The Arab Spring’s Implications for NATO


In the spring of 2011, historical events unfolded in the southern part of the Mediterranean. Countries from Egypt to Libya were going through popular revolts to seek political changes. These events led to an uprising in Libya and later to an armed conflict, resulting in a NATO-led operation against the regime of Tripoli. Operation Unified Protector‘s first priority was to protect civilians living in the areas threatened by Gaddafi’s army. NATO took action as part of a broad international effort and was legitimately authorized to militarily intervene through UNSC Resolution 1973. The support from the Arab League added to the political legitimacy for the intervention was crucial to dispel any suspicion of a conflict of civilizations. It is however important to note that the Alliance immediately expressed its wish to work with the regional partners. This experience now provides NATO with a unique opportunity to further the dialogue and cooperation with its Mediterranean partners. NATO’s Chicago Summit of Heads of States and Governments in May 2012 could prove decisive in anchoring the Alliance in the Southern Mediterranean area.

During the Libyan conflict, NATO was able to consult with and enjoyed a concrete support from some Arab countries. The already existing partnership frameworks, notably the Mediterranean Dialogue alongside the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, have proven to be useful instruments of political dialogue and cooperation as the Libyan experience did demonstrate. Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have contributed militarily to the Operation. Other Arab states have provided the Alliance with their political support. The partnership with Gulf countries was significantly enhanced within a few months, and should certainly be institutionalized to capitalize on the cooperation reached between NATO and some of these countries.

The 2012 Chicago Summit may be an opportunity to continue this engagement and expanding it beyond anti-terrorism cooperation. Discussing with nations that might not share the exact same democratic values as the Allies, but which represent a high political priority may contribute significantly to addressing security challenges coming from North Africa and the Middle East. These partnerships could also help the Allies to work more closely together to assist Arab countries’ transitions toward more open political systems as the Arab Spring is more of a process rather an event. An extended political dialogue with the region could contribute to broader security and stability talks in this corner of the world particularly when the West is afraid of the rise of extremism and proliferation of unconventional weapons. An improved military cooperation means an enhanced political relationship which would help reconsidering this part of the world as an opportunity for the dialogue of civilizations rather than simply a mere threat to Western security. NATO enjoys a unique possibility to further cooperation with these countries at a crucial time in their history — the Arab Spring.

The Alliance’s involvement in Libya, despite its sound legal and political basis, has however faced severe challenges, particularly in terms of internal cohesion, as well as external pressures in light of the difficulties it faced during this campaign. Since the situation in Libya remains unpredictable, NATO should prepare for a strategy review on Libya in the context of the 2012 Chicago Summit. The Alliance is no longer in the first line to help the Libyan transition but it will still have lessons to learn and experiences to share. NATO has a role to play in support of stability and reconstruction in Libya and the region.

The highly publicized speech by the former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in June 2011 has been construed by some as evidence of a decaying NATO in the face of a new challenge in Libya. Operation Unified Protector was used as a prime example of NATO’s inability to keep up with modern warfare. Criticisms were further amplified as only a small number of Allies — eight — contributed to the airstrike operation. Key European members such as Germany or Poland fundamentally disagreed with this operation and divided the European Union which was then in no position to contribute more than with humanitarian aid and sanctions against Tripoli.

In the absence of a major security threat which could lead to higher level of unity within NATO, the difference in terms of national interests rendered the consensus very difficult to reach rather than the norm under which the Alliance would operate in the future. In Libya, NATO’s operations relied on a small club of nations which assumed combat or strikes. Since the Alliance transitions to operations outside its backyard, member states are not required to contribute to this type of operations. Thus, when a number of Allies do opt out, their decisions are not hindering the raison d’être of the Alliance, provided that they do not undermine a mission or the broad agreement regarding the fundamental missions of NATO. What has sometimes been interpreted as a sign of weakness should perhaps be understood as a means of ensuring a high degree of flexibility to approve and launch new initiatives in the future. The lesson taught by the Libyan intervention could prove to be the determinant if a consensus emerges for a need to intervene in Syria or Yemen.

Although the operation has exposed Europe’s military weaknesses, it has also proved that Europe can participate in complex operations. France and Great Britain took the initiative in this military campaign rather than following the United States. One can also see a symbol of Washington’s success in convincing its European Allies that they can assume greater responsibility in their direct periphery. For the first time, the United States agreed to play a pivotal but supporting role while Europeans took the lead. The Libya operation allowed identifying what a limited model of intervention can be with a supporting but indispensable role for the U.S. Army.

The Alliance’s dependence on the international community to move from a military operation to broader stabilization is another challenge. Operation Unified Protector has shown progress in terms of NATO’s dialogues and teaming with other international and regional organizations. In Chicago, both military and political contributions of these partners would certainly be high in the agenda. Cooperation with other regional political institutions, such as the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council or the African Union, bears important potential in developing capacities in these parts of the world. The Chicago summit could be a unique opportunity for the Allies to engage in a broad political dialogue beyond partnerships, reaching out to significant security interlocutors at a time when Washington’s interest lays outside Europe thus questioning the purely transatlantic nature of the Alliance.