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European nations pass on US-led response to Houthis' Red Sea aggression, putting NATO into question

Conspicuously absent from the latest maneuvers were forces from France and Italy, two founding NATO members

Published: January 14, 2024 11:10pm

Updated: January 15, 2024 8:25am

United States and U.K. military forces through this weekend have bombed over a dozen targets allegedly utilized by Houthi rebels, sparking vows of retaliation from the Yemen-based group and perhaps making the prospect of a wider war more likely. 

Conspicuously absent from the latest maneuvers were forces from France and Italy, two founding members of NATO that first deployed a significant naval presence in the Red Sea after Houthis began attacking merchant vessels there late last year.

In addition, Germany is still debating whether it should send vessels to the area, despite calls to do so from the industrial community in Europe’s largest economy. 

That all adds up to the latest example of what a high-profile Italian admiral warned was “weak cohesion as NATO as well as European Union partners.”

Luigi Mario Binelli Mantelli, a former head of the Italian Defense Staff (roughly the equivalent to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the U.S.), said that although the lack of coordination among allies would probably not impact immediate operations in the Red Sea, he said it should act as a wakeup call for NATO as a global force of stability.

“NATO should again revise and widen its role in the world’s stability and security,” said Mantelli, adding that the challenges in the region were “testing our determination and cohesion to protect our economy and our common values and our way of life.”

The Red Sea became a hot spot in early-October 2023 after the Iran-based Houthis, in response to Israel's war on Hamas in Gaza, began attacking merchant ships traveling through what is one of the world’s busiest commercial shipping lanes, impacting the global economy.

Multilateral groups such as NATO and the European Union found new relevance after the start of the war between Russia and Ukraine in 2022. Most member states stood together in support of the Ukrainian cause, and most of them still do. But public support is waning amid what is being dubbed “Ukraine fatigue” as well as distractions from the war in Gaza and a long slate of elections around the globe this year. 

Unity among U.S. and European allies against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was also seen as a counterweight to China’s rising influence and a warning to Beijing about the possible consequences of an invasion of Taiwan. But there’s now a risk that a lack of cohesion in the Red Sea could be sending the opposite message. 

In the lead-up to Thursday’s strikes against the Houthi targets, France and Italy were asked to sign a U.S.- and U.K.-backed joint declaration condemning the Houthi attacks, but Paris and Rome demurred (eight other countries, including Canada, Korea, and Germany, did sign it). 

France said its naval forces in the region have been instructed to look out for their national interests such as ensuring the safety of its own ships passing through the Red Sea. That mandate, France said, did not include offensive strikes. 

Italy, meanwhile, said it seeks to de-escalate tensions in the region, not add to them. The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was informed of the attacks ahead of time, but said Italian naval forces were not formally asked to participate. 

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