In his farewell address in Brussels, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates delivered a blunt warning to America’s European allies: there is the real possibility of “a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance” unless NATO member states undertake a firm commitment to increase defence spending and make a bigger commitment to NATO operations. As Gates points out, only five members of the 28-member alliance currently spend the agreed minimum 2 percent of GDP on defence: the US, UK, France, Greece and Albania, and defence spending in Europe has declined by almost 15 percent in the last decade in the aftermath of 9/11.
Gates made it clear that US taxpayers cannot be expected to foot the bill for Europe’s security in perpetuity, and that eventually patience will run out on Capitol Hill:
With respect to Europe, for the better part of six decades there has been relatively little doubt or debate in the United States about the value and necessity of the transatlantic alliance. The benefits of a Europe whole, prosperous and free after being twice devastated by wars requiring American intervention was self evident. Thus, for most of the Cold War U.S. governments could justify defense investments and costly forward bases that made up roughly 50 percent of all NATO military spending.
But some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, 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.
The blunt reality 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.
Indeed, if current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, 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 is right to make this warning, especially in light of both the Afghanistan and Libya missions, where many NATO members have failed to pull their weight, or have operated under highly restrictive caveats. He echoes the words of British Defence Secretary Liam Fox, who has been sending the same message for many years.
Refreshingly, Gates, unlike some other members of his administration, does not make any plea for greater defence integration within the European Union, a development that would only undermine NATO. In contrast to his Under Secretary of Defence for Policy, Michelle Flournoy, Gates is no Eurofederalist. His appeal is for individual European nation states, as members of the NATO alliance, to pull up their bootstraps and contribute more, declaring that “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.”
As Gates states, NATO has already become in effect a two-tier alliance, with only a small number of members willing to do the heavy lifting. It is a completely unsustainable situation that threatens the very future of the alliance:
In the past, I’ve worried openly about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance: Between members who specialize in “soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks, and those conducting the “hard” combat missions. 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 – be they security guarantees or headquarters billets – but don’t want to share the risks and the costs. This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today. And it is unacceptable.
This is a speech that deserves to be read in London, Paris, Berlin and every European capital. It should also be read in the White House as the Obama administration contemplates its own cuts in US defence spending, which would seriously undermine America’s ability to project global power. Robert Gates has delivered one of the most important speeches by a US defence secretary on European soil in decades, one that should be heeded on both sides of the Atlantic.