U.S. Lambasts European Allies for Failing NATO (6/10)     Print Email

In strong terms of condemnation rarely heard from a U.S. secretary of defense, Robert Gates chose his last appearance at a NATO ministerial conference to admonish the European allies that their failure to maintain their military has put at risk the U.S. commitment to the transatlantic alliance. 

“The blunt reality,” Gates said in a speech to a Security Conference on the sidelines of the ministerial “is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense -- nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.”

It was the sternest-ever call by an American administration for the European allies to do more militarily to sustain the transatlantic alliance. Even more striking, the U.S. concerns voiced by Gates differed from earlier similar rebukes because it focused strongly on economic limitations on both sides of the Atlantic and not on easier-to-adjust political attitudes on reforging common strategic and political will. Gates' speech was on the record to the Security and Defense Agenda, a Brussels-based thin tank, and officials said that it reflected the views he expressed to other ministers at NATO.

Even now, Gates said, “it is not too late for Europe to get its defense institutions and security relationships on track.“ But, he concluded in his Brussels speech, that change “will take leadership from political leaders and policy makers on this continent. It cannot be coaxed, demanded or imposed from across the Atlantic.”

In his recriminations about the shortcomings of the European allies, Gates emphasized the trend for defense budgets to get the deepest cuts in austerity packages in Europe and about the risk of seeing more cuts reduce the allies’ military power so radically that NATO will no longer exist as a partnership. Instead, it would be a two-tiered institution in which the U.S. supplied the military protection and the allies would have to hope for it to continue.

Politically, the U.S. has its sharpest differences on defense with Germany, which is apparently the main target for Gates’ ire. Berlin has sharply downgraded its military efforts since the end of the cold war threat from Moscow, with a brief exception of heightened German spending and engagement in the Balkans in the 1990s. Also, new NATO members in Central and eastern European nations, with the exception of Poland, also seem to cutting back on defense now that they have been admitted to NATO. For example, Latvia and Lithuania do not even have air forces. But all the European allies are making drastic cuts in their defense budgets. 

Germany in particular, but also other European allies in varying degrees, have found it difficult to justify to their public opinion and voters the need for military action in conflicts far from Europe that do not seem to directly threaten their own security. U.S. fears that Afghanistan as a failed state could harbor terrorists seeking to launch another attack of the sort that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York are not shared by most Europeans.

In his criticism, Gates acknowledged that all the allied countries face budgetary crises. But, he noted, “two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. share of NATO defense spending has risen to more than 75 percent – at a time when politically painful budget and benefit cuts are being considered at home,” he said. For most of the Cold War, the U.S. government made up roughly 50 percent of all NATO military spending.

There are no easy fixes short of a changed strategic view in Europe, he said, explaining the problem in these terms: “While it is clear NATO members should do more to pool military assets, such ‘Smart Defense’ initiatives are not a panacea. In the final analysis, there is no substitute for nations providing the resources necessary to have the military capability the alliance needs when faced with a security challenge. Ultimately, nations must be responsible for their fair share of the common defense.”

His main complaint with Europeans comes down to cuts in defense spending. Today, just five of the 28 NATO allies – the U.S., Britain, France, Greece and Albania – exceed the agreed-upon two percent share of gross domestic product that should be spent on defense.

He acknowledged that previous U.S. secretaries of defense had also urged more defense spending by the European allies – “often with exasperation.” This time, he implied, the transatlantic differential may be unbridgeable. Although he did not say so explicitly, there have been many signals that the Obama administration puts more emphasis on challenges in Asia than in Europe – and could be readier to distance itself from NATO than ever before in the alliance history since the days of the Vietnam war when Congress considered cutting U.S. troops in Europe in order to shift resources to Asia.

Today, that choice in Washington is framed by the war in Afghanistan. When Gates became secretary of defense four years ago, there were about 20,000 non-U.S. troops from NATO nations in Afghanistan. Today, that figure is approximately 40,000. Fewer than 900 troops from non-U.S. NATO members have died in Afghanistan: for many allied nations, these were their first military casualties since World War II.

NATO operations in Afghanistan have exposed serious alliance shortcomings in military capabilities and in political will, he said. “Despite more than 2 million troops in uniform – not counting the U.S. military – NATO has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25,000 to 45,000 troops -- not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets such as helicopters; transport aircraft; maintenance; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and much more.”

On Libya, he offered a slightly more optimistic prediction, saying that the operation there showed the potential for NATO in a campaign where the Europeans take the lead with American support. Here again, Gates’ implicit target was Germany, which opposed the intervention and refused to help it even after it took on the UN-sanctioned mission.

In Libya,several smaller allies have managed to punch “well above their weight” because they are willing to use their resources effectively. Norway and Denmark have provided 12 percent of allied strike aircraft in the Libya operation, yet have struck about one-third of the targets, and Belgium and Canada also are making major contributions to the strike mission.

But they are the exceptions, Gates said, as too many allies have been unwilling to fundamentally change how they set priorities and allocate resources. More ominously for NATO, he added, every alliance member voted for the Libya mission but less than half have participated, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike missions. “Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.”

In his speech, Gates may have felt able to go further than usual in public because he was speaking as an outgoing defense secretary. Even allowing for that margin, his message reveals a degree of Obama disenchantment with NATO that is an alarm sign for everyone involved in transatlantic relations in European capitals – and in Washington.


--- European Affairs