1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Weakened alliance

April 13, 2011

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
Image: AP

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

Can the internal strains among major NATO allies be overcome or could it be that diverging national interests and backgrounds of key allies such as Turkey, Poland, Germany and the US will make it increasingly difficult to come together under the NATO umbrella?

You have begun to see over the last two or three years that Britain, France and the United States have a very close strategic relationship and tend to see global threats in a similar way. And they are the three most capable allies militarily, have been in the past and are today. As long as these three countries stand and cooperate together I think NATO will remain strong.

The fact is that we are committed to each other's security. The NATO countries need each in order to survive in a very dangerous world and we see that we are useful and sometimes can make a great difference in a conflict outside of our own geographic area. We did it in the Balkans in the 1990s. We made a great difference in Afghanistan. I think it's good that NATO is there and now let's hope that NATO can succeed in Libya. And if NATO can succeed in Libya and be effective in helping to protect civilians and at some point help end this war then I think it will be a very useful contribution and I think people will understand that NATO remains a very important institution for the future.

How can NATO increase the pressure on Gadhafi as you have suggested without ground troops which seems inconceivable for various reasons?

I don't think ground troops are an option here. You have already seen that as NATO assumed full command and control of the operation from the United States, there appears to have been a noticeable decrease in the intensity of the air operation. The United States seemed to be more aggressive in leading the attack against the Gadhafi forces than the NATO command has been. And so one of the options for NATO is to add more planes, add more intensity to increase the tempo of the military operation and in order to put greater military pressure on Gadhafi. That's an option NATO needs to reflect on very seriously.

But doesn't that mean that the US would need to step up its participation in the mission, because France and Britain probably can't muster any more and Germany is not taking part?

It would be helpful if Germany could reconsider and join the military operation. If that is not possible will have to look for other allies. Spain, Italy, the Netherlands are very capable allies who could add to that effort. Canada is another country in that group. It would more of a burden on Britain and France of course. The United States sees itself in reserve, but I don't discount the possibility of the European members turning back to the United States to say we need you to come in. We need you to add greater support so that these air operations can be more effective.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that Berlin was willing to support a humanitarian mission in Libya, perhaps as part of an EU mission. How do you interpret this offer by Germany's top diplomat and what would you expect from Germany now?

I think a humanitarian mission is essential because of the many refugees and migrants who had to make their way both to Tunisia as well as to Egypt to flee the fighting. So there will be a great need for countries to step forward with finances and material to assist the refugees and I think it's obviously a positive offer by the German government.

I do think that Germany finds itself in this situation quite isolated from within the alliance. Its refusal to support its allies has engendered a lot of criticism, even bitterness, on the part of those allies. And it maybe that the German government is trying to mollify its critics in the alliance by saying if we can't participate in a military fashion perhaps we can participate more intensively on the economic and humanitarian side. I would think that this is probably the motivation for this offer. It's understandable and if Germany cannot support the operation militarily at least it should take a leading role on the humanitarian side.

Interview: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge