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Should NATO support UN operations?

Peter Viggo Jakobsen VERSUS David Lightburn

Peter Viggo Jakobsen is head of the Department of Conflict and Security Studies at the Danish Institute for International Studies in Copenhagen.

David Lightburn is an independent peace operations consultant who helped develop the Alliance's involvement in peacekeeping while at NATO between 1992 and 2000.

Dear David

NATO has come a long way in the field of peace operations since the early 1990s. It has conducted a series of successful UN-mandated operations in the Balkans and is currently involved in a challenging and expanding one in Afghanistan. Now that the Alliance has made the strategic decision to go global and conduct military operations outside Europe, it is both natural and necessary to strengthen existing NATO-UN cooperation in this area in line with the recent suggestions made by both NATO and UN Secretaries General.

It is in NATO's self-interest to step up its support for peace operations that are either run by the United Nations or mandated by the world body and carried out by other actors such as the African Union. This is necessary to enhance operational effectiveness. NATO-led peace operations cannot succeed on their own without support from the United Nations and relevant regional and non-governmental organisations. NATO does not have the capacity to address the large host of non-military tasks that contemporary peace operations involve. The Alliance needed assistance from the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United Nations and a large number of non-governmental organisations to address these tasks in the Balkans. It relies on many of the same actors and others to address these tasks in Afghanistan. And this will also be true in the case of future operations.

NATO-UN cooperation on peace operations should be institutionalised through the signing of a joint cooperation agreement, regular high-level meetings, practical cooperation at desk-level between the relevant offices and the establishment of a secure communications system between the organisational headquarters. The EU-UN cooperation in crisis management would be a logical model to draw inspiration from.

Practical cooperation should be structured to add maximum value to both organisations. NATO should draw on its comparative advantages in terms of planning, communications, logistics, intelligence and strategic lift. Critical shortages in these areas are currently undermining the effectiveness of the United Nations' rapid-reaction arrangements, and NATO support in these areas could make a significant difference. Such assistance would generally not be manpower intensive and would enable the Alliance to make a crucial difference to UN operations without creating over-stretch problems.

NATO should declare its willingness to deploy combat troops in emergencies in support of the United Nations to prevent genocide or the outbreak of civil wars

NATO support for UN peace operations should not be limited to support services, however. NATO should also make a commitment to deploy combat-capable forces at short notice on a case-by-case basis. To minimise the risk of over-stretch and exploit its comparative advantage in high-intensity operations, NATO should only offer troops on a first-in, first-out basis for peace-enforcement operations. NATO should declare its willingness to deploy combat troops in emergencies in support of the United Nations to prevent genocide or the outbreak of civil wars. These forces would then stay for a limited period, up to six months, to give the United Nations or other organisations the time to prepare a follow-on force. The Multinational Standby Force High Readiness Brigade for UN Operations (SHIRBRIG) is based on the same model, but unlike NATO it cannot field combat-capable forces for high-intensity peace operations. The NATO Response Force (NRF) would be ideally suited for such a role, which would highlight the fact that NATO is the only organisation in the world with the capacity to deploy combat-capable brigade-size forces at short notice. Since the European Union will not have such a capacity in the foreseeable future, it would also help establish a division of labour and reduce the level of duplication between the two organisations.

The practical/operational case for enhancing NATO support to UN peacekeeping is, in short, convincing. If we add the question of NATO's legitimacy, it becomes compelling. NATO's involvement as a peacekeeper in Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia as well as its absence from Iraq demonstrate the crucial importance that UN mandates play for building consensus within the Alliance with respect to peace operations. It is equally, if not more, important with respect to mobilising international acceptance of a global NATO role, particularly in Africa and the broader Middle East. In these parts of the world, NATO's decision to move beyond the Euro-Atlantic area is seen as motivated by enlarging the Western/US zone of influence rather than enhancing international peace and stability. Support for UN operations not directly linked to the "war on terror" will therefore be crucial to convincing non-Western governments that a global NATO is a force for good. NATO requests for assistance are more likely to be viewed favourably by the United Nations and the relevant regional and non-governmental organisations if, in turn, they can count on NATO support when they require it in theatres that the Alliance does not view as a strategic priority.

Finally, NATO support for UN peace operations would also reduce unwelcome pressure on the Alliance or individual Allies to launch last-minute, high-risk interventions. These include interventions to evacuate UN peacekeepers (a real possibility in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995); to prevent UN operations from failing (as in Rwanda in 1994 or Sierra Leone in 2000); to enable the start-up of UN operations (as in Somalia in 1992 and in Liberia in 2003); or to prevent large-scale human suffering (as in Darfur today).

The call for greater NATO-UN cooperation made by the NATO and UN Secretaries General is an offer the Alliance cannot afford to refuse.


Peter Viggo

Dear Peter Viggo

NATO has indeed come a long way in the field of peace operations since the early 1990s, due in large part to a measured approach based on trial and experience, as well as the commitment and cooperation of individual Allied governments. You raise a number of interesting issues on the future of NATO-UN relations, including matters related to strategy, peace operations, strategic cooperation, military operations, and high-risk interventions. However, I have both political and military concerns with your proposals.

To establish the context, the Alliance became engaged in peace operations in 1992 with a maritime monitoring mission and has progressively taken on a greater number and range of missions, including peace-enforcement operations (Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo). Today, NATO is conducting two peace operations (Kosovo and Afghanistan), experimenting with the concept of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (Afghanistan), engaging in peace-building (security sector reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina) and contributing to conflict prevention (the training mission in Iraq). It has experience of classic peacekeeping tasks (Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo), of conflict prevention (the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia*), of preventive diplomacy (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* and Afghanistan) and of other peace-building efforts, such as disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo). In short, it has covered the classic spectrum of peace operations but has done so cautiously, systematically and, at all times, in accordance with NATO's own policies and procedures, with the collective interests of the Allies at the forefront, and within means and capabilities.

The 1999 Strategic Concept acknowledges that Alliance security is based on two pillars: crisis management, including crisis-response operations; and partnership, cooperation and dialogue. Both pillars are, however, cast firmly in the context of Euro-Atlantic security. This does not contain "the strategic decision to go global and conduct military operations outside Europe", nor has there been a subsequent decision by the Council at Ministerial level to do so. All Secretaries General since Manfred Wörner have made clear that the Alliance is not a global policeman. The decision to launch NATO's only current operation beyond the Euro-Atlantic area in Afghanistan was based on the interests of all the then Allies. Afghanistan became an "area of interest" because of its past links to terrorism, the impact of 9/11 and the positive consequence of such NATO engagement on international peace and stability.

Cooperation has not only been improving between NATO and the United Nations but also between NATO and certain regional and other international organisations, such as the European Union and the International Committee of the Red Cross. NATO-UN political and military cooperation is not new and dates back to the early 1990s. There have been many high-level visits and staff exchanges in New York, Geneva and Brussels, and these are ongoing. Moreover, NATO's legitimacy is not in question today. I am not, for example, aware of any NATO "request to the UN for assistance". If your reference to legitimacy relates to operations, current peace operations are based on the concept of partnership in most areas, within the context of specific operational objectives, and are not related to Alliance needs for external support in specific missions.

Your understanding of the concept of Alliance support for peace operations fails to appreciate that support is the operative word. It is not, as you imply later in the same paragraph, for NATO "to address the large host of non-military tasks that contemporary peace operations involve". The Alliance has neither the desire nor the ability to take full responsibility for any complex peace operation. Specifically, NATO did not need "assistance from the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United Nations and a large number of non-governmental organisations to address these tasks in the Balkans". In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, Dayton mandated others to do this work.

Possible NATO involvement in Darfur and elsewhere in support of UN or regional organisations should be based clearly on the political and collective interests of all 26 Allies

On the operational matters you raise, the Alliance has limited resources and could not have become involved in all 18 current UN missions, even as start-up forces. Various NATO force-generation conferences in relation to the three or four current and completed missions initially fell short of their targets. Following reductions in the size of Allies' armed forces since the end of the Cold War, the supply of trained battalions and the relevant enabling forces and capabilities is limited. Suggesting that NATO start up all UN missions would also raise serious political concerns within the 191-member UN family, not the least because the force commander would have to be a "Western" officer, responsive and responsible in the first instance to the North Atlantic Council. Operationally, the Alliance could not accept forces from non-NATO nations that were not fully interoperable and did not operate in accordance with NATO procedures. Non-interoperable forces endanger a mission. Such capabilities take years to perfect and consume vast resources.

Your final point suggesting a "reduction in unwelcome pressure on the Alliance to launch last-minute, high-risk interventions" is noted. I would observe, however, that there was no pressure in regard to your first example - the evacuation of UNPROFOR. Careful and comprehensive plans had been developed in adequate time. As for Darfur, the African Union has explicitly stated that it does not want non-African combat forces in the Sudan but might welcome certain enabling capabilities.

I agree that the respective Secretaries General should maintain a constructive dialogue, building on the positive developments of the past 13 or 14 years. I would suggest, however, that Alliance commitments to support the United Nations remain selective. Possible involvement in Darfur and elsewhere in support of UN or regional organisations should be based clearly on the political and collective interests of all 26 Allies. It should be in accordance with NATO policies and procedures, consistent with the current Strategic Concept, and based on the availability and best use of scarce resources.



Dear David

I'm pleased to see our disagreement is a matter of degree rather than substance. That said, I consider it imperative that the Alliance go further than you are prepared to accept. While I'm not suggesting that NATO start up all UN missions or intervene on behalf of the United Nations in each and every emergency, simply maintaining a constructive dialogue with the United Nations is not enough. The Alliance has to make concrete and high-profile commitments in support of UN peace operations outside of Europe to remain relevant in the post-9/11 world, where these operations have become increasingly important as a means of preventing weak and failing states from disintegrating into safe havens for terrorists.

Supporting the United Nations is something that all 26 Allies should be able to agree on

It will not be long before the European Union assumes operational responsibility for all the peace operations in the Balkans. As a result, the Alliance needs to carve out an operational role for itself outside of Europe. NATO's continued viability depends on this, since protecting its members from external aggression in a zero-conventional-threat environment is not enough. Moreover, as German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder recently pointed out, NATO "is no longer the primary venue where transatlantic partners discuss and coordinate strategies". To remain relevant NATO needs to make a contribution to the management of international peace and security and bring something to the table that the European Union and the United Nations do not. My proposal offers that something: limited support for mission start-up that does not require a NATO force commander as well as the deployment of brigade-size combat-capable forces in Kosovo-style emergencies on a first-in, first-out basis. The NRF is ideally suited for such a role.

You are correct to point out that the Allies will likely find it difficult to make available the resources necessary to implement my proposal. This was clearly demonstrated by both the under-whelming response to meeting the operational needs of the International Security Assistance Force and the failure to agree to deploy the NRF in support of the Afghan elections last October. However, these problems should not be seen as arguments against taking on additional commitments. On the contrary, they represent compelling evidence for the need for force transformation and the creation of a new strategic consensus within the Alliance. Supporting the United Nations is something that all 26 Allies should be able to agree on, which is why my proposal could serve as a useful first step towards creating such a consensus.


Peter Viggo

Dear Peter Viggo

The differences in our positions are a matter of both degree and, in some respects, substance. Selective support for specific international crises - crises of collective interest to the 26 Allies - will indeed be forthcoming, as in Darfur. The parameters of such support are, however, being carefully developed and decided in Brussels in accordance with both NATO policies and procedures and AU positions on combat troops. Moreover, they will continue to be decided upon on a case-by-case basis, as earlier in both Kosovo and Afghanistan.

NATO and NATO alone must agree the precise terms of any military mission

NATO learned from UN mistakes in the early 1990s and insisted from the outset that there would be a tight linkage in Alliance operations between mandate, mission, capabilities and resources. It is difficult to conceive of NATO committing itself in advance to an international mission debated and agreed by the UN Security Council, in the absence of prior UN consultations with NATO and Alliance involvement in developing the mission mandate. It is also difficult to conceive of 165 other states agreeing such a policy. NATO and NATO alone must agree the precise terms of any military mission. There should be no more dual keys, vague "safe-area"-style concepts, fluctuating concerns about and limitations over the use of force, and, above all, ambiguous mandates that change at the whim and political convenience of the UN Security Council. Similarly, the detailed tasks and rules of engagement for NATO military forces are the business of the North Atlantic Council and cannot be the subject of scrutiny, control or even observation in New York. The NRF, in particular, is responsive to, and responsible to, the North Atlantic Council alone.

Eight of the 18 UN missions are in Africa. NATO is doing the "heavy-lifting" in the missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Most of the rest are observer missions. None of the eight African situations directly threatens the strategic or security interests of NATO members, nor has direct consequences related to international terrorism. Africa generally remains the business of the wider international community - the United Nations and the African Union. Several Allies are assisting the development of AU peace-operation capabilities. Several Allies have also supported UN rapid response needs through SHIRBRIG, though not without generating political concern and criticism at the highest levels in New York over the UN Secretary-General's application of Western mechanisms.

NATO needs to maintain a certain strategic flexibility. It should leave manpower-intensive military tasks to a reforming United Nations and/or more effective and capable regional organisations.



I'm afraid I still fail to see our disagreement over substance. The way I see it my proposal meets all your requirements. It is not manpower intensive and would allow missions to be decided in Brussels in accordance with NATO policies and procedures, on a case-by-case basis and upon request from the United Nations. My proposal would not repeat the mistakes of the early 1990s since I'm not suggesting the UN Security Council be in a position to overrule the North Atlantic Council or be allowed to change mandates in the middle of a mission. Nor would it generate criticism from non-NATO members as long as NATO acts upon request from the United Nations. The criticism of SHIRBRIG was primarily triggered by the fact that it is referred to as a UN brigade, which it is not.

A humanitarian crisis can quickly become strategic if media take the view that the Alliance ought to address it

In a globalised world, the argument that Africa is none of NATO's business is untenable. If a failing state in Afghanistan can serve as a launching pad for a devastating attack on a NATO member an ocean away, so might one in Africa. Preventing state failure and frustrating terrorist networks operating on the African continent is very much in NATO's strategic interest and use of the NRF along the lines I have suggested would further this objective.

Your distinction between "strategic" and "humanitarian" crises is also untenable. A "humanitarian" crisis can quickly become "strategic" if media take the view that the Alliance ought to address it. This was precisely what happened in Kosovo and it may well happen in Africa. Imagine a new Rwanda-style genocide is unfolding and only the NRF is capable of taking effective action to halt the slaughter. A NATO refusal to act would trigger a public relations disaster. By contrast, successful action would bring praise and goodwill and demonstrate that NATO remains an indispensable organisation in the 21st century.


Peter Viggo

Dear Peter Viggo

Our differences relate to the degree of selectivity and automaticity in NATO support for UN operations. Africa is of interest, but only very selectively - witness Darfur and NATO's Mediterranean dialogue. Kosovo was only part humanitarian - it was also a strategic problem on NATO's southern flank and a potential problem for both operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina and for the Alliance's Balkan PfP members. And SHIRBRIG was criticised in New York because the United Nations had no choice in selecting a force commander, and the force involved only Western nations. Instead of automatically looking to NATO for support, the United Nations should focus on enhancing wider international capabilities.

NATO cannot be the world's policeman for strategic, political, historical and resource reasons

The 165 other UN member states need to bring enhanced resources and capabilities to the crisis-management table. The United Nations itself needs to do a better job of mobilising and organising such resources and working with, and contributing to, the further development of regional organisations. Improvements to wider international capabilities might include development of additional regional, SHIRBRIG-type formations; improvement in individual member states' capabilities; development of standard operating procedures in the United Nations and regional organisations that are compatible with proven NATO procedures; and continuing strategic-level dialogue, as well as routine exchanges of views and updates between crisis-management staffs, as is the case today between NATO and both the European Union and the OSCE. NATO could provide selective support in each of these areas.

Significant UN dependence on NATO could seriously affect the world body's objectivity in the eyes of its member states. NATO cannot be the world's policeman for strategic, political, historical and resource reasons. Above all, it needs to retain a certain strategic flexibility. NATO remains an indispensable organisation in the 21st century through the scale of its contribution to international peace and security. This includes support to peace operations involving difficult security environments; a strategic and operational partnership with the European Union; strategic and operational dialogue with the United Nations and OSCE; and the Partnership for Peace programme. Individual Allies also support UN, EU, AU and other organisations' peace operations and further development of their capabilities.



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