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Posts tagged ‘NATO’

NATO Expansion and Faking Credibility

By Taylor Marvin

Latvian soldiers train in Poland. US Army Europe image, by Photo by Polish army Master Sgt. Artur Zakrzewski. Via Wikimedia.

Latvian soldiers train in Poland. US Army Europe image, by Polish army Master Sgt. Artur Zakrzewski. Via Wikimedia.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded to deter Soviet aggression, which Russia’s annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine have again made its central task. Today two questions dominate NATO’s ability to perform this mission: what should the scope of NATO’s collective defense be – that is, should the alliance grow to include other European states threatened by Russia – and how credible is the mutual defense pact?

A recent column at the Washington Free Beacon by Matthew Continetti summarizes, admittedly in an extreme way, common fears about the alliance’s future (via Daniel Larison). “By the time President Obama leaves office in 2017,” Continetti predicts, “the NATO pledge of mutual defense in response to aggression will have been exposed as worthless. Objectively the alliance will have ceased to exist.” Barack Obama’s reluctance to aggressively counter Russian moves in Ukraine and Syria have made him Putin’s “ultimate patsy” and NATO’s reluctance to extend its security guarantee to Georgia and Ukraine in the last decade made both countries “open prey.” Continetti fears that Russia’s doctrine of coercing adversaries through misinformation and quickly establishing apparent facts on the ground – “reflexive control,” as Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan (citied by Continetti) and Maria Snegovaya write – coupled with Obama’s “weakness” would lead a dithering NATO to tacitly accept future Russian aggression in the Baltic states.

These are not unjustified concerns. However, they stem from structural weaknesses within the NATO alliance, weaknesses that the expansion Continetti endorses have and will worsen. This isn’t to say, as UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has implied, that the self-determination of Poles and Czechs is a just price to avoid provoking Russia – decades of Soviet oppression has consequences, and European and post-Soviet states are justified in seeking NATO’s security assurances. But despite this justification NATO expansion is not costless. “It’s all very well to say that Russia shouldn’t have a veto over” further NATO expansion, Larison wrote in March 2014, “but it is quite obvious that they can and do have one if they choose to exercise it.” While “veto” is a strong word – NATO could throw enough combat forces into Ukraine to defeat Russia’s military proxies – policymakers should avoid committing themselves to conflicts where they are obviously unwilling to bear the costs of winning.

Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty establishes that “an armed attack against one or more [member states] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” and that NATO members will coordinate a response, possibly with military force. The NATO alliance itself is an uncertain mechanism built to address a difficult problem: it is extraordinarily difficult to bind states today to pursue costly action tomorrow, which makes it hard to convince others that a defense commitment is believable. Within the NATO alliance this is particularly true for the United States, which would bear much of the costs of a war while not being directly threatened by Soviet and later Russian aggression in Europe. As Branislav L. Slantchev writes, NATO attempted to bridge this problem by formally committing the US to defend Western Europe, build the tools to do so, and in turn convince the Western Europeans that resisting a Soviet invasion was worthwhile, because US military assistance was vital to winning a European war.

NATO expansion poses a credibility problem – as does today’s more peaceful world – because its leading military powers cannot threaten to defend the NATO’s new members with the same credibility as Cold War-era Western Germany. The formal structure of NATO may have strengthened Atlantic military cooperation and interoperability as well as assuring Europe of US commitment, but this commitment was always credible anyway. A Soviet invasion of West Germany — which as Tom Nichols notes Western strategists judged a serious confrontation between the USSR and the West would likely escalate towards, given the numerical advantage of Soviet conventional forces in Western Europe – posed an existential threat to Western Europe, a global economic center and one with long-standing ties to the US. In spite of the possibly apocalyptical costs of a conflict between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces in Europe, America’s commitment to defend Europe from Soviet aggression was widely judged to be a credible one.

NATO’s credibility is weaker today because the stakes are so much lower. Given the costs and risks of a direct military conflict with Russia, it is not assured that NATO would forcefully respond to Russian aggression targeting a minor frontline NATO state. This is particularly true of creeping “hybrid warfare” deniable by both Russia and NATO leaders eager to escape their commitments. “In the post-Cold War period the United States and other allies are much less comfortable responding to actions that are in the gray areas of political subversion – areas at which Russia excels,” Nadia Schadlow writes.

Of course, NATO insists that it would forcefully counter Russian aggression in a member state; how can it not? Indeed, there are means of increasing NATO’s collective credibility. Stationing NATO forces in frontline states can serve as a deterrence, both through these forces’ direct combat capabilities and the grim fact that their deaths at Russian hands would commit otherwise reluctant policymakers to war – the so-called “tripwire” or “plate glass” mechanism. Low risk hybrid warfare can be met with similarly subtle “hybrid defense,” as Mark Galeotti suggests. More broadly, wider fear of a non-response permanently discrediting NATO could prompt leaders to act when they otherwise would not.

But despite these tools it is very difficult to create a truly credible commitment to collective self-defense, which rests far more on cultural ties and strategic concerns than treaty obligations. Today Russia’s most worrying threats, like the possibility of Russian interference in the Baltic states, are far less threatening to NATO’s core members than Cold War fears. Simply put, it does not make any rational sense for the United States to go to war with Russia over the fate of Lithuania or Albania. Everyone knows this.

It is this obvious cost-benefit logic, not Obama’s weakness, that weakens NATO’s commitments to its newer Eastern European members. Continetti himself unknowingly recognizes this fact when he worries that hypothetical Russian aggression in the Baltics is ignored by a “distracted” West. Unlike Soviet armor pouring across the West German border, NATO members might ignore Russian hybrid warfare in the Baltic states precisely because other concerns – financial crises, domestic politics, and other global flash points, in Continetti’s examples – are legitimately more immediately consequential to their electorates and policymakers.

Extending NATO membership to states far less economically important and socially tied to the alliance’s major powers assumes that NATO is a perfect mechanism for forcing policymakers to make the costly decision to respond to Russian aggression. It is not. While violent and worrying, Russia’s destabilization of eastern Ukraine and 2008 invasion of Georgia are not threats to world peace and core US interests. Despite NATO’s commitments and fears of encouraging wider Russian aggression, no amount of “strength” or “resolve” can paper over Americans’ obvious and rational unwillingness to risk war over small Eastern European countries. Are these commitments strong enough to make NATO’s defense of Poland or the Baltics credible? Perhaps. But if NATO’s credibility as a whole rests on commitments to defend Georgia and Ukraine, states even more peripheral to US and European interests, then it is not a strong alliance at all.

France, Syria, and Power Projection

By Taylor Marvin

After the Obama administration’s weekend announcement that it will seek congressional approval before launching airstrikes in Syria, France has too announced that it will wait on the American government’s decision. On Twitter, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf took the opportunity to remark that regardless of its decision to wait, France could punish the Assad regime’s chemical weapons use no matter what the US eventually decides.

But solo French strikes in Syria are so unlikely as to be nearly unthinkable, and power projection capability outside of America’s is much more restricted than Friedersdorf argues.

In his announcement that France would wait on the US Congress’ decision, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls explained that despite the French government’s desire to act it ‘needs a coalition’ before striking the Assad regime and could not “go it alone”. This wasn’t a reference to a French desire for international diplomatic support; instead, it is a veiled allusion to the French military’s very real need for cooperation from US force. As Robert Farley noted, despite their relatively high defense spending major NATO allies France and the UK lack the cruise missile assets necessary for striking Syria in any systematic fashion and, in Farley’s words “most of the NATO militaries have, for better or worse, been optimized for coalition ops with the United States.” While the French Navy is perhaps more balanced than today’s air-defense and anti-submarine warfare-optimized Royal Navy, in operations requiring air defense suppression or launching large numbers of cruise missiles — with the latter obviously relevant to the proposed strikes in Syria — both countries depend on working in tandem with more capable US forces.

USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Denny Cantrell, via Wikimedia.

Is it any wonder the country of Monet would design the prettiest aircraft in NATO? USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Denny Cantrell, via Wikimedia.

As Daniel Drezner alluded to on Twitter and I briefly noted earlier this week at Political Violence @ a Glance, the air campaign over Libya definitively illustrated that British and French sustained power projection is depending on US cooperation. During the Libyan campaign non-US NATO member participants benefited from extensive opening-phase US strikes that decimated Libyan air defense networks and quickly ran short of precision-guided munitions, relying on US stockpiles to plug the gap. As I wrote at the time, the lesson here is that the British and French defense budgets are essentially optimized only for power projection alongside the US. Both countries spend far more than would be necessary if they only intended to operate within NATO’s original mission — that is, self-defense. But the gap between the spending required for fielding moderately capable defensive military forces and those capable of sustained power projection is enormous. By keeping their defense spending in the no-mans-land between these two benchmarks the UK and France both field militaries that for practical purposes service maintaining the pretext of global power — in the words of’s John Pike “maybe they were just planning on using their air force for air shows” — but incapable of actually fighting sustained campaigns overseas without close US support.

But of course the Libyan campaign isn’t an analog for the proposed strikes in Syria — while in Libya NATO air forces essentially provided direct air support and strategic strikes to rebels forces, airstrikes in Syria would be much more restricted, only involve standoff weapons, and likely aim to only target military forces associated with the regime’s chemical weapons use. France does possess the air assets necessary to conduct very-limited standoff strikes on Syria. Given that the Obama administration is apparently considering only extremely restricted strikes that will only — arguably — symbolically punish the regime for Assad’s chemical weapons use, it’s possible that the US will elect to mostly limit itself to strikes the French in effect would be theoretically capable of on their own. But as Valls said, despite the very limited options on the still-nebulous coalition’s table France is unlikely to go it alone for both practical and political reasons. If Americans want Assad punished, it’s a punishment that the US forces will have to be involved in administering.

Why Didn’t Gadhafi Go Into Exile?, Con’t.

By Taylor Marvin

It appears that Gadhafi’s* son Seif is in contact with the ICC, apparently to negotiate a possible surrender on the condition that he won’t be returned to Libya if he’s found innocent. At The Monkey CageEmily Ritter of the University of Alabama and Scott Wolford of University of Texas-Austin believe this is evidence that autocrats value trial at the ICC as preferable to death, but only if comfortable exile is off the table:

“One could argue that, by seeking terms better than remaining at large—-which seems to involve taking shelter with a nomadic tribe, accompanying mercenaries to Zimbabwe, and running a permanent risk of violent death or capture—-the younger Gadhafi is trying to win just such an assurance from the ICC: jail time or, should he prove his innocence, a return to a country other than Libya. Of course, the ICC can be a better option for suspects than the relatively poor outcome of death under a collapsed regime, but only if the ICC represents a better prospect than any outside option, such as asylum.”

This is further evidence that, while trial at the ICC is far from idea for deposed autocrats, it’s preferable to a brutal death or imprisonment within their home countries under a hostile successor regime. This supports the theory that increased NATO lethality and willingness to remotely intervene in civil wars against dictators could increase the efficacy of the ICC by making trial a better alternative to fighting to the end, which NATO’s increasing ability to target individuals makes more likely to result in death rather than eventual victory.

The authors raise an interesting point — an ICC willingness to negotiate surrender under favorable terms for suspects could encourage future war crimes:

“If leaders expect that they can negotiate marginally better deals for themselves prior to surrender (which, in this case, may mean living out one’s twilight years in a country where one isn’t likely to be prosecuted again or killed), then they’ll also be marginally more willing to commit war crimes or crimes against humanity in the first place.

So, as the world debates the best approach to dealing with the remnants of the Gadhafi regime, it’s important to keep this tradeoff in mind: war criminals can be enticed to surrender by making the terms of their prosecution better than remaining at large—-enabling prosecution and preventing whatever mischief Seif al-Islam might otherwise engage in as a fugitive—-but granting leniency may undermine deterrence in future cases if the ICC appears too willing to bargain with its suspects.”

This gives us an interesting hypothesized incentive scheme: because international asylum is no longer an option for deposed autocrats, threatened dictators have an incentive to violently resist opposition movements in the hopes of retaining power, rather than fleeing into comfortable exile. Here the existence of the ICC makes damaging wars more likely.

But Dr. Ritter and Dr. Wolford argue, if the ICC establishes a tradition of negotiating favorable terms with deposed dictators, autocrats have an incentive to fight until defeat is inevitable and only then surrender, maximizing their chances of remaining in power or, failing that, surviving. But here dictators’ incentive scheme gets more complicated. The existence of the ICC gives dictators an incentive to fight until the very end to avoid prosecution. A history of leniency at the ICC increases this incentive, by making prosecution in The Hague marginally more attractive than fighting until the end, which will likely result in death. But ICC leniency is also a moderating influence on threatened dictators — if dictators are willing to leave the option of flight to the ICC open, they’re also more likely to avoid high levels of brutality that will guarantee them a harsher sentence even if the ICC bargains down the terms of their trial in an effort to negotiate their surrender, a balancing act that’s likely very much on Seif Gadhafi’s mind. Importantly, Seif’s terms only apply after his trial, meaning that, drawing from this example, future dictators considering similar surrender deals have an incentive to moderate their brutality and minimize the sentence served before enjoying the benefits they negotiated from the ICC. Ritter and Wolford are right to note that ICC bargaining can incentivize crime, but they miss that a willingness to bargain likely also moderates criminal behavior. While international courts’ inability to apprehend suspects alone gives then an incentive to bargain down fugitives’ trial terms, it’s implausible that the possibility of punishment would be bargained completely away. Dictators that wish to leave the possibility of fleeing to ICC custody open have reason to attempt to moderate their verdict by limiting their use of violence, even if they can expect an ICC bargain in return for their surrender.

This suggests that the ICC should prefer a moderate propensity to bargain with fugitives — enough to entice them to surrender, while ensuring that their eventual sentence will be harsh enough to deter future criminals from unlimited violence. Ritter and Wolford reach a similar conclusion, though without considering the moderating influence of a perceived ICC moderate propensity to bargain:

“Courts should consider bargaining as a possible solution to the problem of warrant execution in the international setting, as it may enable courts to build legitimacy through adjudication and become sovereign, powerful institutions, overcoming the obstacles to enforcement even if states are unwilling or unable to cooperate with the institutions’ rules.”

However, the increasing lethality of NATO air power means that dictators have an even greater incentive to avoid a NATO intervention, which is increasingly likely to result in their death at the wrong end of a drone-fired Hellfire missile. This leaves embattled dictators a thin rope to walk: utilize sufficient force to crush a opposition movement, while avoiding the threshold of brutality required to attract a NATO intervention. Of course, this threshold varies from country to country — most dictators will never suffer a Western intervention, for any number of reasons. Libya was an exception. It’s open geography was well suited to effective air-to-ground warfare, the Libyan rebels had had already managed to field an organized armed opposition force that NATO could tactically support, and Gadhafi’s continued rule had no real utility to Western powers. As we’ve seen, few nations fill this criteria: Syria’s opposition has (for the most part) declined to openly fight government forces and Syria’s urban geography makes airpower much less tactically useful than in the Libyan desert and Bahrain’s hospitality to the US Fifth Fleet make both countries secure from the threat of NATO intervention, no matter how brutally their governments crush democratic protest movements. However, it’s also worth noting that sometimes NATO members will militarily intervene in conflicts where they have few apparent interests, as the Obama Administration’s recent deployment of troops to central Africa to combat the LRA demonstrates. As the costs and efficacy of drone warfare increase, there is good reason to suspect that the criteria for triggering NATO assassination missions will shrink, potentially giving vulnerable dictators in rural, open countries greater incentive to avoid extremely brutal responses to domestic unrest, however lenient the ICC elects to be.

*Astute readers will notice that I spelled “Gadhafi” this time. I don’t have a convention for the confusingly-translated dictator’s name, and just use whatever my source material prefers. Apologies for any confusion.

Update: Slightly altered for clarity, added paragraph.