Beginning of the End for NATO?


By JUDY DEMPSEY

BERLIN – The U.S. defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, knows how to speak his mind. In a speech on Friday in Brussels, his last in Europe before he leaves office, Mr. Gates lambasted NATO.

Mr. Gates warned the Europeans that unless they improved their military capabilities, spent more on defense and pooled resources, NATO faced “the very real possibility of collective military irrelevance.”

The Europeans are used to being berated by Washington. The United States did that even during the Cold War, when the Continent was divided between NATO troops defending Western Europe and Warsaw Pact troops standing at the ready in Eastern Europe.

Then, the Europeans generally obliged. They knew that the threat was real and that they needed U.S. troops to protect them. As late as 1999, after more cajoling, the Europeans helped bomb Serbia in a bid to end almost a decade of civil war and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia that was taking place in Europe’s own backyard.

But now, most European countries, apart from Britain and France, do not see the need for military power. They seem not to believe that military force can resolve conflicts. And despite the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the Europeans do not share the same threat perceptions as the Americans. That, say analysts, is what is undermining the trans-Atlantic relationship.

“The U.S. is a global power, while Europe thinks regionally and believes it is surrounded by friends,” said Markus Kaim, defense expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “The U.S. sees how this demilitarization is undermining NATO.”

Only 5 of the 28 NATO members – the United States, Britain, France, Greece and Albania – spend the agreed 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, “the U.S. share of NATO defense spending has now risen to more than 75 percent, at a time when politically painful budget and benefit cuts are being considered at home,” Mr. Gates said.

“If that trend continues, in which the Europeans are not willing to share more of the burden, then the trans-Atlantic relationship is in serious trouble. It might not be even possible to talk of NATO in the coming years,” said Andrew A. Michta, director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

The United States could not muster NATO support when it invaded Iraq in 2003. Instead, it had to rely on “coalitions of the willing,” which undermined the cohesion of the alliance. The cracks were papered over as the Europeans, reluctantly, continued to help the United States in Afghanistan.

Indeed, Mr. Gates said he was surprised how NATO had stayed the course in Afghanistan in a war that is highly unpopular among all European capitals. “Four years ago, I never would have expected the alliance to sustain this operation at this level for so long, much less add significantly more forces in 2010,” he said at the Brussels gathering.

The contrast with the current air campaign in Libya could not be more striking.

“While every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission,” Mr. Gates said, referring to NATO’s North Atlantic Council and not the United Nations, where Germany abstained. He blamed the lack of military capabilities.

The political will is not there, either. Indeed, Libya is the clearest example of this and shows why the United States can no longer rely on the Europeans to do some of its bidding but also why the Europeans are unwilling to use military force as a tool for regime change.

“Libya is for NATO its first post-Afghanistan mission,” said Mr. Kaim. “The Europeans have learned the lessons of Afghanistan. They are more and more reluctant to get involved in state and nation building on the back of using force.”

Mr. Gates understands this divergence and the growing apart of the trans-Atlantic relationship. He is not even sure whether the United States will continue to believe in NATO and invest in it. Indeed, Mr. Gates represents a generation that grew up with the Cold War. On both sides of the Atlantic, that generation, which wielded considerable influence, is ceding power to younger elites who place far less worth on the trans-Atlantic alliance.

“NATO and the trans-Atlantic relationship has always been a consuming interest of Gates’s professional life,” said Stephen J. Flanagan, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“But the new generation of political leaders in the United States does not share his experience of the common Cold War struggle with our European allies,” he said. “They are inclined to look at U.S. resources devoted to trans-Atlantic defense in a much more calculated way, questioning whether the investments are worth the cost.”

NATO as such will probably survive. The alliance will continue to be of use to the United States when it looks to build coalitions of the willing. It might also come in handy to confer some added legitimacy to future military missions. But its role as the central trans-Atlantic organization with a truly united purpose and solidarity among all of the allies is in doubt.

There may be a bright side to this.

The United States has long encouraged the European Union to develop a security policy so that the Europeans can take care of their own backyards like Bosnia, Moldova, the southern Mediterranean, Belarus, Ukraine and the Caucasus. So far, the Union has shown few signs of strategic thinking, not to speak of defense coordination.

That is why last November, Britain and France agreed to a far-reaching deal over military cooperation. “The agreement called into question the sustainability and relevance of the E.U.’s security and defense policy,” said Clara Marina O’Donnell, defense expert at the Center for European Reform in London.

Other European countries mostly ignored the deal. It might take the gradual withdrawal of the United States to convince the Europeans that they need a long-term security strategy that deserves its name.

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