Being a leader often means telling your friends uncomfortable truths. Amid the tentative optimism NATO is now feeling in Libya, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has again reminded the alliance’s European members that the mission has only been made possible by strong U.S. support.
Equitable burden sharing within NATO has been a perennial concern for Secretary-General’s over the years. However, there now appears to be a tipping point. Americans—worried about their nation’s debt, deficits and unemployment—are growing weary of shouldering a disproportionate share of NATO’s budget. Rasmussen states that NATO’s European members represent just 20 percent of the alliance’s total defense spending—down from a third just 20 years ago. And defense budgets across Europe are set to shrink by a further 2.9 percent over the next five years.
Furthermore, as the war in Afghanistan approaches its 11th year, it remains the case that America continues to lean disproportionately on its Anglosphere partners for support. While Britain, Australia and Canada have stood side-by-side with America in this war—a mission that was authorized by both the UN and NATO—other European allies have remained on the sidelines and let others carry the burden.
For Rasmussen, this is not just an issue of money—it’s a question of the very future of the transatlantic alliance. The 60-year old Euro-Atlantic alliance has overcome some of the world’s greatest challenges including the Cold War, the transition of Central and Eastern Europe from communism to democracy, and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. It now looks set to come out of Libya with a real chance of modern democracy taking hold in the Maghreb country. For all its problems, the world would not be safer without a robust NATO.
But there is now a President in the White House who doesn’t feel the same affinity for the transatlantic alliance that his predecessors did. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates could’ve been referring to the President when he said that today’s politicians are the first generation not to have spent their formative years fighting the Cold War. President Obama does not feel the umbilical affinity to Europe that Presidents Bush, Clinton and Reagan did. And the American people have every right to be concerned about providing Europeans with a free ride on its defense bus. It is time for Europe to step up.