Robert Gates’ blunt warn­ing to Europe

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

In a tough-minded speech de­liv­ered re­cently in Brus­sels, Sec­re­tary of De­fense Robert Gates told NATO that money talks, and un­less Euro­pean mem­bers cover their fair share of al­liance de­fense costs, Amer­ica may walk.

Over the last five decades, nu­mer­ous Amer­i­can lead­ers have faulted our Euro­pean al­lies for fail­ing to meet agreedupon al­liance de­fense com­mit­ments. Gates’ cri­tique, how­ever, was ex­traor­di­nar­ily di­rect.

“The blunt re­al­ity,” Gates told the au­di­ence of NATO am­bas­sadors, “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.”

Gates is re­tir­ing, which po­si­tions him to play bad cop and ex­co­ri­ate Euro­pean slack­ers for years of de­fense ne­glect. The bad cop said Amer­i­cans can read fi­nan­cial re­ports. Amer­ica ac­counts for three-quar­ters of NATO’s com­bined de­fense spend­ing, hence the dwin­dling ap­petite for sup­port­ing NATO on a bud­get as usual ba­sis even among com­mit­ted At­lanti­cists. Gates’ likely suc­ces­sor as sec­re­tary of de­fense, Leon Panetta, can play good cop in fu­ture al­liance dis­cus­sions, seek­ing col­lec­tive com­pro­mise with a softer voice.

But com­pro­mise may be dif­fi­cult. An ugly fact, the enor­mous Amer­i­can and Euro­pean debt bur­dens, un­der­lies Gates’ blunt re­al­ity.

Debt saps Amer­ica, and ev­ery­one knows it. Lib­eral Democrats are loath to cut en­ti­tle­ment spend­ing, yet the re­al­ists among them ac­cept it as in­evitable. Trim­ming de­fense spend­ing makes en­ti­tle­ment cuts more po­lit­i­cally palat­able to their con­stituen­cies.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion wants the Pen­tagon to slice its bud­get by ap­prox­i­mately a half tril­lion dol­lars over the next dozen years. There is Repub­li­can sup­port for curb­ing de­fense out­lays, as well, the debt is a strate­gic threat. Many Amer­i­cans be­lieve Euro­peans have shirked their de­fense du­ties and milked U.S. tax­pay­ers.

The Euro­peans let dol­lars buy the bul­lets while their Eu­ros sup­port so­cial wel­fare pro­grams.

Dol­lars have bought the bul­lets, bombs, in­tel­li­gence plat­forms, tanker air­craft, spe­cial­ized plan­ning ca­pa­bil­i­ties and other com­bat sus­tain­ing as­sets that make NATO’s Libyan war pos­si­ble. In his speech, Gates men­tioned that the Libyan war had re­vealed se­ri­ous “short­com­ings, in both ca­pa­bil­ity and will, that have the po­ten­tial to jeop­ar­dize the al­liance’s abil­ity to con­duct an in­te­grated, ef­fec­tive and sus­tained air-sea cam­paign.”

Afghanistan has re­vealed the same Euro­pean short­com­ings. Once upon a time, all 28 NATO mem­bers com­mit­ted them- selves to spend­ing 2 per­cent of their gross do­mes­tic prod­uct on de­fense. Ac­cord­ing 2010 data, France, Great Bri­tain, Al­ba­nia, Greece and the U.S. met the com­mit­ment, but since then Greece has slashed de­fense spend­ing.

Euro­pean mem­bers point to their own cur­rent eco­nomic crises, with Greece the night­mare case, but Spain, Por­tu­gal and Italy are also bat­tling po­ten­tial bank­ruptcy and de­fault. This, too, is blunt re­al­ity.

Gates, in what amounted to a plea for fore­sight de­spite cur­rent fis­cal woes, put Europe’s fail­ure to meet al­liance com­mit­ments in his­tor­i­cal and gen­er­a­tional con­texts.

“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.”

Mas­sive debt and eco­nomic re­ces­sion, com­bined with a lack of fore­sight and lack of lead­er­ship, may achieve what the Soviet Union could not: the de­struc­tion of NATO.

The loss of NATO, how­ever, would leave a tremen­dous void. As a po­lit­i­cal net­work as well as mil­i­tary al­liance, NATO has served Europe, Canada and the U.S. very well.

De­spite the nu­mer­ous obit­u­ar­ies for the or­ga­ni­za­tion, many writ­ten af­ter the Ber­lin Wall cracked in 1989, NATO did not die. The pun­dit un­der­tak­ers un­der­es­ti­mated NATO’s po­lit­i­cal value and as a re­sult woe­fully mis­judged its post-Cold War re­silience.

To­day, Rus­sia re­mains un­sta­ble. Iran’s dic­ta­tors seek nu­clear weapons. 2011’s Arab Spring has jolted the world. NATO con­nec­tiv­ity is a bul­wark against un­cer­tainty.

Sec­re­tary Gates un­der­stands this. Hence his warn­ing, and lamen­ta­tion.

Austin Bay is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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