NATO: Power and Principles in the Contemporary Era

On Oct. 27, the United Nations Security Council voted to end international military operations in Libya as of November 1. For NATO, the completion of its mission in Libya represents a rare clear-cut victory. As Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, argued, NATO officials “can say unambiguously this was a military and political success. That’s why today is a good day for NATO, and NATO has not had many good days in the last several years.” Not surprisingly, NATO’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was keen to highlight the Alliance’s success in Libya. Speaking at the NATO Review Conference in Berlin—incidentally, on the same date that the Security Council voted to end NATO’s mandate—Anders Rasmussen portrayed the success in Libya, as well as ongoing operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan, as evidence of the Alliance’s ability and willingness to combine power and (liberal-democratic) principles. In his words, “Our principles demand that we protect our populations and inspire those who desire freedom.  And, when the cause is just, and the legal basis strong, we can put power behind our principles to protect them.”

There can be no doubt that NATO’s military operation played a very important role in preventing what could have been a massive humanitarian catastrophe, and in enabling the victory of anti-Qaddafi forces in Libya. In that sense at least, it would be difficult and unfair to take issue with the Secretary General’s statement that NATO effectively combined power and principles.  Nonetheless, as I have argued elsewhere, the Libya mission was far from unproblematic. For all the statements of solidarity issued by allied officials, NATO members displayed fractured solidarity and wide disparities in defense capabilities. Furthermore, the operation was marred by ambiguity over the command arrangements, and was criticized by many states—including members of the Security Council—for having (allegedly) overstepped the U.N. Resolution that authorized the use of all necessary means to protect Libyan civilians from the Qaddafi forces. In essence, the Libya operation was a success that also revealed the Alliance’s vulnerabilities and raised questions about its ability to respond effectively to future crises.

Further questions regarding the role of NATO emerge if we turn our attention to the other operations invoked by Secretary General Rasmussen in his recent speech: Kosovo and Afghanistan. The Alliance’s missions in those countries are presented as further evidence of NATO’s determination to combine power and principles in response to the complex security challenges in the contemporary era. In NATO circles, Kosovo is often referred to as an unprecedented humanitarian war: an instance in which the Alliance took decisive action to end President Milosevic’s policies of ethnic cleansing. In the words of the NATO Secretary General, “We refused to tolerate genocide and war crimes.” And, since that time, “NATO’s Kosovo Force—KFOR—has been a guarantor of peace and stability in that region.” Whatever one might think about the merits of the bombing campaign carried out by NATO in 1999, it is certainly true that the Alliance acted in a situation in which there was a serious humanitarian crisis in Kosovo. It is equally true that since that war, NATO has contributed to regional security—not least by preventing Kosovo from relapsing into massive violence.  Particularly given the complexity and volatility of politics in that region, this is a significant accomplishment.

Yet, after twelve years of international presence in Kosovo, the situation is far from being stable. The recent outbreak of violence between NATO forces and Kosovo Serbs (over the establishment of Kosovo customs posts along the border between Serbia and northern Kosovo) shows that the Alliance cannot always maintain a safe and secure environment for all Kosovars. More broadly, much more needs to be done in order to turn Kosovo—currently plagued by serious socio-economic problems and ongoing political tension between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs—into a well-governed, stable polity. Many analysts agree that Kosovo’s northern municipalities, where the dispute is most acute, remain in effect under dual sovereignty: Kosovo’s and Serbia’s. For the time being, there is no indication that this will change in the near future. The problem is compounded by the unresolved status of Kosovo. Following its declaration of independence, Kosovo was recognized by some 80 countries; but more than a hundred states—including several NATO members—have so far withheld recognition.

What about the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan (the International Security Assistance Force), which is widely regarded as NATO’s number one operational priority? There, again, it could be argued that NATO has had some important successes. Nevertheless, it is less clear—particularly in light of the recent increase in insurgent attacks—that in the foreseeable future the Alliance can achieve its stated goals of preventing the country from again becoming a haven for terrorists and extremists, and of providing a safe environment in which the government of Afghanistan can build transparent and effective institutions.

Where, then, does this leave NATO? The good news for the Alliance is that its recent and ongoing operations demonstrate that, contrary to critics who predicted its demise following the end of the Cold War, it continues to be an important international security institution. The less good news is that difficult questions persist regarding NATO’s ability to successfully combine power and principles in response to the complex security challenges of the contemporary era.

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