NATO's Role in Nation-building


Dec 8, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in NATO Review on December 8, 2005.

James Dobbins examines how NATO should work together with other international institutions in nation-building.

Nation-building has been a growth industry since the end of the Cold War. The United Nations, NATO, the United States and more recently the European Union have all become engaged in missions that employ armed force in post-conflict environments with the objective of supporting a political transformation, that is to say democratisation. Not every recent military expedition fits this description, but nation-building, peace-building or stabilisation operations, depending on one's preferred terminology, have become the dominant paradigm for the use of armed force in the post-Cold War world.

Since 1989, the frequency, scale, scope and duration of these nation-building missions have steadily risen. During the Cold War the United States mounted a new military intervention, on average, once a decade. The United Nations launched a new peacekeeping operation, on average, once every four years. Since 1989, the frequency of US-led interventions is approaching one every other year. New UN peacekeeping missions are being launched, on average, about once every six months.

The cumulative effect of all this activity has been measurably beneficial. Over the past decade the number of civil conflicts underway around the world has been halved and the annual death toll from such conflicts reduced still further. Contrary to the popular impression, the world has become a less violent place since the end of the Cold War. Armed force has proved an essential component of multinational action to prevent societies emerging from conflict from returning to it. Peacekeeping has proved itself the most cost-effective instrument available to the international community in such circumstances, the only one with high levels of success. Economic assistance can reinforce the effects of peacekeeping in a post-conflict society, but in the absence of externally provided military stabilisation, most countries emerging from conflict will return to it within a few years, no matter how much economic aid, advice and other forms of support they receive.

Nation-building becomes a core mission

Until recently, major Western defence establishments tended to look upon stabilisation as a lesser task within the more demanding mission of major combat. After all, the armies that conquered Germany and Japan in 1945 proved more than adequate to occupy and stabilise those countries thereafter. The classic expression of this attitude was then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on the eve of the Iraqi intervention. In it, he said that he could not imagine it would take more men to stabilise Iraq than it would to defeat the Iraqi armed forces and displace the regime.

Yet by 2002 this common wisdom had been belied by several decades of contrary experience, during which Western victory in conventional combat had become progressively less costly, while Western success in the post-combat phase had become progressively more problematic. Since the mid-1950s Western militaries have been involved in infrequent, brief and uniformly successful conventional conflicts, and in frequent, prolonged, and less uniformly successful unconventional campaigns. The Korean War was the West's last hard fought conventional conflict. Dien Bien Phu was the last conventional battle in which a Western army was defeated, and that in context of an otherwise unconventional war.

Of the six largest post-Cold War, Western-led military operations, two – Somalia and Haiti – have been failures, two – Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo – qualified successes, and two – Afghanistan and Iraq – remain highly problematic. In all these operations, the initial entry of Western forces, even when opposed, has always proved the least problematic aspect of the operation. In most cases, multinational forces have been at least nominally invited in. Where opposition existed, the mere threat of force, as in Haiti, or the application of air power alone, as in Kosovo, or air power in combination with friendly indigenous forces, as in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Afghanistan, has almost always been sufficient to gain entry. Only in Iraq in 2003 was substantial ground combat necessary to secure control of the territory in question.

While peacekeeping can often be conducted with relatively small forces in circumstances where exhausted combatants are ready to accept international intervention, peace enforcement is much more manpower intensive. The size of forces needed for such missions largely depends upon the size of the population to be stabilised, and its degree of urbanisation. Unfortunately, nearly all developing societies are rapidly becoming more populous and more urbanised at the same time as the size of most Western armed forces continues to shrink. As a result, the demand for nation-building is fast outpacing the supply of nation-builders.

The burden imposed by nation-building is also cumulative. New operations begin before old ones are ended. Each individual stability operation tends to last five to ten years, whereas new operations are being mounted much more frequently. Western armies may still hope to fight one conventional war at a time, but must now plan on manning multiple protracted stability operations simultaneously.

The experience of Iraq has finally led the US Department of Defense to designate stability operations as a core US military mission and to recognise that the overall size and structure of the US defence establishment can no longer be determined solely by the needs of conventional combat or major contingencies. In future, the US Army's strength and composition will also be driven by the requirement to man multiple stability operations. The result will be a larger number of military police, civil affairs, special operating forces, engineers, intelligence and infantry in the active duty force.

Institutional implications

In addition to NATO, two other organisations, the United Nations and the European Union, offer themselves as instruments for Western collaboration in the conduct of stability operations. Of the three, the United Nations is the most ubiquitous. It leads the largest number of nation-building missions world-wide, and, although it has had its share of nation-building failures, it has also been behind a larger number of successes than is generally recognised. UN-led interventions in Cambodia, Eastern Slavonia, East Timor, El Salvador, Mozambique, Namibia and Sierra Leon were all successful in moving war-torn societies away from renewed conflict and, with the exception of Cambodia, towards sustained democratic governance. The United Nations also plays a significant role in all nation-building missions that other institutions lead. There are many UN operations with no EU, NATO or US involvement. There are no EU, NATO or US operations without some, often quite important UN involvement.

The European Union, NATO and the United Nations each has particular strengths and weaknesses when it comes to leading nation-building missions. The United Nations has the most diverse experience, the most widely accepted legitimacy and the greatest formal authority. Its actions, by definition, enjoy international sanction. Alone among organisations, the United Nations can legally compel compliance from both member and non-member states. Alone among these organisations, it can legally compel its member governments to fund operations, whether or not they agree to them or believe them a good idea.

The United Nations has the most straightforward decision-making apparatus, and the simplest command and control arrangements. The UN Security Council is smaller than the equivalent EU or NATO bodies. It takes all decisions by qualified majority, only five of its members having the capacity to block decisions unilaterally. Only one, the United States, does so with any regularity. Once the Security Council determines the purpose of an operation and decides to launch it, further decisions are largely delegated to the Secretary-General and his staff, at least until the next Security Council review, generally six months hence. Security Council members have little influence on operational decision-making. Troop-contributing countries have no formal voice whatsoever. In UN-led operations the civil and military chains of command are unified and integrated, with unequivocal civilian primacy and a clear line of authority from the UN Secretary-General through his local civilian representative to the local force commander. UN specialised agencies possess a broad panoply of civil as well as military capabilities relevant to nation-building endeavours. All UN-led operations, of which more than a dozen are routinely underway at any one time, are planned, controlled and sustained by a few hundred military and civilian staffers at UN headquarters in New York. Most UN troops come from second and third world countries with per man costs many times lower than any Western army. The United Nations currently deploys more than 58,000 soldiers in 17 different countries at a cost of under $4 billion per year. That is less than the United States spends on one month's operations in Iraq.

Despite these advantages, the United Nations has distinct limitations. While the UN Security Council is more compact than its NATO and EU counterparts, it is regionally and ideologically more diverse and consequently subject to blockage in the face of strong East-West or North-South differences. This proved the case with Kosovo.

The obstacle imposed by the permanent member veto in the UN Security Council can be overstated. Since 1989, the UN Security Council has agreed to launch more than 30 military expeditions, while the North Atlantic Council, NATO's highest decision-making body, has agreed on only three, and the EU Council two. In early 2002, the United Kingdom and the United States calculated, no doubt correctly, that they had a better chance of securing UN support for their invasion of Iraq than they had of gaining either an NATO or an EU endorsement. To this day, therefore, the Kosovo conflict remains the sole instance in which NATO was able to agree upon an intervention in an instance where the UN Security Council could not.

The broad latitude enjoyed by the UN Secretary-General and his local representatives in the operational control of blue-helmeted operations serves to limit the willingness of some nations to contribute. NATO and EU procedures offer troop-contributing members much greater day-to-day control over the use of their troops than does the United Nations. Western governments accordingly favour these institutions for peace-enforcement missions where the level of risk is high. This tendency of Western governments to seek greater control over the day-to-day use of their forces than the UN system affords is also evident in the prevalence of national caveats over particular types of activity that increasingly characterise NATO operations.

The austere nature of UN headquarters staffing for peacekeeping operations limits that organisation's capacity to plan and support large or highly complex missions. As a practical matter, the UN capacity to mount and sustain expeditionary forces tops out at about 20,000 men, or a reinforced division. UN forces always require permissive entry, which means they can only go where they are invited.

NATO's role

NATO, by contrast, is capable of deploying powerful forces in large numbers, and of using them to force entry where necessary. In consequence, whereas the United Nations is the most suitable organisation for most peacekeeping and even some low-end peace enforcement, NATO is better suited for more demanding missions on the Balkan model. NATO, on the other hand, has no capacity for civil implementation and must always depend upon the United Nations and/or some ad hoc coalition of willing countries to perform the myriad of non-military functions essential to the success of any nation-building operation. As a result, NATO's exit strategy always depends upon the performance of other organisations.

NATO decisions require consensus, and all members have a veto. The North Atlantic Council subjects operations under its authority to more continuous scrutiny and direction than does the UN Security Council. Whereas the latter Council normally makes only one decision respecting any particular operation every six months, leaving the UN Secretary-General relatively unconstrained in carrying out that mandate during the intervals, the North Atlantic Council's decision-making is more incremental. Troop-contributing governments consequently have a much greater voice in operational matters. This level of control makes governments more ready to commit troops to NATO for high-risk operations than to the United Nations.

NATO troops are much better equipped than most of those devoted to UN operations, and correspondingly more expensive. NATO headquarters were originally designed to command million-man Western armies in the event of war with the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. The comparative wealth of staff resources ensures that NATO operations are more professionally planned and sustained, but also result in a heavier tail-to-tooth ratio than those of the United Nations.

Time to ask what the European Union can do for NATO

EU decision-making in the security and defence sector is also by consensus. The European Union has a leaner military and political/military staff, in part because it can call upon NATO, if it chooses, for planning and other staff functions. The European Union, like the United Nations, can draw upon a wide array of civil assets essential in any nation-building operation. EU, like NATO soldiers are vastly more expensive than UN troops on a man-for-man basis. EU mechanisms, like those of NATO and unlike those of the United Nations, offer troop-contributing governments greater possibility of influencing the operational use of their contingents.

For nearly a decade, attention has been focused upon elaborating modalities for NATO to help the European Union plan for and conduct military operations. Yet in the field of nation-building the European Union has at least as much to offer NATO as NATO has to the European Union. The time has come, therefore, to ask not what NATO can do for the European Union, but what the European Union can do for NATO.

It is possible to envisage military contingencies in which the European Union might be involved, but not NATO. It is not possible to conceive of the reverse. In any NATO-led military mission, all essential civil functions will inevitably have to be devolved to the European Union, its member states, Canada and the United States and other international organisations, as has already been the case in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. In theory, NATO might develop its own capabilities for civil implementation. However, in practice, after having poured so much effort into building up the European Union's capacities in this sphere, the European Allies are unlikely to invest in a similar effort to build up NATO's.

If, therefore, NATO is not to develop its own capacity to deploy and train police, promote the development of civil society, stimulate economic development and undertake any number of other mission-essential civil tasks, it needs to develop more reliable arrangements with the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United States and the United Nations to ensure that other states and organisations will contribute these assets in support of future NATO-led military operations.

This line of development also offers a framework in which EU-US collaboration in the defence and security field can expand in a manner that does not detract from NATO. Where better for an EU-US defence dialogue to start than on issues of security sector reform, police training, the deployment of gendarmerie, the building of civil society, election support and economic reconstruction, with the objective of working together to render more effective support to both NATO and UN-led military operations of common interest.

Way ahead

For a variety of reasons, the United Nations should remain the West's nation-builder of first resort. The United Nations is cheaper; it is more experienced; it is more widely acceptable in most circumstances; and the risks and burdens of UN-led operations are shared among a much broader base of countries.

Western governments can strengthen UN capabilities through a variety of means. First, they can support full implementation of the 2001 Brahimi Report, the more recent recommendations of the Secretary-General's Panel of Eminent Persons and of the Secretary-General himself. Second, they can redirect bureaucratic energies at NATO and EU headquarters away from the endless refinement of contingency forces for hypothetical operations towards finding practical ways for NATO and the European Union to contribute to ongoing operations being conducted under UN leadership. And third, they can commit Western national contingents to UN operations with greater frequency.

Western troops form a much smaller share of UN forces today than 40, or even ten years ago. As a result, Western militaries are denying themselves invaluable experience in the conduct of stability operations, reducing the United Nations' prospects of success and thereby making more costly and more controversial Western-led interventions more likely. The United States has led the way in this form of burden shirking. Many European governments have followed suit. Of the more than 58,000 UN peacekeeping troops currently deployed around the world just eleven are American. Thirteen are German. Seven are Belgian and two are Dutch.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's proposal to form a Peace-Building Commission joining the various UN and Bretton Woods institutions with a role to play in nation-building offers a vehicle for establishing a more regular link between New York and Brussels. Both the European Union and NATO have much to offer in support of UN-led peace-building missions, and both organisations should seek to associate themselves with this proposed Commission.

Even if significantly strengthened, UN peacekeeping can never fully meet the need for collective military action. The United Nations has never deployed more than a reinforced division in any single operation. It has never itself conducted a forced entry, although it has authorised many. There will remain occasions where the North Atlantic Council and/or the EU Council are agreed on the need for action while the UN Security Council is not. There will remain instances where Corps or Army-sized forces are required for such operations. There will remain occasions where the initial entry of international forces must be forced. There will also remain circumstances where a NATO or EU force will have more credibility with the local parties and be more welcomed by neighbouring states than one under UN command.

NATO's slow assumption of responsibility in Afghanistan is evidence of the distance it has yet to travel. The greatest challenge before Western militaries is prevailing in unconventional conflict. The Alliance's greatest deficiency is in troops that are trained, equipped and prepared to conduct peacekeeping, counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics missions. Fielding, deploying, sustaining and directing such forces should be NATO's highest priority.

James Dobbins is a former US Ambassador to the European Community, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, and special envoy for Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Haiti, Kosovo and Somalia. He is currently director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation and lead co-author of the two-volume “RAND History of Nation-Building” (2005).

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