NATO: Shared or Divided Responsibilities?

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By Mark D. Ducasse
Center for Transatlantic Security Studies

Libya illustrated that some NATO Allies are more willing to become involved in NATO operations than others. To some extent, this has always been a facet of Alliance operations, but never has such intra-Alliance discord been played out so overtly in the build-up to military operations. At the strategic-level, the North Atlantic Council sanctioned the Alliance’s actions in Libya by reaching – or rather not breaking – “consensus” of all 28 NATO nations. However, at the operational level, we witnessed a split between those nations willing to carry out their operational requirements and share mission responsibilities and those that were not. The subsequent operation in Libya inaugurated a new, more flexible approach to operations, closer to a “coalition of the willing,” composed of both NATO members and external partners. With this in mind, in an alliance based around the notion of political solidarity and shared responsibilities, is such an external division of Alliance responsibilities detrimental to the overall cohesion and longevity of NATO?

During the Cold War, NATO had one essential mission: to deter or – if need be – counter any possible attack emanating from the Soviet Union upon the territory of its members. NATO’s Cold War mission was full-spectrum in nature and would have required capabilities of all Alliance members as they simultaneously combined offensive, defensive, and continuity of civil society operations against aggression emanating from the Warsaw Pact. This mission was one borne out of “collective-defense” and the NATO Treaty’s Article 5. Today, NATO has moved away from its Cold War “collective-defense” attitude, implying a solely military posture, to an alliance based around the notion of “collective-security,” incorporating new mission sets, external partners and whole of government approaches to better and more flexibly fulfill the security requirements of its members. Such mission diversity, however, demands continued input and possible specialization by NATO members, in addition to a clearly-defined process for the institutionalization of operational lessons learnt.

Today, NATO’s areas of operation are more diversified than ever. The Alliance has moved away from a single mission tied almost entirely to the European continent during the Cold War, and is now potentially even farther afield than the area of operations used to redefine NATO’s role during the early post-Cold War era. NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept brought Alliance strategy up-to-date and addressed the Alliance’s ability to project globally. In this document, the Allies reiterated the centrality of the Alliance’s traditional Article 5 collective-defense mission. The Allies added crisis management and cooperative security to form three core-tasks for NATO in the twenty-first century. The Alliance today is performing such missions simultaneously on three separate continents: Europe, Africa, and Asia. These include stability and security assistance operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan; counter-piracy operations off the Gulf of Aden and East Africa; and offensive military operations and humanitarian protection/assistance in Libya.

It is these new missions that are raising potential political divisions among the various Allies. Nations are increasingly going “á la carte,” choosing which missions to be become involved with and which to avoid. Unsurprisingly, those missions which allied nations are choosing to participate in are closer to their own national interests rather than to a single unifying full-spectrum mission of the Cold War era (1).  This picking and choosing exacerbates existing capabilities gaps and interoperability issues faced by NATO at the operational level, in addition to damaging the overall notion of Alliance solidarity at the strategic level. NATO’s operational experiences in Libya, Afghanistan, and the former Yugoslavia highlight two clear and growing questions in relation to future NATO operations: First, how can a decision endorsed by multiple nations not include or imply the equal sharing of burdens towards the implementation of this consensus? And second, what effects will the discrepancy between strategic-level political consensus and tactical-level force and burden allocation have on the global projection of the Alliance and NATO’s fulfillment of its three core tasks?

I believe that NATO must project itself globally in order to truly address the international threat environment of today. Today, NATO must be capable of dealing with crisis management and its traditional Article 5 mission not only within Europe, but also abroad, with the countering of conventional and asymmetrical threats emanating from North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the wider Middle East. The Alliance must continue its post-Cold War mission of expansion and the external projection of power. The Alliance should also ensure adequate resources for non-Article 5 expeditionary operations. Such resources are not only dependent on political commitment, but require the physical allocation of capabilities to ensure that such operations are interoperable, flexible and, most importantly, rapidly deployable outside of NATO’s traditional European area of operations. This will enable the Alliance to better meet and protect its members from the new and dynamic security challenges they face today.

However, with this new global mission, Alliance members must share the risks at every level, as well as the burdens, responsibilities, and successes. If NATO is to maintain a viable and expeditionary alliance that fulfils the security requirements and cost-benefit analysis of all its members, then the Allies need to divide tasks and operations fairly among themselves based on relative capabilities and specialties. The Allies should not, however, divide the responsibility for Alliance goals, missions, or implementation of the 2010 Strategic Concept. Doing so will undermine the notion of shared responsibilities and ownership by all 28 nations of NATO operations. All Allies must make meaningful contributions to future joint operations, taking joint ownership and demonstrating their political solidarity to each other and the Alliance through the development, deployment and sustainment of these contributions. And though the Alliance structure creates a “pool” of standardization and interoperability from which coalitions of willing nations and external partners can easily form, the overall cohesion and direction of NATO is not something nations can pick and choose from when it suits their own individual interests. All Allies must bear a fair share of the burden towards the implementation of Alliance consensus.

The Allies must reach consensus as to the future strategy of their out-of-area operations and the capabilities they – as an alliance – are lacking or are willing to share in this regard. I contend that more planning and research about future threats must also be done, including a study into the projected effects the end of ISAF in 2014 will have on the Alliance, and a clear strategy in relation to North Africa and external partnerships. This research will help mitigate the future creation of ad-hoc coalitions outside of the traditional NATO structure and will also serve to highlight the capabilities needed to deal with future scenarios, the cluster of Allies that possess these capabilities and any gaps in capabilities therein.

Worries about the individual capabilities of Allies has always been a problem of the Alliance, but now, with declining defense budgets and reevaluations of security requirements and political interests, this worry has now changed to concern over the future cohesion of the Alliance as a whole. Policymakers (particularly in Europe) must pay serious attention to this unfair division of responsibilities, keeping an open mind to notions such as burden-sharing and the pooling of Alliance resources in order to mitigate dependency on a single or cluster of nations and more fairly share the responsibilities across the whole Alliance. In particular, the United States must seek an answer to the question of how it can lessen the heavy reliance placed on it by its Allies and yet still remain a committed partner within the Alliance.

History – and circumstances – has shown that America needs partners and that these partners can be found in Europe. However, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the Alliance lost its “other;” the clear and unifying opponent that helped embolden the Allies in fulfillment of their shared responsibilities and roles. The post-Cold War era is witnessing a growing bifurcation in relation to the political interests of the Allies and the role they envisage for NATO in fulfillment of their respective security requirements. This discord ranges from tactical-level questions concerning how to conduct relations with Russia and China, missile defense and nuclear issues, relations with the Middle East and North Africa, the countering of international terrorism; to fundamental questions such as under what circumstances should the Alliance invoke Article 5 and whether nations will actually provide capabilities for Article 5 missions if it were invoked. Such bifurcation and uncertainty as to intra-Alliance solidarity and the overall direction of the Alliance is not to the betterment of NATO. The Allies need to play on the successes of the Alliance, using this time of global austerity and defense cuts to push forward and institutionalize the notion of burden-sharing, specialization, and resource-pooling to the Allies at the upcoming 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago, IL. Only then will NATO serve as true toolbox to its members, one ready and adaptable and deployable to deal with current and future security challenges its members may face.

Mr. Mark D. Ducasse is the Principal Research Analyst for the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies (CTSS) at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies (NDU-INSS). Mr. Ducasse may be contacted at (202) 685-0820 or  


[1] Of course, even during the Cold War, not all the Allies would have been involved in all aspects of combat, had deterrence failed. The essential difference between then and now is that, in the Cold War, all the Allies were politically committed to the same key goal; on this, they did not divide, as is sometimes the case now.


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