The Cable

Gates to Europe/NATO: Pull it together, people

Defense Secretary Robert Gates‘s gloomy remarks about the future of NATO represent a parting shot in his long-running struggle to convince Europe to increase military spending and assume a greater role in conflicts such as Afghanistan and Libya. In his last visit to Europe before stepping down as defense secretary, Gates told an audience at ...

Jason Reed-Pool/Getty Images
Jason Reed-Pool/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Robert Gates‘s gloomy remarks about the future of NATO represent a parting shot in his long-running struggle to convince Europe to increase military spending and assume a greater role in conflicts such as Afghanistan and Libya.

In his last visit to Europe before stepping down as defense secretary, Gates told an audience at the Security and Defense Agenda, a Brussels-based think tank, that there was a "dwindling appetite and patience" among American taxpayers to expend resources, especially during a time of extreme fiscal constraints, "on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources … to be serious and capable partners in their own defense."

This prospect led the outgoing defense secretary, who spoke following a meeting of NATO defense ministers, to warn of "a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance."

Gates has long griped about insufficient European contributions to NATO, though rarely in such a sharp words. In a February 2010 speech, he said the "demilitarization of Europe…has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st."

But not all European defense analysts see the prospect of a "demilitarized" continent as a negative development. "Time and again, we’re drawn into military conflicts, often at the pressing of the U.S. and the Pentagon," said Ian Davis, founding director of NATO Watch, citing the Afghan war in particular. "It seems to be quite understandable that there’s going to be reluctance from some European states to support policy decisions that are not made on a collective basis."

Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Gates’s frustrations stem from three issues: Europe’s low defense spending, a lack of coordination of resources that encourage wasteful expenditures, and the inadequate contribution of some NATO members to the war in Libya.

Increases in European defense spending are likely off the table for the foreseeable future. With the continent still in the throes of a financial crisis, most countries are looking to make further cuts in their military budgets, not add to them. The British government, long considered the most robust U.S. ally in Europe, announced an 8 percent cut in defense spending over four years in October, and British officials have signaled that they are also considering further reductions. Germany also plans to slash the size of its army from 220,000 soldiers to 170,000.

Gates also criticized European countries, which spend a combined $300 billion on defense per year, for not better coordinating their acquisitions.  "[T]he results are significantly less than the sum of the parts" when it comes to European defense spending, he said.

The idea of coordinating defense spending across Europe has made some headway in recent years. Britain and France signed a defense cooperation agreement in November that will establish a joint force between the two countries and see them share an aircraft carrier. And in May, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary announced that they would form a "battle group" led by Poland.

However, this coordination has not been sufficient to allow European countries to play a significantly larger military role. "There is concern that…if Europe doesn’t succeed in being able to broaden its geopolitical footprint, that its geopolitical relevance to the United States wanes," Kupchan said.

Gates bemoaned the scant participation of NATO members in the Libya mission, saying, "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."

While Gates only addressed the issue of Europe’s declining military strength, Kupchan said that he just as well could have been sounding the alarm about the economic and political problems facing the continent. "The European project as a whole is in trouble. It’s not just the crisis of the eurozone, it’s a renationalization of political life, it’s a German government that is missing in action because of Merkel’s weakness," he said. "I think to some extent the message from Washington is: ‘Pull it together, friends.’"

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