The War in Libya serves as an example of American and European joint leadership of the transatlantic alliance in an environment of increased economic constraints. U.S. President Barack Obama explained that American leadership of NATO is not "going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all." Obama stressed the importance of American unilateral actions when national security and U.S. core interests are at stake, but when humanitarian assistance, economic and regional interests are at stake, to take a multilateral approach and depend more on alliances. This burden-sharing was evident when European partners took the lead in Libya, but continued relying on American support, which encouraged ownership and identification among both American and European publics.
After NATO assumed leadership of the air strikes, they still needed American resources and technology. For instance, the U.S. continued providing a supporting role to NATO aircraft by providing refueling and air surveillance for the war planes. Additionally, the United States retained control of drones used in Libya after the alliance had taken control of enforcing the no-fly zone. By sharing intelligence and geospatial imaging, the United States took a collaborative approach towards NATO, which fortified existing partnerships. American leadership and support to allies in Libya may be used as a model of the U.S. role in NATO's peacekeeping operations because it provides a multilateral, collaborative, and shared framework by which to operate, increasing the legitimacy of both U.S. and NATO actions.
Many Americans viewed NATO's role in Libya as a discouraging sign of alliance decay and insustainability, because European partners would not have been successful without American resources and support. Two months after NATO assumed leadership of the operation, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated, "The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country - yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions." Because the U.S. continued providing surveillance, intelligence, and reconnaissance support to European allies, some perceived the alliance's mission in Libya to be a failure because of continued dependence on American military equipment and infrastructure. Additionally, some believed that the alliance's mission could not be deemed a true military success because the humanitarian intervention did not involve the deployment of ground troops. This pessimistic view of the Libyan intervention is unwarranted because it does not take into account the alliance's ultimate success in preventing a genocide without relying solely on the United States for leadership.
For the first time in NATO history, European partners proved that if provided with the appropriate military equipment, they are willing to fight for their values abroad and share the burden of leadership with the United States. This new division of labor will allow the alliance to take on increased responsibilities in the peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance arenas because the U.S. is no longer forced to assume the majority of the risks, costs, and burdens associated with foreign interventions. American presidents have complained for years that European partners need to begin taking greater risk and responsibility to preserve global security, without relying solely on the U.S. to be the world's policeman. Especially with America's economic decline and the drawn out wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States must depend on European partners to assume increased security obligations, while America takes a supportive role. Although the U.S. ensured the success of NATO allies by resupplying them with weapons and munitions and by providing cutting edge drone technology, European air forces assumed the majority of the responsibility of daily bomb runs. This division of labor proves to be the complete opposite of NATO's first wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, in which the U.S. was responsible for 90% of all daily bomb runs. It is important to note that France was not only the first nation to demand a humanitarian intervention in Libya, but France, the United Kingdom, Denmark and other Western European allies also provided over two thirds of the attack aircraft used in Operation Unified Protector. Further, of the 18 ships safeguarding Libya's port, only one was American. In addition to taking the military lead, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron took the political lead in winning support from other NATO member states as well as from other international and regional organizations. The U.S. must acknowledge the leadership and resources European allies contributed instead of focusing on their lack of resources.
It is important to note that this type of American role cannot be expected of all future NATO missions. Rather, in wars of mutual defense, if a NATO member state is attacked, the United States should continue its leadership role and provide the necessary military equipment, troops, and resources to defend the alliance. However, in wars of choice, such as the war in Libya and other wars based on the need for humanitarian assistance, the U.S. can take a supportive role by providing resources, refueling, and munitions to European allies that have the will to lead those missions. By differentiating between wars of necessity that directly affect American national security and wars of choice that compel American values and ideals to act, the U.S. along with European partners may set a precedent for burden sharing of security and peacekeeping missions. By dividing labor, as it did in the Libyan intervention, the alliance increases its organizational sustainability, while increasing the likelihood of successful peacekeeping missions.
Anita is originally from California and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She is pursuing a Master's degree in International Affairs from Georgetown University.