Damon Wilson is an American foreign policy advisor and the current executive vice president at the Atlantic Council. Previously, he served as served as Senior Director for European Affairs at the United States National Security Council.
What element made Libya a successful intervention?
So in Bosnia, it took the Alliance nearly two years to intervene in the wake of incredible atrocities and bloodshed. In Libya, it took a matter of weeks, and the Alliance—facing a potential human rights crisis in Benghazi—responded to a call from the Arab League and the UN Security Council, and in a matter of days was able to put together an operation to intervene, to prevent the collapse of Benghazi, and to eventually help Libyans themselves topple Qaddafi. So it was a success because of its speed, the pace at which it happened, and the response that it represented for local forces, for local Libyans—it wasn’t NATO in the lead, it was a response to a call from the Arab League. And frankly, it was done with European leadership. In Kosovo, the United States lead 90% of the attacks in the Ortiz-Kosovo campaign; Europeans and Canadians lead 10%. In Libya it was the inverse, and our European and Canadian allies lead 90% of the combat operations in Libya, the United States 10%.
Is NATO’s new role humanitarian interventions?
First of all, NATO’s raison d’etre is the collective defense of its members—that’s its primary responsibility. Article 5: “An attack on one is an attack on all.” Collective defense—that’s first.
But what NATO has realized is that to provide security to its members, it can’t be artificially constrained by a sense of geography or particular issues, and so it’s agreed that it will get involved in crisis management when its members decide that it’s in its security interests to do so. That brings in the right to protect abroad in Libya, in Afghanistan. But also NATO’s going to take on a task of this cooperate security in building partnerships with other countries outside of Europe, with other international organizations.
So the raison d’etre began as the defense of the allies, and will remain as such. But what we see now is that the Alliance will add on these additional tasks of crisis management because the allies have said it is in its security interests to respond. You can’t stand idly by when something like Libya is unfolding or something like Afghanistan unfolded.
Is the NATO alliance capable of replicating the intervention in Libya in Syria?
So, the Alliance was capable of doing Libya. It did show some of the real strains in the capability gaps in our European partners. For example, they couldn’t have done the campaign in Libya without particular intelligence support, air surveillance support from the United States. And I think Syria is a very difficult issue; it’s a very complicated situation. Libya was almost designed for NATO intervention because of the geography, where it is. Italy came down into the Mediterranean almost as a base of operations with targets all along the coast in Libya. A much less complicated situation than what we face in Syria today.
Could the Alliance do Syria? I believe it could act in Syria in partnership with key partners in the region—the Saudis, the U.A.E. (United Arab Emirates), Qatar, other countries. The question really down to one of political will. Is there a political will to do it? And is there a sense of political legitimacy? In the absence of action in the UN Security Council, are the neighbors or the Alliance prepared to take action? That’s a tough call, and the issue that will really force itself on to discussion within the Alliance, first and foremost, is its responsibilities toward Turkey—an Alliance member—in case there are spillover effects from what’s unfolding in Syria. So it’s not a black and white issue—it’s a very tough issue—but it comes down to an issue of political will and capability.
Syria would be more difficult. You wouldn’t see the Europeans in the lead like you saw in Libya; it would have to reflect U.S. leadership if anything was going to happen there. And right now, the Allies just aren’t there because it’s more difficult and there’s less political consensus internationally.
Could China and Russia undermine future efforts to intervene for humanitarian purposes both at the UN Security Council and NATO?
You have to ask yourself, what was the alternative? So I think the Alliance did the right thing in Libya, and if it hadn’t done it, it’d be facing a much more difficult and horrible situation in Libya. And so you’re sort of asking a counterfactual.
But think about Kosovo. Kosovo was a very difficult situation where the Russians blocked action in the Security Council, and yet the Alliance mustered the will, under the Clinton administration, to say, “You know we can’t stand by and watch this unfold.” It’s both of utmost security of our own interests, but also for humanitarian concerns. And the Alliance in Kosovo acted without the UN Security Council mandate. So the question will come: Are you able to bring the Russians and Chinese around to support international action in a case like Syria? And if not, what’s the alternative? Are we prepared to stand by and watch a catastrophe unfold? Do we have to ask ourselves will it take a Slobodan Milošević incident to tell us enough is enough? That’s a tough question; it’s a tough moral position to put yourself in, and I think that’s why Syria has been quite complicated
Are there areas that Europe can contribute more efficiently to NATO?
Sure. I think the United States has to think of its NATO allies not as a burden—that the allies are not spending enough and causing a burden—but really these are allies that are force multipliers for the United States. So that when we go into military action overseas, when we’re working on diplomatic endeavors, when we’re working on cyber issues—this alliance means we have partners there with us. 40,000 European troops in Afghanistan? Well, that means 40,000 less American troops. I’m pretty grateful for that. So, yes, what our allies to international operations takes some of the burden off the United States. It’s a way of sharing the responsibility.
Do we want to see them do more? Absolutely. And I think part of the challenge the Alliance is dealing with right now is how the allies can work together more effectively through what the Secretary General calls smart defense. How can you build capabilities through multinational projects? For example, Libya showed the Alliance it needed more drones; it needed unmanned aerial vehicles that could give a view of the battlescape. And that’s what the Alliance is going to do—not individually as allies, but with U.S. support, to build out a capability that the Alliance can draw on. And that’s an important example of how the U.S. can help the allies, and the allies can help the United States.
Should our European allies be concerned about the recent U.S. pivot to Asia?
Look, I think the word “pivot” was an unfortunate one because it implies we’re turning our back on something. No one would deny that the United States is an Asia-Pacific power and needs to be concerned about how it thinks about its forces, how it thinks about the rise of China—no European would dispute that. But it does mean that we need to intentionally think about how to sustain the operability—the ability to fight with our European partners—after Afghanistan draws down. We’ve been deployed for a decade now. That will end. We need to make sure we’re investing in training and work with our NATO allies to make sure that when the next fight comes around, we still have those habits of cooperation, those skills, to be able to seamlessly fight together. I’d rather see the United States pivot with Europe to Asia. Let’s involve our European partners on the top issues on the global agenda. After all, Europe remains our go-to partner for any challenge across the globe. So we want to do this with them, not without them.
What is the role of the Baltic States in U.S. foreign policy?
You know, the Baltic countries represent one of the great success stories of NATO enlargement. If you would have looked at this issue fifteen years ago, we all worried that northeast Europe was a potential zone of instability—a real potential flash point; a flash point that could’ve brought the alliance to loggerheads with Russia. And yet what do we have today? We have three Baltic countries—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—integrated firmly into the NATO alliance, integrated into the European Union, secure and more prosperous than ever. And they actually have more constructive, more calm relations with Russia than they would’ve had they been outside the NATO alliance. So they’ve been tremendous contributors to the Alliance security, but I think also their presence has taken a region of instability and just taken it off the map as a region of stability and security.
It doesn’t mean we can’t stop paying attention. The Russians like to poke and prod, and imply that these countries in the former Soviet Empire are “secondary” members of the Alliance. And we just have to be clear and say, “There’s no such thing; there’s no such thing as a secondary member of the Alliance.” So we still deploy, we still do exercises with them. We work with Estonia and other countries on cybersecurity because they’ve suffered attacks from Russian sources. So the issue is not done; we can’t take our eye off the ball. There is a policy in NATO of reassurance of our backup our commitment to defend these countries, but at the end of the day this has been a great success story for the Alliance, and for the region.