There is nothing surprising about Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ blast at the European members of NATO over their lack of support for the “common defense” embodied in the NATO alliance. This problem has been building for decades, as long ago as when I served at the US Mission to NATO in the late 70s and early 80s when the Cold War was still the “Cold War.” But it is getting worse given the earlier 50- 50% split on cost sharing which is now 75-25%.
The European reaction however is what really matters now. In some ways, this is both the worst of times and the best of times for this issue to once again come to a head. It is the worst of times because of the global financial crisis and the disturbing intra-European conflicts regarding the specific problems of the most economically troubled nations, such as Greece, Portugal, and Ireland and likely some others, the high unemployment levels in almost all nations, and the cost of saving the euro zone and maintaining economic unity.
Further, many states in Europe are blindly following a policy of depression/retrenchment, which is likely to worsen their economies and decrease income for government programs. Any careful look at Europe and its policies can only make a grown man cry. They are not only eating their children, prolonging high unemployment, cutting education and vital R&D expenditures, but also possibly moving towards dismantling the only firm military alliance that has American power committed to their defense in a world that still looks dangerous and unpredictable.
It is the best of times because the Libyan conflict has exposed the hollowness of NATO European military capability despite all the rhetoric to the contrary. The UK defense review (which I urge you to read about in an earlier blog) was largely a sham “fixed” on justifying cuts without a realistic look at real threats and priorities.
Let’s be clear: Gates was right about the Europeans failing to sustain support for the alliance over time and even developing an expanded constructive engagement in the world fitting for a region the economic equivalent of the U.S. But America has some of the same problem. A denial of sufficient resources for global outreach is coming mostly from Gates’ own Republican Party, its ascendant “Tea Party” wing, and neo-isolationist elements. Take a look at the pygmies vying for the GOP presidential nomination and their view of America and the world. It ought to give Europe pause to look at its own defense and scramble to affirm the wisdom of collective security and an alliance that was and is still (Gates’ rhetoric aside) among the best of 20th century creations, despite needing updates and reform but not abandonment.
But Europe’s failure to do its fair share is also angering Democrats who have supported the alliance and what some call a “liberal interventionist” stance to promote democracy and especially to protect human rights and stop the slaughter of innocent civilians en mass around the world. This, in the UN context, is called the “duty to protect.” It is best dealt with through multilateral mechanisms and with costs shared by all.
I disagree with the critical judgment of Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times (June 11, 2011) that “the Gates speech effectively marks the end of the American ambition to turn NATO into the global, military arm of a unified western world.” Indeed the trend, despite the imperfections of the Libya effort, is just such a “transformation” of NATO’s “out-of-area” role, and it is likely to continue in a world of increased conflict and chaos. Perhaps one day the world will give to the United Nations a greater capacity to act militarily on behalf of the larger global community, but that day unfortunately is not now.
The bottom line in the long view is that both America and Europe have the means and the obligation to patch up the fractures that have appeared in the alliance and to get their economies growing in unison rather than continue to embark on a destructive deflationary trajectory. They need to restructure and strengthen the NATO alliance and other institutions of global and regional importance in order to address the most critical challenges of the 21st century.
Unfortunately few major leaders, except perhaps President Obama (and he has to contend with a dim-witted and myopic Republican House), have either the vision or the courage to address the fundamental, underlying difficulties to work towards a growing, fairer, and more secure global community. Gordon Brown, the former UK Prime Minister, had the vision but had a failing government. His replacement seems bent like our Republicans on an economically destructive path for his country. The Germans are bent on the same shortsighted and even more selfish direction. The French, under Nicolas Sarkozy, have neither the strength nor the will to lead alone in a different direction under his conservative if sometimes innovative leadership. They even appear unable to summon the will to save the euro zone or heal the growing EU fractures let alone keep an effective defense establishment. Where then will leadership and “followership” come and who will be at the gates when crises come calling?
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By Harry C. Blaney III.