairman of the Atlantic Council International Advisory Board and president and founder of The Scowcroft Group. A former two-time national security advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, Scowcroft also served in the United States Air Force. This piece is taken from the Atlantic Council publication The Task Ahead: Memos for the Winner of the 2012 Presidential Election, and is part of a series of New Atlanticist pieces on NATO’s 2012 Chicago Summit.

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