Gates: NATO's retreat from combat assignments 'unacceptable'
Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the pronouncement in a speech Friday in Brussels, as part of a European tour before he retires at the end of this month.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates‚Äôs cry of alarm to NATO partners about Europe‚Äôs dwindling armies and military budgets is unlikely to alter a broad retreat from hard power that some of America‚Äôs oldest allies are undertaking.
Instead, the significance of his words is likely to be as a historical marker indicating a global shift in the balance of power, some analysts of transatlantic relations say. The surprisingly unvarnished warnings came Friday in a speech in Brussels, delivered during what is Secretary Gates‚Äôs valedictory European tour.
‚ÄúThis was a cri de coeur from a pro-European, from someone who believes in the alliance. But that doesn‚Äôt mean it will have any better shot at changing the trend lines,‚ÄĚ says John Hulsman, an international relations analyst and consultant in Germany. ‚ÄúWhat I think this will be seen as one day is a significant historical milestone along the way to the atrophy of the alliance and the emergence of a multipolar world.‚ÄĚ
The trends that the Defense secretary hammered at in his speech at the Security & Defense Agenda think tank are not new and are well known. Gates, who retires at the end of this month after more than four years at the Pentagon‚Äôs helm, spoke of NATO turning into a ‚Äútwo-tiered alliance‚ÄĚ where the very few ‚Äď led far and away by the United States ‚Äď take on the ‚Äúhard power‚ÄĚ combat assignments. Meanwhile, a majority limits itself to ‚Äúsoft power‚ÄĚ work such as delivering humanitarian and development aid and, at most, to participating in peacekeeping missions.
‚ÄúThis is no longer a hypothetical worry,‚ÄĚ Gates said. ‚ÄúWe are here today. And it is unacceptable.‚ÄĚ
Already, the US accounts for 75 percent of NATO members‚Äô defense spending, up from just below 50 percent a decade ago. While America is planning to trim back projected defense-spending increases in the current deficit-cutting environment, the US share of the NATO military budget pie is still expected to grow.
Britain plans to cut its defense budget by 8 percent by 2015, and Germany this year decided to eliminate its compulsory military service and to trim back its ground forces.
True, there were some grumblings among Europe‚Äôs military leaders that Gates gave short shrift to Europe‚Äôs contributions in Afghanistan ‚Äď and notably to the lead role that the French and British have taken on in NATO‚Äôs military mission in Libya. But the broad reaction to Gates‚Äôs alarm bells appeared to be a ho-hum, we‚Äôve-heard-this-siren-before response.
‚ÄúThe Europeans I spoke with [about the speech] shrugged and said, ‚ÄėHe‚Äôs right, but economic numbers are economic numbers,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ Dr. Hulsman says.
Most American analysts of the transatlantic alliance essentially agree that numbers don‚Äôt lie. In a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, Europe and defense experts concluded that Europe‚Äôs recession and debt crises will only weaken further European countries‚Äô waning ability and desire to sustain contributions to international security arrangements and missions.
‚ÄúAfter more than a decade of defense-spending cuts, there were already serious questions about Europe‚Äôs force structure and its defense capabilities, and that was before the recent financial crises,‚ÄĚ says Guy Ben-Ari, deputy director of CSIS‚Äôs Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group.
‚ÄúAnd then there is the political level, and questions not just about whether countries are able to carry out their military capabilities, but whether they are willing to,‚ÄĚ he adds. ‚ÄúUnfortunately, the current environment in Europe is, neither willing nor able.‚ÄĚ
Like other experts on both sides of the Atlantic, Mr. Ben-Ari says he does not anticipate this environment changing. ‚ÄúThe political will is not going to come back, and [defense] spending levels are not going to increase,‚ÄĚ he says.
In his speech, Gates did hold out hope that Europe can find a way to punch above its weight through a better coordination of resources and a continued effort at increased efficiency. For example, he said, NATO‚Äôs non-US members do not get the bang they should for their $300 billion in annual defense spending because ‚Äúthe sum of the parts‚ÄĚ is considerably less than it could be.
One bright spot that Ben-Ari sees is that Europe‚Äôs troop and military personnel numbers have been falling faster than overall defense spending. That should mean those fewer soldiers should be better trained, better equipped, and potentially better prepared for deployment in the kinds of foreign operations that the alliance is likely to take on, he says.
Predicting the slow death of the transatlantic alliance is not a recent sport, but Ben-Ari says he hopes Gates‚Äôs comments will be seen in the long run not as a death rattle but as a call to change. ‚ÄúI would hope the comments are intended not just to criticize, but to incentivize,‚ÄĚ he says.
Some quick response out of Congress suggested agreement with Gates‚Äôs rebuke ‚Äď and little patience with Europe. Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee issued a statement commending Gates for ‚Äústating the view shared by many Americans: our NATO allies are not carrying their weight, forcing American service members and taxpayers to bear nearly all of the burden in NATO-led missions.‚ÄĚ This ‚Äúcurrent arrangement cannot continue,‚ÄĚ Senator Corker added.
Ben-Ari says he hopes to see ‚Äúpatience with our European allies‚ÄĚ as they reform their defense and security structures. But Gates‚Äôs blunt words may suggest the patience has run out.