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Libya: Evaluating NATO’s Strategic Concept

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  • July 06, 2011

    An expanded role beyond its borders, including R2P, needs to be included in NATO’s concept to ensure its future relevance.

    In December 2010 NATO released its new strategic concept renewing its commitment to Collective Security. The concept attempted to shore up the gaps the past 10 years have presented. Due to lack of consensus among the member states provisions for potential future crises was not addressed adequately. Consequently less than one year on, NATO entered into a conflict it was ill prepared for and lacked unity over. 1 The intervention in Libya has demonstrated that NATO has failed to find consensus over its future role despite the creation of a new strategic concept. Only nine out of the 25 European states were willing or capable to commit to ‘out-of-area’ operations in Libya; however, a Libya-like intervention may have to be undertaken elsewhere in the future and it will be necessary for NATO partners to participate if the cohesion of NATO is to be maintained. This paper will present the fundamental problem of the 2010 strategic concept through an analysis of its application to the Libya conflict. The paper will attempt to demonstrate how NATO needs to define itself beyond the limitations of a collective security organisation if it plans to maintain its relevance when faced with future crises.

    On March 17, in response to the imminent threat faced by civilians in Libya, the UN sanctioned resolution 1973 ‘[Authorizing] Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, […], to take all necessary measures […] to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya’ 2, thus permitting a coalition of willing states, made up primarily of NATO forces to intervene. The crisis developed quickly but the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) invoked to sanction military intervention was nothing new. R2P permits intervention only when there is a clear case of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity occurring or imminently likely to occur. The UNSC endorsed the intervention in Libya because the crisis there met these conditions of R2P. Whilst R2P is accepted by the UN it has not become integrated into NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept; therefore, any moral arguments justifying intervention in Libya notwithstanding, NATO should not have taken control of the operation despite being the only organisation capable of doing so.

    In the absence of R2P provisions in the 2010 Strategic Concept, collective intervention could only be undertaken by classifying it as necessary to ensure NATO’s collective security. Through Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (NAT) collective security in NATO is invoked in cases of an armed attack against one or more of its member states. 3 The 2010 Strategic Concept expanded the definition of collective security to include the threats posed by terrorism, cyber-terrorism, states that proliferate nuclear weapons, beyond border conflicts that can foster extremism, and trans-national activities such as human, narcotics and weapons trafficking that can affect the security of NATO states.4 In Article 20 of the Strategic Concept the most likely approach for legitimacy for the Libya campaign can be drawn from the stipulation ‘Crises and conflicts beyond NATO’s borders can pose a direct threat to the security of Alliance territory and populations. NATO will therefore engage, where possible and when necessary, to prevent crises, manage crises, stabilize post-conflict situations and support reconstruction.’5 Despite this expanded definition of NATO’s security interests, only very tenuously could the Strategic Concept justify the intervention in Libya and only that too under the rubric of Collective Security and not because of responsibilities to peoples outside of the organization.

    It was, however, under the principles of R2P, and not under the guise of collective security defined in Article 20, that NATO intervened in Libya. R2P has been an established principle of the UN since 2005 and had been an accepted concept by EU and NATO states since its inauguration in 2001. Considering that nations within NATO attempted to invoke R2P in Myanmar in 2008, 6 two years before the revision of NATO’s strategic concept, it begs the question as to why NATO’s Strategic Concept for the future did not include at least some reference to humanitarian intervention?

    The reason that no such provisions were made within the strategic concept is that consensus on R2P would not have been reached. An Institute for Science and International Security briefing note on NATO raised the point that ‘It would be a mistake to add a host of new threats to the Alliance’s remit without careful consideration of the implications for solidarity and cohesion between members.’7 Yet this is exactly what happened in Libya and action was taken despite inevitable organisational fallout. NATO actions have ‘[made] short shrift of the Alliance’s Strategic Concept, only months after its adoption at NATO’s summit in November 2010’. 8 The Strategic Concept should have included a reference to R2P in NATO’s future structure if the Libya intervention was to be legitimised. What is revealing is that the African Union has a Clause in Article 4(h) of its Constitutive Act that directly and unambiguously permits Humanitarian Interventions (such as in the case of Libya).9 But NATO which has the military capability to intervene does not have the necessary organizational treatise to mandate such operations. Germany notably does not show any signs of wanting to include R2P within NATO as it does not wish to become involved in global military actions, 10 risking the alienation of powers such as China and Russia, 11 preferring to keep NATO to the far more limited role of collective defense.

    What Germany and other European nations need to consider is that whilst NATO’s fundamental purpose remains collective defence, there is almost no threat of large scale conflict arising in Europe or North America and as such there is a requirement for NATO to refocus on issues other than its traditional role of preserving European security if it is to remain relevant 12 Gareth Evans, a founder of the principle of R2P, stated in an address to the shadow NATO summit that NATO’s unique capabilities make it the only organisation capable of playing the role of an ‘emergency force provider in response to conscience shocking mass atrocity crimes’.13 He also inferred that NATO can and should find and develop a role in helping implement international R2P. The Strategic Concept should have reflected this, but failed to do so due to a lack of consensus. There was justification to intervene in Libya due to the serious and genuine threat to the lives of civilians. 14 NATO forces, despite some ‘mission creep’, are doing the right thing and NATO has gone through the correct legal channels to undertake the intervention in Libya. It is in keeping with the spirit of NATO that such actions as described by Evans, and underway in Libya, become a focus area for the organisation’s future role.

    The divide that has arisen in NATO because of intervention in Libya is not solely the fault of Germany. Nothing within the charter or the Strategic Concept mandates NATO action in Libya and so to invoke collective security was a brash action on the part of France, the UK and the USA. The lack of consensus in NATO’s new role that the strategic concept fails to define in this era of increased European stability and security has affected the willingness of European states to commit adequately towards security. This issue is at the very heart of the US perception that NATO has outlived its usefulness. Robert Gates, the outgoing US Defence Secretary, stated that NATO’s future is "dim, if not dismal" .15 In the US, his critical words on the Organisation received a strong endorsement indicating that US patience in this matter is almost at an end. Gates may have been overly optimistic when he said that it is not too late for change. The strategic concept has not brought about any real change in the willingness of European states to involve themselves in future NATO out-of-area operations. NATO needs to go back to the drawing board and needs to find consensus beyond the existing guideline that its strategic concept represents and include legally binding obligations towards burden sharing. An expanded role beyond its borders, including R2P, needs to be included in its concept to ensure its future relevance.

    • 1. Camille Grand, ‘Libya Campaign Shows Need to Re-Think the Trans-Atlantic Link,’ The European Institute, June 2011.
    • 2. United Nations Security Council ‘Resolution 1973 (2011)’ S/RES/1973 (2011).
    • 3. Adopted by Heads of State and Government in Washington DC, ‘North Atlantic Treaty’ NATO, 4 April 1949, Article 5.
    • 4. Adopted by the Heads of State and Government in Lisbon, ‘Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation: Active Engagement, Modern Defence’, NATO, December 2010,
    • 5. Adopted by the Heads of State and Government in Lisbon, ‘Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation: Active Engagement, Modern Defence’, NATO, December 2010, Article 20.
      Vladimir Socor, ‘NATO and the Responsibility to Protect: Whom Exactly?’ Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume: 8, Issue: 96, May 18, 2011.
    • 6. Myanmar Burma No.2 Briefing Paper, ‘Cyclone Nargis and the Responsibility to Protect’, Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, May 2008, p.4.
    • 7. ISIS Briefing Note, ‘NATO’s New Division: A Serious Look’, at ‘Emerging Security Challenges or an Attempt at Shoring up Relevance and Capability’, European Security Review, No. 51, September 2010.
    • 8. Vladimir Socor ‘NATO and the Responsibility to Protect: Whom Exactly?’ Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume: 8, Issue: 96, May 18, 2011.
    • 9. Constitutive Act of the African Union’, African Union, 2000 Article 4(h).
    • 10. Martynas Zapolskis, ‘Redefining the Euro-Atlantic Security Agenda: What is the Role of the New NATO Strategic Concept’, Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review, Issue 23, 2010 .
    • 11. Timo Noetzel, Benjamin Schreer ‘Does a Multi-Tier NATO Matter? The Atlantic Alliance and the Process of Strategic Change’, International Affairs, Volume 85, Number 2, 2009, p. 216.
    • 12. ISIS Briefing Note ‘NATO’s New Division’, op.cit.
    • 13. Gareth Evans, ‘NATO and the Responsibility to Protect’, Presentation made to Shadow NATO summit, March 31, 2009.
    • 14. Ian Davis, ‘Libya: NATO Must Stick to the R2P Script’, NATO Watch, March 31, 2011.
    • 15. David S. Cloud, ‘Shaky Libya Campaign Shows NATO’s Weakness, Gates Says’, The Sacramento Bee.