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Can You Count On Your Allies?

Steve Saideman on what NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan and Libya can teach us about sharing the military burden as defence budgets shrink.

By: /
6 March, 2013
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

Faced with numerous financial and fiscal crises among its membership, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is pushing “Smart Defence.”  Smart Defence is just the new name for a not so new effort – to get NATO members to better coordinate their defence procurement and planning so as to reduce redundancies. The basic idea is that each member will specialize in a given military capability. Indeed, the NATO folks recognize that austerity will likely mean specialization, whether it is coordinated or not, as defence budgets shrink.

So, the push is to have planned specialization where there is “strategic sharing by those who are close in terms of geography, culture, or common equipment.”  Given what I have learned in the course of co-authoring a book on NATO and Afghanistan (with a chapter on Libya), I am rather skeptical about this entire enterprise unless we redefine what we mean by “close.” In both Afghanistan and Libya, what different NATO members brought to the battle varied significantly, including whether they showed up at all. Only once we figure out the sources of such variation, can we figure out which countries are suitable partners in planning a coordinated “smart defence” specialization strategy.

In Afghanistan, each democracy participating in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (and even those that were part of the ad hoc U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom) maintained control over the forces they sent. Different countries imposed different restrictions on what the contingents could do. There were caveats on where their soldiers could serve – more than a few countries refused to send their troops to the more violent areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Some prevented their troops from engaging in any offensive operations at all.

There were a number of other ways countries influenced how their forces acted on the ground. Some countries sent limited capabilities. The Germans had only six helicopters to provide transport for all of Regional Command North. Other countries required their soldiers to call home before any operation could commence. The Dutch were notorious for this, but Canadians forget that their troops faced a similar requirement in 2002.  Some countries told their commanders that if they suffered casualties, they should not expect to be promoted, leading to very risk-averse behaviour on the ground.

The point is that when the soldiers of one country went into battle, they couldn’t count on their allies to show up and be helpful. This uncertainty bedeviled operations, and created political problems where the burden-sharing, especially in terms of the casualties borne by each country, was most uneven.

NATO faced the same challenges during the Libyan effort. Only half of the alliance participated at all. Of those, some opted to only take part in the naval embargo, which was the least risky operation. Indeed, given on-going NATO naval cooperation in the Mediterranean and counter-terrorism and counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, opting out of the embargo required more work than opting in, in terms of changing policies.  Some countries were willing to participate in the No Fly Zone, which was largely rendered risk-free by U.S., British, and French air strikes in the opening days of the campaign. Only eight NATO members were willing to drop bombs on Libya, and only some of those allowed for enough flexibility to go after moving targets or targets of opportunity (dynamic targeting as opposed to pre-planned missions). To put it most simply, NATO’s attendance record in the skies over Libya was spotty.

What accounts for such variation? It’s tempting to say that it is all about public opinion, but our research shows that caveats and other restrictions did not co-vary with the willingness to accept risks and give discretion to the troops in the field. Nor is it the degree of threat posed by events in the targeted country. In our book (coming out towards the end of this year), we find that the most important factor is the political system: whether the country is governed by a coalition government or not, and if so, which parties are in the coalition, and if not, what are the personalities of the key decision-maker (the president, the prime minister).

Simply put, coalitions mean bargaining, and bargaining means compromise. To get the less enthusiastic parties to go along, the more enthusiastic parties have to agree to restrictions on the mission – size, area of responsibility, capabilities to be deployed (tanks or not tanks), and so on.  Without compromise, not only does the mission not happen, the government may collapse, as the Dutch government did in 2010 over Afghanistan. The broader the coalition, the more intense the bargaining and the greater the likelihood of significant restrictions. In the case of Libya, the R2P aspect of the operation made it easier for left-wing parties to support the effort.

In presidential systems, and when prime ministers depend on a single party to stay in power, it all depends on the individual who makes the decisions. France’s stance in Afghanistan changed almost overnight from being quite restrictive to engaging in combat in some of the more dangerous districts when Sarkozy replaced Chirac, despite the fact that both leaders were on the right side of the political spectrum.

Getting back to Smart Defence, since budget cuts are inevitable, the key question is with whom to cooperate. If governments are meant to share with those that are “close,” I would suggest  defining “close” not by geography or culture, but by institutions.

Those countries that either have presidential systems or are generally ruled by single parties can work together. Instead of thinking of an Anglosphere as many aver, we need to think of a presidential-sphere. France can be and often is among the more forward-leaning countries, but we would hardly say that it is a member of the Anglosphere. As long as their leaders get along, countries can be counted on to show up during combat (most of the time).

Countries with coalition governments tend to be restrictive when it comes to military action, so they can and should plan on working together. They are similarly reliable (or unreliable), so the risk averse should work with each other.

Of course, the big problem is that defence procurement decisions are binding for a generation or two, with planes frequently being older than the pilots flying them these days. Today’s most suitable partner (Denmark!) may not be so suitable in five, ten, or twenty years when it has a less cooperative coalition government.

And the best news of all for those worried about specialization and its consequences are that many countries may simply refuse to choose, leading to less of everything. For instance, see this piece for a discussion of the possible Canadian choices and why the government may choose not to decide. Of course, as some great Canadian political theorists have argued, when choosing not to decide, you still have made a choice.

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