Gates’ Transatlantic Tough Love for NATO

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates scored a bull’s eye in his recent policy assessment of Europe’s defense preparedness and moreover the Atlantic Alliance’s political willingness to carry the security burdens for the West.

Speaking bluntly in Brussels, Gates outlined what is a well-known but seldom openly stated truism; many members of the multinational military alliance neither have the defense capacity, nor the political will, to carry out the alliance’s assigned missions.

Though a well-known but seldom stated military mantra, it comes down to the United States and a handful of the other 28 NATO member states carrying the disproportionate amount of military spending and doing the “heavy lifting” for the alliance.

The remarks echo and recall memories of covering NATO in Brussels 30 years ago when the same complaints often surfaced about the unwillingness of many members to carry their fair share of the defense burden. The spirit of Joseph Luns, a former NATO secretary general, must have been smiling.

“True friends occasionally must speak bluntly with one another for the sake of those greater interests and values that bind us together,” Gates told an oft-skeptical audience.

NATO was founded as a defensive alliance during the early days of the Cold War to protect Western Europe from growing Soviet military threats.

Following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, NATO expanded to include many former Soviet allies such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland as well as the Baltic states. The alliance has expanded to 28 members.

NATO’s traditional mission focused on defending West Germany from a Soviet armored attack, and the north Atlantic, Baltic and North Sea from Russian subs. Times have happily changed but NATO’s mission has become murky.

In recent years, the alliance militarily morphed to mission operations in places ranging from Kosovo in the Balkans, to Afghanistan in Central Asia, to Libya in North Africa.

Afghanistan poses the biggest drain on NATO resources. Secretary Gates stated that when he became secretary of defense in 2006 there were 20,000 non-American troops from various NATO nations; today the figure is 40,000.

Still he stressed, “The mission has exposed significant shortcomings in NATO, in military capabilities, and in political will. 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 40,000 troops, not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets such as helicopters, transport aircraft, and intelligence.”

Addressing the Libyan mission authorized by the U.N. Security Council, he stated, “the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country, yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.”

Significantly Secretary Gates warned, “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, 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.”

Tough words, tough love, and tough choices implicitly directed at major members such as Germany, Italy, Spain and some smaller states. He conceded, “Part of this predicament stems from a lack of will, much of it from a lack of resources in an era of austerity.”

Total European defense spending declined, by one estimate, by nearly 15 percent in the decade following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Conversely, the U.S. share of NATO defense spending has risen to 75 percent.

“Today, just five of 28 allies, the U.S., the U.K., France, Greece, along with Albania, exceed the agreed 2 percent of GDP spending on defense,” he chided.

Gates lamented, “Regrettably, but realistically, this situation is highly unlikely to change.” He warned of Washington’s weariness; “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.”

Prophesying the “real possibility for a dim, if not dismal, future for the transatlantic alliance,” this very important speech by the outgoing defense secretary outlines a path which is possible, but not necessarily probable. Will prosperous but self-absorbed Euroland care?

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He’s the author of “Transatlantic Divide; USA/Euroland Rift” (University Press, 2010). He can be reached at