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Libya aftermath: What next for NATO?

You could make the case that it isn't fair to condemn NATO for its performance -- such as it has been -- in Afghanistan and Libya. NATO was created to face an existential, World War III-style threat from the Soviet Union, one that implicitly assumed all its members would pitch in and do their best. It was not created for occasional, half-hearted military interventions that some of its members might oppose. So asking NATO to take part in them is like asking a milk truck to do laps around a racetrack -- yeah, it can do them, but that certainly isn't what it was built for.

The Soviets are gone, and NATO has had to muddle on. Its operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and now Libya have been controversial both within Europe and internationally, and as Libya winds down, people are again saying that it will bring the death knell for the Atlantic alliance. Fewer than half of NATO members agreed to the Libyan intervention, and those that did were so ill equipped for a modern campaign that they quickly ran out of modern weapons, yielding some $222 million in foreign military sales for the United States.

What it all means, writes Robert Marquand of the Christian Science Monitor, is that although NATO likely will stay on the books as a military alliance, the future bar for getting involved in military operations will have to be very, very high:

With the Afghan war in a “wind-down” mode, and the US worried about debt ceilings and security concerns in the Pacific, the future of NATO after Libya may be in the hands of an increasingly divided Europe and guided by a generation on both sides of the Atlantic no longer shaped by cold war geopolitics. Alexis Crow of London’s Chatham House argues, “NATO will of course continue … but it will move away from a collective defense organization to a loosely based alliance and a talking shop.”
Which quickly raises the next question -- at what point does an inactive NATO become no NATO? If the alliance is just going to be a forum for uniformed officers to eat tea sandwiches and play croquet, will that mean its member governments must continue footing the bill? We've seen others make the case before that NATO must continue as a force for moral suasion in the 21st century, a group charged with "upholding the values of human decency and dignity." Fine, fine -- how many wings of bombers does that take? If the alliance agrees it doesn't take any, it will have many members and a long future, but wind up as influential as the League of Nations.

NATO's critics, especially in the United States, might not shed a tear if this happens -- or, in fact, they might raise a toast. But a toothless NATO could mean more world problems default back to the inbox of the United States, even as dwindling military budgets and a resurgent strain of isolationism make it ill equipped to handle them. Because the big European powers, including Great Britain, France and Germany, will not increase their own military commitments to be able to act themselves where NATO might before had enabled Europe to act collectively. In the event of another Libya-type situation, it might become even more difficult for the world to do anything.

What do you think?

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