NATO at a Crossroads – The Case for European Defense Cooperation

Robert Gates’ retirement speech expressed frustration over European NATO spending last year.  Europe must co-ordinate its defense spending to achieve more.

NATO is at a crossroads. Just as the conflict in Afghanistan illustrated how NATO has remained a defensive pact since its conception, the conflict in Libya has displayed it cannot be an institution concerned with security or humanitarian operations unless Europe is willing to cover more of the bill. Robert Gates’ retirement speech highlighted America’s frustration over Europe’s lack of military support for NATO’s intervention in Libya. His successor, Leon Panetta, has been quick to voice this dissatisfaction as well.

Article 5 of the NATO treaty calls for intervention by member states when one member state is attacked. Article 5 is a fundamental principle of NATO, since NATO is concerned with national survival. Member state survival is the reason NATO was originally signed – to prevent Russia from invading European NATO states. British general and author Rupert Smith defines a defence policy as one that is concerned with the “absolute imperatives of the survival of the state.” To invade Afghanistan, NATO invoked Article 5, but to invade Libya it did not – there was no threat to the survival of a NATO member state because no member state was attacked. Therefore NATO’s intervention in Libya is not a defensive operation.

The Libya operation can be at most a geopolitical security goal. Smith defines security policy as one defined by “lesser imperatives.” Political science professor Jean-Yves Haine argues the EU’s foreign strategy “aims to promote the emergence of a ‘ring of friends’ across Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.” Therefore an intervention in Libya is in the interest of Europe – overthrowing Gaddafi, a tyrannical dictator of a unstable country, certainly promotes a ‘ring of friends.’

The UN’s 2005 principle the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) calls for “intervention for human protection purposes.” The UN’s Security Council imposed a no fly zone over Libya by adopting Article 1973; authorizing NATO “to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under attack in the country.” Therefore Libya can be justified as a humanitarian intervention. However, no NATO member state’s survival was at stake; therefore no NATO member state is obliged to act, however justifiable intervention may be.

Former secretary of defense Robert Gates

Gates’ frustration

According to Gates Libya is “an operation where Europeans are taking the lead with American support.” Intervention in Libya is a security goal for Europe; it wants to promote a ‘ring of friends’ across the Mediterranean. This mission however has thus far relied on American firepower, supplied by the American taxpayer. Gates points out: “the mightiest military alliance in history is 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 U.S., once more, to make up the difference.” Leon Panetta echoed his concerns, re-affirming shortages in intelligence and surveillance capabilities, refuelling tankers, and supplies – all gaps the US had to fill.

American frustration is understandable; Britain and France pushed for a security – not a defence – operation in Libya. The operation is a humanitarian mission located in Europe’s sphere of influence and is in the interest of Europe’s geopolitical security policy, yet many NATO members are “unwilling or unable” to share the “risks and costs”(Gates). This comes at a time when both American and European governments are cutting their defence budgets. But for Europe to improve its military capabilities an increase in defence spending is not needed – co-ordination in spending is.

France ACC’mon Europe . . . Co-operate!

According to NATO’s press releases, Europe’s armies account for nearly 2 million military personnel – 500,000 more than the American army. This European advantage is useless. Haine points out that Europe can only deploy 10 percent of these troops. The US can supply far better technology because it spends it 750 million dollar budget on military capabilities rather than simply large armies. Europe’s 300 million dollar combined defence budget is almost half that of the US’s, thus budget size is not the issue. To improve capabilities “the Union must improve spending”(Haine). Panetta’s October speech argued that with cuts looming, nations must co-ordinate cuts and pool their capabilities. Haine argues improved communication, intelligence, surveillance, as well as research and development are all paramount and can be achieved by co-ordinating spending. Cameron and Sarkozy have begun to realise this; to cut costs British and French forces have begun to co-operate, agreeing to maintain a single aircraft carrier between them and co-ordinate research and development. More of this is needed.

The US is perfectly willing to intervene in Libya because of the UN’s R2P. If Libyan intervention is in Europe’s geopolitical security interest, why do the EU’s member states put this assistance in jeopardy by not co-operating further on defence to improve its shortfalls? Militaries are essential for a nation’s sovereignty, perhaps the EU member states are clinging to this as a symbol of independence. But after a single market and even movements towards a common foreign policy, a co-ordinated defence hardly seems unreasonable, especially since co-operation amongst the member states’ defence departments does not mean the end of national sovereignty. Tony Blair realised this in 2000 when he pushed for a “superpower, not a superstate.” Furthermore, scholar Ingo Peters points to failures such as Yugoslavia (a similar operation to that of Libya today) as examples of Europe’s “inability to act independently of the United States.” In this sense, an integrated defence, focusing on co-operation and co-ordination amongst states, can only make Europe more autonomous when handling its own regional security; without assistance from the US it can truly be independent.

If the Europeans want to enjoy the benefits of using NATO as a tool beyond its original purpose – a defensive alliance – they must be willing to pay a decent share of the costs. The costs to EU member states will be political rather than monetary. European defence budgets are not small when combined, it is smarter spending and co-ordination that is needed. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 declared that the “Union shall define and implement a common foreign and security policy . . . which might in time lead to a common defence.” The time for a common defence has come, or else essential humanitarian operations like those of Libya may become impossible in this time of austerity.

Works Cited
“A force for good.” The Economist vol. 398 no. 8726, 26 March – 1 April 2011.

Baldor, Lolita C. “U.S. warns NATO it can’t pick up shortfalls.” The Globe and Mail, 6 October 2011. up-shortfalls/article2191496/

Bellamy, Alex J. and Nicholas J. Wheeler. “Humanitarian intervention in world politics” in Baylis, John et al. The Globalisation of World Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 522-539.

Daalder, Ivo and James Goldgeier. “Global NATO.” Foreign Affairs vol. 85, no. 5, September – October 2006, pp. 105-113.

Eichenberg, Richard C. “Trends: Having it Both Ways: European Defence Integration and the Commitment to NATO.” The Public Opinion Quarterly vol. 67, no. 4 (Winter 2003), pp. 627-659.

“Entente or Bust.” The Economist vol. 397, no. 8704, 16-22 October 2010.

“Financial and Economic Data Relating to NATO Defence.” NATO Public Diplomacy Division Press Release, 10 March 2011. _027.pdf

Haine, Jean-Yves. “The EU’s Soft Power.” Conflict and Security, Winter/Spring 2004. df

Hutchings, Robert. “The United States and the Global Security Agenda.” Global Security in a Multipolar World October 2009, pp. 103-120.

“On Target.” The Economist vol. 399, no. 8738, 18-24 June 2011.

Peters, Ingo. “ESDP as a Transatlantic Issue: Problems of Mutual Ambiguity.” International Studies Review vol. 6, no. 3 (September 2004), pp. 381-401.

“Security Council Approves ‘No-Fly Zone’ Over Libya, Authorizing ‘All Necessary Measures’ To Protect Civilians, By Vote of 10 in Favour and 5 Abstentions.” Security Council Department of Public Information, 17 March 2011.

Smith, Rupert. The Utility of Force. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2006.

“Transcript of Defense Secretary Gates’s Speech on NATO’s Future.” The Wall Street Journal – Washington Wire, 10 June 2011. speech-on-natos-future/

“What is Article 5?” NATO Website, last updated 18 February 2005.



  1. Pingback: The Era of the Eagle – Assertions that the World Will Soon be ‘Multipolar’ are Overblown « The State of the Century
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