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NATO

Berlin's stance on Libya has isolated Germany in NATO

It's decision not to support military action against Moammar Gadhafi puts into question German leadership at NATO, says former US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns. It has also isolated Berlin in the alliance.

Nicholas Burns

Nicholas Burns served as US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008, the State Department's third-ranking official. As part of his 27-year career in the Foreign Service he was also US Ambassador to NATO from 2001 to 2005 and State Department Spokesman from 1995 to 1997. Ambassador Burns is currently Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics at the Kennedy School at Harvard University.

Deutsche Welle: Germany on the question of military action against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for the first time since the founding of NATO publicly went against its traditional Western allies and sided instead with Brazil, China, India and Russia. Has Berlin's stance damaged the credibility and unity of transatlantic alliance?

Nicholas Burns: It certainly hasn't helped. And the fact that Germany, the largest European member of the alliance and a keystone country in many ways of the alliance, has not supported the NATO mission, I think is very detrimental to the mission. It seems to me that given the request from the Arab league and from the Libyan rebels and given the willingness of the UN Security Council to support the NATO mission, it's a shame that Germany could not see its way toward supporting it as well.

Even if Germany had decided not to contribute military forces one would hoped for much greater political support from Germany for this mission. And the fact that Germany held out and abstained, I think, really puts into question German leadership at NATO.

British, French and other allied forces involved in the Libyan mission after the US drastically scaled back its role are apparently having a difficult time in keeping up the air raids over Libya. Could Germany's participation and capabilities in the enforcement of the no-fly zone have made it easier for the Europeans to lead this NATO mission?

There's no question that the European members of NATO would have been more effective as a military unit if German forces had contributed to the mission. The fact is it's an unusual NATO mission: It's the first NATO mission in the history of the alliance which is 62 years old where the United States' military has not lead the mission. You saw that in the first two weeks of the coalition operations before NATO took full control the US provided the great majority of the aircraft, the airstrikes and certainly the missile strikes on Gadhafi's forces.

Once the US withdrew from the lead and turned it over to the European members there began to arise questions whether or not NATO members were capable of sustaining the attacks on Gadhafi that the US had done. And you have seen of course complaints from some of the rebel commanders - that are perhaps very unfair complaints by the way - about the efficiency of the NATO operation.

It's a time of testing for the European NATO members many of whom have had rapidly declining defense budgets over the last decade and if this conflict should go on for months or perhaps for even more than a year one of the key questions will be whether the European members of the alliance have sufficient finances in their budget to support the maintenance of the no-fly zone as well as these combat operations.

Germany of course wasn't alone in its rejection of the military response to Libya. Two other major allies, Poland and Turkey, also opposed the mission. France warned publicly against letting NATO take the lead of the operation and Washington's stance on Libya can also be characterized as haphazard. What does the erratic behavior of its top members tell you about the state of transatlantic security and cooperation of which NATO is supposed to be the main pillar?

I think it was a difficult issue for many members of the alliance and most notably including the United States as you suggested. The United States, for instance, my country is fully engaged in two major land wars in the greater Middle East, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. We also of course have substantial military involvement now in the humanitarian rescue operations in Japan and so I think that the Obama administration was initially highly reluctant to see American military forces going to Libya. We also of course wanted to make sure that there was going to be international support for this mission.

I think that when the Arab league decided to request an international military intervention that made a great difference. I understand that many countries, Germany, Poland, Turkey, the United States had doubts, but in the end I think President Obama was right to suggest that the imminent siege of Benghazi and the possibility of a humanitarian disaster there and with the request from the Arab league, the United States had no option but to go in when it did to support the mission.

What effect will NATO's public spat in the midst of military action have on the alliance's global standing, for instance in Afghanistan?

We are a democratic alliance and so members have a right to disagree. We had a major disagreement if you remember in 2003 over the Iraq war when I was ambassador to NATO. I remember that vividly. So countries aren't obligated to go along and in fact we operate by consensus and every country has to agree in order to go forward. And I think that's the way it should be. When a country is asked to commit, when an alliance is asked to commit men and women to combat countries should have a right to decide for themselves whether it's in their interest to support it.

It is disappointing however to see two things occurring simultaneously: One is I think the declining defense budgets that have really deprived most European militaries, most notably that of Germany, of their military effectiveness. And if Europe wants to be part of these global missions, its going to have to able to pay its way and make sure its forces are adequate to be effective. Secondly, there may be a little bit of political fatigue after the many interventions of the last 15 years, after all we've intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s and now in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade and I think there is a great strain on the political and military systems of all these NATO countries to maintain the intensity of these operations.

Nevertheless we really don't have an option, but to be engaged at a time when Gadhafi is assaulting the rights of his own civilians and risking many civilian casualties as Gadhafi continues his military operations.

Continue reading the interview with Nicholas Burns

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