NATO's sea and air mission in Libya is the first major military engagement undertaken since the global financial crisis. With European NATO allies drastically reducing their defense spending, there were legitimate fears as to whether they could still afford to respond to such complex crises. Reports early on that the operation lacked sufficient strike capabilities reinforced these fears. But the unprecedented speed, scale, and sustained pace of execution of Operation Unified Protector tell a different story. As of early May, the pace of air sorties had remained high since the beginning of the operation, and strikes had accounted for just under half of those sorties. When requirements changed as Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces altered their tactics, NATO allies provided more of the high-precision strike capabilities that the commanders needed. Meanwhile, more than a dozen ships have been patrolling the Mediterranean Sea and enforcing the UN arms embargo.
The mission in Libya has revealed three important truths about military intervention today. First, to those who claimed that Afghanistan was to be NATO's last out-of-area mission, it has shown that unpredictability is the very essence of security. Second, it has proved that in addition to frontline capabilities, such as fighter-bombers and warships, so-called enablers, such as surveillance and refueling aircraft, as well as drones, are critical parts of any modern operation. And third, it has revealed that NATO allies do not lack military capabilities. Any shortfalls have been primarily due to political, rather than military, constraints. In other words, Libya is a reminder of how important it is for NATO to be ready, capable, and willing to act.
Although defense is and must remain the prerogative of sovereign nations, an alliance that brings Europe and North America together requires an equitable sharing of the burden in order to be efficient. Downward trends in European defense budgets raise some legitimate concerns. At the current pace of cuts, it is hard to see how Europe could maintain enough military capabilities to sustain similar operations in the future. And this touches on a fundamental challenge facing Europe and the alliance as a whole: how to avoid having the economic crisis degenerate into a security crisis. The way Europe responds to this challenge could determine its place in the global order and the future of security.
NATO allies should concentrate on taking fresh steps on three fronts: strengthening European defense, enhancing the transatlantic relationship, and engaging with emerging powers on common challenges. But before turning to prescriptions, it is important to look at the facts: what happened in Libya and whether the financial crisis has affected the global distribution of military power.
THE SPENDING GAP
Operation Unified Protector has shown that European countries, even though they spend less on their militaries than the United States or Asian powers, can still play a central role in a complex military operation. Indeed, after the United States, Europe still holds the world's most advanced military capabilities. The question, however, is whether Europe will be able to maintain this edge in five or ten years.
This is particularly worrying when one considers the ongoing redistribution of global military power, a shift embodied in the relative decline of European defense spending compared to that of emerging powers or the United States. As European countries have become richer, they have spent less on defense. Since the end of the Cold War, defense spending by the European NATO countries has fallen by almost 20 percent. Over the same period, their combined GDP grew by around 55 percent. The picture is somewhat different in Asia. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, between 2000 and 2009, India's defense spending grew by 59 percent, and China's tripled. This led to a double leap forward: a transformation of these countries' armed forces and their acquisition of new weapons systems.
If one compares Europe's defense spending with that of the United States, the contrast is also large. By the end of the Cold War, in 1991, defense expenditures in European countries represented almost 34 percent of NATO's total, with the United States and Canada covering the remaining 66 percent. Since then, the share of NATO's security burden shouldered by European countries has fallen to 21 percent.
Many observers, including some in government circles on both sides of the Atlantic, argue that the biggest security challenge facing the West is rising debt levels in Europe and the United States. They have a fair point; after all, there can be no military might without money. Others even argue that there is little need to worry if European nations invest less in defense, since this reflects a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace. But these arguments fail to consider three important facts.
First, military might still matters in twenty-first-century geopolitics. The security challenges facing Europe include conflicts in its neighborhood, such as in Libya; terrorism from failed states further away; and emerging threats such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and cyberwarfare. What defines these threats is both their diversity and their unpredictability. Investing in homeland security and retrenching will not be enough to counter them.
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