Departing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates To Europeans in NATO: Shape Up, Commit Real Forces to Missions, Such as Libya, Or US Will Abandon This Alliance

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By Paolo von Schirach

June 10, 2011

WASHINGTON– NATO is evolving into a two tier arrangement in which some members show commitment, while most of the others talk a lot and engage in semi-irrelevant activities. The conduct of the Libya operation shows this. If this continues, forget about America’s future support to NATO. This is the gist of departing Pentagon Chief Robert Gates’ farewell speech, delivered in Brussels to America’s strongest “European Allies”. Blunt and brutal it is; but he is retiring and thus somewhat uninterested in diplomatic tact.

Doubts about Europe always there

If we step back, even when NATO used to be a serious affair as the defense mechanism aimed at deterring Soviet expansionism, many questioned the depth of Europe’s committment to it. Many Americans policy makers believed that NATO was mostly a US unilateral US defense guarantee to Europe via the American “nuclear umbrella”. The Europeans did not have to worry too much about their own defense, the critics argued, because Uncle Sam was essentially doing it for them. Indeed, even in the darkest days of the Cold War, the Europeans spent some on defense but not too much.

After the end of the Cold War no more serious defense spending

But if getting Europe to do more when there was a real danger was difficult, after the Warsaw Pact disappeared, the Soviet Union imploded and Germany was reunified, forget about it. In the 1990s, Europe really relaxed. Defense budgets were slashed, as the general perception was that without the Soviet Union to scare Europe there was nothing else to worry about. And in a sense the Europeans were right. The NATO Alliance had been created most fundamentally to protect Europe from Moscow. With the end of the Soviet Union, arguably Europe’s most pressing security concerns were over.

Other “out of area” crises

Except that other problems kept popping up. Certainly they had nothing to do with a threat from the East. But they were and are real concerns. There was Bosnia, and then Kosovo. As of 2001 there is Afghanistan, and now Libya. As Secretary Gates pointed out, all these contingencies have shown that the European members of NATO have minimal capabilities and even less will to act. Even when they have declared that action has to take place, the European members of NATO, in general rich to middle income countries quite capable of acquiring whatever may be needed, are militarily unprepared and disorganized. And, of course, some do not show up at all.

Gates: shape up or this will be the end

In his final speech to the Europeans, Gates bluntly told them that, if their behavior continues as is, this will be the end of NATO. He argued that it is impossible to assume open ended US political support for Allies who are essentially incapable or unwilling to do even the bare minimum for the common defense.

NATO somewhat unserious even in tough times, now a talking shop

Having watched the steady deterioration of NATO for the past 20 years, I fully agree. Even in the more glorious past, the inside jokes were that “NATO” means really “Not At The Office”, or “No Action Talk Only”. The “European Pillar” of NATO was nicknamed the “European Pillow”, soft and cuddly just as they are, and so on. Now the best that I can think is that NATO will either die or be transformed into something like the British Commonwealth, a nice “alumni group” that meets and hold Games and does not do much else.

Gates’ scathing assessment

Robert Gates used his last appearance before retiring as an opportunity to re-ignite Europe’s commitment. But he knows that this is just for the record, so that he will be able to say, a few years from now “I tried. I told them. But they would not listen”. And this is some of what he actually said:

“If current trends in the decline of European defence capabilities are not halted and reversed, future US 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.”

And then there were scathing comments about the inability to conduct sustained military operations against Libya, a rather modest opponent.

“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 US, once more, to make up the difference.”

Besides, while the Alliance had unanimously decided to get engaged in Libya –all 28 of NATO members– not many showed up. Indeed in Libya, of all the Allies, Gates noted,

“Less than half have participated, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission … Many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.”

(This sad show reminds me of an old anti-regime joke during Mussolini’s militaristic dictatorship: “Armiamoci e …. Partite”, “Let’s All Take Up Arms, And….You Go”).

Many Allies can and should do more

In a previous occasion, Gates had noted that, with the US providing much of the overall logistical support, only France, the UK, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Italy and Canada have committed assets to the air campaign against Gaddafi. Counting the US, that is a total of 8 countries –out of 28 NATO members.

Gates had singled out Germany, Poland, The Netherlands, Spain and Turkey as Allies who would have capabilities but are unwilling to participate. And, in this case, the enemy is only Gaddafi, a bizarre gangster with third rate armed forces, rather than major armed forces.

In the end, I believe that Gates is correct. Hard to believe that the US will continue to maintain a commitment to a NATO Alliance in which most of the Allies do almost nothing. Sad but true.


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