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Pure Onsense

NATO and the Delian League

Scott Zuke

(July, 2011) Back in April this column discussed some of the unresolved questions regarding the US’s policy toward intervention in civil conflicts abroad with regard to the civil war unraveling in Libya. Now more than three months into the Libyan incursion, new issues and questions have arisen that, while perhaps not changing the moral justification and desirability to intervene against internal violence in certain circumstances, do further complicate the feasibility of such actions.

In April the US-NATO operation in Libya had just begun with a barrage of missile attacks intended to establish a safe no-fly zone over the country and to declaw Muammar Qaddafi’s forces before they could slaughter rebel forces in Benghazi. The US’s initial mission, Operation Odyssey Dawn, ran smoothly and then transitioned into the NATO controlled Operation Unified Protector, with American forces playing a "supporting" role. While the mission has stuck to its original promise of not putting troops on the ground, and no American lives have been lost, there has been a different form of mission creep that has strained both critics and supporters.

Not only has the operation extended beyond the initially promised timeline of "days, not weeks," all the way into months, but the cost has been far higher than the Pentagon predicted. In June the Financial Times reported on a Pentagon memo stating that US military operations in Libya are costing $60 million a month, rather than $40m, as had been reported to Congress earlier, which could mean an additional expenditure of $274m over the initial estimates for 2011.

In a final policy speech before retirement, Sec. Gates took a parting shot at NATO, illuminating the cause of this cost overrun as being not just a result of poor planning or unrealistic expectations, but of a moral hazard that has developed within the alliance. "The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country," Gates said. "Yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference."

As The Economist’s Charlemagne blog reported (June 16), the European members of NATO have slashed defense spending below any definition of a "fair share" of the financial burden. "Just three now reach NATO’s target of spending at least 2% of GDP on defence: Britain, France, and Greece. Several spend 1% or less. This compares with America’s commitment of some 5% of GDP." How can an alliance continue under these circumstances?

NATO shares interesting parallels with one of the most famous ancient alliances, the Delian League of the 5th century B.C. Responding to two massive invasions by the Persians from the East, Athens took the lead of a collection of city-states surrounding the Aegean Sea, from the eastern coast of Greece, across the Dardanelles, and around the western coastline of modern day Turkey, with many of the islands in between. The sacred island of Delos, for which the alliance was named, was initially the site of the League’s treasury (it was later moved to Athens as an unsubtle symbolic gesture of Athenian dominance). The goal of the League was to combine resources in order to defend against future Persian attacks, much as NATO was established to defend the West against Communist expansion. And just as America is the military and financial leader of its alliance, Athens was the central power directing the allocation and use of the League’s resources.

Member city-states typically supported the alliance by providing ships to the combined Greek navy, and those that could not would provide money to Athens so that it could construct ships with its greater resources. Think of America providing bombs, ammunition, and other technology to NATO states today. On an even broader scale one might compare America’s "nuclear umbrella" to the protection provided by the Athenian fleet in its day.

Where the analogy begins to break is when Athens ultimately took on a more hegemonic role, suppressing rebellions and forcing defecting city-states to rejoin the League. It also began syphoning off the League’s resources to beautify Athens itself through massive building projects like the Parthenon, rather than to provide for the common defense. Athens gradually began directing military operations for its own interests throughout Greece, and the original mission of the League—defending against Persia—was left to the past.

The Delian League thus transformed into an Athenian empire. However, while NATO’s original mission of opposing communism has also come to an end, America holds no imperial ambitions as Athens did. On the contrary, the Libya intervention shows the US’s reluctance to take the leadership role in further military engagements, having already grown weary of the drawn out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, the current alliance is transforming in an interesting way: those who want to lead do not want to pay for the privilege, and those who are paying by far the most for international security are becoming ever more hesitant to take command of those resources. Is this a good or bad development for the future prospects of NATO?

While Sec. Gates’s speech raises serious concerns for the 60-year-old alliance, and European nations really do have a moral obligation to preserve their own defense spending at fair levels, the Libyan operation could signal a positive shift. Rather than continually leading NATO unilaterally, the US may trend towards allowing greater leadership to come from the other member nations in the future. If the saying is true that, "With great power comes great responsibility," perhaps handing over more responsibility will also prod European nations to develop greater endogenous security powers. A long-term, more equitable balance of contributions to NATO’s security operations may require the US to "lead from behind" for a change, to provide some stimulus for the European members to view themselves as co-leaders rather than client city-states to an American-led Delian League. As complex and controversial as the Libya intervention is in its own right, it will be interesting to see its impact on future NATO operations.

Read other article by Scott Zuke