The better angels of NATO

The execution of twenty-one Coptic Christians at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) last month in Libya brought a tidal wave of condemnation from the international community. The UN Security Council called the killings “heinous and cowardly.” UK Prime Minister David Cameron opted for “appalling and barbaric,” while French President Francois Hollande condemned the murders “in the strongest terms.”

But in the growing storm of humanitarian crises, intrepid leadership has proven a scarce commodity.  

{mosads}The unmitigated expansion of IS across the Middle East into North Africa, the ascendancy of Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the ongoing hostility of Russian separatists in Ukraine collectively illustrate that the global governing structure is fragile and turbulent at best. At worst, these conquests by nonstate actors allude to an alarming truth: the United Nations has failed to materialize as the “force for action” Churchill envisioned, dissolving instead into a “frothing of words.” 

The UN’s failure as a force for action can be observed in the stunted growth of one of its most critical ideals. In 2005, the UN created the Responsibility to Protect initiative—an ambitious effort designed to correct the course on humanitarian intervention. But the UN has manifestly failed to transform the initiative into a true international norm that protects at-risk populations. 

The solution is not to scrap R2P, but outsource it to an organization sympathetic to its purpose with the resources to enforce it. R2P is well suited to become a formal instrument of NATO, and the Atlantic Alliance would benefit from absorbing the initiative into its existing doctrine.  

R2P is a reflection of the conceptual progress of human rights since the mid-twentieth century. As a touchstone human rights initiative, it sets forth the responsibility of sovereign states to protect their citizens from crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the like. Where a state fails in this responsibility, intentionally or unintentionally, it falls upon the global collective to intervene with proportional measures.

The problem lies in the myth of the global collective. A vote for military action relies on the unanimous approval of the Security Council’s permanent members—China, the U.S., France, the UK, and Russia—whose votes are fundamentally shaped by disparate geopolitical perspectives.  

As a transatlantic alliance predicated upon democratic values and a shared vision of global stability, NATO can mobilize political will and military resources toward a common goal—abilities the UN demonstrably lacks. 

Despite its hard power strength and the economic preeminence of its members, NATO has struggled to justify its continued existence since the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the Ukraine crisis presents a compelling case for NATO involvement, the borderless specter of IS—and the accompanying lack of military assistance from regional powers—demands that the Alliance broaden its purpose to assume a global role. The adoption of R2P can validate NATO’s peace and stability-centered rhetoric in the eyes of skeptical nonmember states, thereby legitimizing its missions beyond the transatlantic community.  

Retrofitting NATO to include R2P hinges upon Article 12 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty. Article 12 allows member states to “consult together for the purpose of reviewing the treaty” in light of evolved circumstances that may necessitate “universal arrangements” toward the “maintenance of international peace and security.” Undoubtedly, circumstances have evolved since 1949 in critical ways. The breathtaking ability of terror groups to upend regional stability is a 21st century motif that necessitates a new approach to traditional ideas on global governance and collective defense. With mass kidnappings and executions of civilians becoming the preferred modus operandi of militant organizations like IS and Boko Haram, humanitarianism and global security are more interlinked than ever.

NATO has shown a propensity for humanitarian intervention before, transcending its historical purpose and giving it relevance in the absence of a menacing Russia. After a crippling 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, NATO deployed medical personnel and supplies to the affected areas. In Africa, NATO has provided escort services to UN vessels traveling through the pirate-infested seas in the Gulf of Aden, and assisted the African Union Mission in Sudan as it worked to mitigate the Darfur crisis. Through a virtual proof of concept, these operations establish the viability of codifying R2P in NATO doctrine. 

Global leaders must embrace the sobering reality of human atrocities: they are invariably burnt off rather than extinguished. At one of the most tumultuous points in the 21st century, NATO has a special opportunity to become the new champion of R2P and right the troubling history of humanitarian intervention. 

North has been previously published in US News and World Report and the Asia Times Online. He currently works as a subcontractor for a major defense company in the U.S. national security sector.


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