Ironic or Apt? Experiencing NATO

By Stephen Saideman, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University

Stephen Saideman will be giving a talk at CIPS about his newly-released book on January 28, 2014

I am not sure whether it was ironic or just especially appropriate that I learned a key lesson about NATO the first week of September 2001. I had just started a fellowship that put me on the U.S. Joint Staff’s Strategic Planning and Policy Directorate. Specifically, I was on the Bosnia desk of the Central and Eastern European Division. I had not realized when I started that this division would mostly be focused on NATO. At that time, U.S. foreign and defence policy was centered on the Balkans, where NATO missions in Bosnia and Kosovo (and in support of one in Macedonia) occupied enough American troops that people talked about how much these efforts stressed the force (ah, the good old days). The other officers in my division were focused on the expected expansion of NATO to include the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania.

Even if it is not a NATO effort, these dynamics will matter, as coalitions of the willing consist of countries of varying willingness.

So it made a great deal of sense for a professor from the National War College to come over to our office and teach us ‘NATO 101’. (The National War College does many things, but its primary purpose is to be the last formal education officers receive before they become generals and admirals.) I did not think I had much to learn, having been in the business of International Relations for about a decade, but I was wrong.

The professor reminded us that Article V of the NATO treaty—an attack upon one is to be considered an attack upon—contains an opt-out clause: as each member deems necessary. This is usually forgotten but it makes sense, as every country always remains sovereign and will not want to be obligated to follow every order of NATO officers. It also makes sense as it would be very difficult to get the consensus necessary to invoke Article V if each country was completely and totally obligated. This never seemed to be that relevant because Article V had never been invoked … until the next week in the aftermath of 9/11.

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An attack had happened, and Canada, among others, pushed to have the membership invoke Article V. The first manifestation of NATO’s support for the stricken United States was to help provide cover over major American cities. Command and control aircraft (AWACS planes) were one of the few genuinely NATO assets, so these planes were sent to fly over cities during major events like New Year’s Eve, the World Series and the Super Bowl. Yet not every nation that had participated in the NATO AWACS program was willing to participate in this rather riskless effort, perhaps for fear of being part of a process where a hijacked civilian airline might be shot down. In any case, the key lesson here is that countries did opt out.

That briefing taught me the meaning of Article V, but not why countries vary in what they opt out of. By the time I got clear of my previous projects, NATO was deeply involved in a new and incredibly challenging effort in Afghanistan. So my research shifted to ask the basic question of why countries vary not just in what they are willing to do in a multilateral effort, but how they exert influence over the use of their troops. I found a willing co-author, David Auerswald, who works at the National War College, so he was well placed to figure out the American case.


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We built on some of his previous work, as we discovered that patterns of variation among the allies in Afghanistan were not due to patterns of public opinion or to strategic cultures, but to basic democratic institutions. Countries with coalition governments behaved differently than those where a single politician could make decisions without much bargaining. In coalition governments, the less enthusiastic can make demands on the more enthusiastic—or else the mission does not occur or collapses (as the Dutch proved quite well in 2010). These conditions become the restrictions that we saw in Afghanistan—i.e. that some countries would not fight in the south or engage in offensive operations. The theory and the reality is more complicated, but that is the essence of it.

Why does this matter now?  After all, isn’t the lesson of Afghanistan not so much about the sources of caveats and other obstacles to multilateral military operation, but not to do ‘this’ again?  I thought so—and then Libya happened. And we saw many of the same patterns in the skies over, and seas near, Libya. The reality is that politicians will forget the lessons they learned or will be replaced by those who had not been so badly burned. In either case, politicians will find themselves compelled to commit their countries to a new effort some time down the road.  So, ‘this’ will happen again in some form.

Even if it is not a NATO effort, these dynamics will matter, as coalitions of the willing consist of countries of varying willingness. The U.S. discovered that its coalition partners in Iraq were not so willing much of the time. Thus, our book has implications for NATO and for other multilateral military efforts: not just for understanding the past, but for figuring out interventions down the road.

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