Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s swan-song warning to Europe that the trans-Atlantic alliance faces the “real possibility for a dim, if not dismal future” caught many of his audience in Brussels by surprise. It shouldn’t have. Even though Gates is part of the generation of Cold War warriors who built NATO into the cornerstone security alliance of the West, his blunt comments amount to a familiar form of primal-scream therapy for U.S. officials who have tried to lead the alliance in a time of war, only to discover that it stubbornly remains less than the sum of its parts.
“Future U.S. political leaders—those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me—may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost,” Gates said during his last trip to NATO headquarters as secretary of Defense. “The blunt reality is that there will be a 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.”
Gates is not the first U.S. official to publicly warn that the NATO alliance is at great risk of emerging from the war in Afghanistan fundamentally weakened, its political divisions, military limitations, and lopsided division of labor exposed for all to see. Before he retired in 2009, former Supreme Allied Commander Gen. John Craddock resorted to showing up at senior-level NATO meetings with a big cup labeled “Contributions,” attempting to shame defense chiefs into honoring their countries’ unmet troop commitments. “So where is your bid?” Craddock said at the time. “And I didn’t get anything! So yeah, I’m frustrated.”
In his own farewell address in 2009, former U.S. ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker warned that the alliance was headed for a “train wreck,” with vastly divergent views between the United States and Europe of global threats and the investments and sometimes violent measures required to counter them. “And the fact is, in the two years since my farewell address the problem has gotten much worse, because it’s been compounded by the economic crisis and subsequent severe defense cuts in Europe, and the continuing struggles in Afghanistan,” Volker told National Journal. “If current trends aren’t reversed, I agree with Gates that it could lead to the demise of NATO, which no one wants and would amount to a terrible loss.”
What’s eating Gates specifically is that despite all of the ambitious strategic plans and lofty “one for all, all for one” rhetoric issued at NATO ministerial meetings, during a time of war and existential challenge European nations continue to slash already inadequate defense budgets. As the U.S. defense budget doubled over the past decade, for instance, European defense spending declined from $311 billion in 2001 to $269 billion in 2009.
Gates has been especially concerned about actions taken by what were once Europe’s wealthiest and most reliable allies. As part of its deficit-cutting austerity measures, Great Britain recently announced that it was scrapping 40 percent of its tank and artillery forces, cutting its buy of the new F-35 fighter aircraft by more than two thirds, and shrinking an already diminished royal Navy to fewer than 20 surface combatants. Such dramatic cuts in the British military put its status as America’s junior partner of first resort in jeopardy. For its part, France has announced its own cuts that will require the once proud world power to share a single aircraft carrier with Britain. Germany will cut $19 billion from its own defense budget by 2013, leading to a reduction in its armed forces from 250,000 to 190,000 troops.
Gates has also been frustrated by Europe’s continued unwillingness to fill a chronic shortfall of trainers for Afghan Security Forces, essentially the alliance’s ticket out of Afghanistan. For three years U.S. military commanders have trolled the margins of NATO summits, cup in hand, asking for promised trainers that have yet to arrive in theater. Earlier in his tenure Gates publicly complained about national “caveats” that limit many European forces’ exposure to combat, and he clearly remains irritated by secret directives that create an unbalanced, two-tiered alliance in which the service members of a handful of countries do the lion’s share of the fighting and dying.
“In the past, I’ve worried about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance: between … those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership … but don’t want to share the risks and costs,” Gates said. “This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today. And it is unacceptable.”
The net result of those failings is an alliance in crisis, with leaders on both sides of the Atlantic lacking the political will to avert the train wreck they all see coming. Americans complain that the European allies, with more than 2 million troops in uniform, have struggled to sustain even a modest deployment of roughly 40,000 in Afghanistan. Europeans complain that the United States has abrogated its leadership role by failing to fully take part in a Libyan air operation that has already seen allied air forces run low on precision munitions. In that divergence in perceived interest and threat during a time of war lie the seeds of a potentially bitter split.
“Gates is correct that the Europeans have cut their defense budgets to an unacceptable level, and he criticized them heavily for their operations in Afghanistan, where most of our allies don’t see a real interest in being other than to stand alongside the United States,” said Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO now at the Rand Corporation think tank. “At the same time, the Europeans don’t see us sharing equal risks in Libya, which is the only operation in NATO history where the United States has chosen not to lead. So we need to mend this divergence in the assessment of threats and interests across the Atlantic, or there is a real danger that the alliance comes through this period severely weakened.”