A ‘dim and dismal future’ for NATO?


Executive summary:

– US defence secretary Robert Gates used a speech to NATO ministers in Brussels to issue a blunt warning about the unsustainable gap in defence spending between the US and Europe, with US defence spending now accounting more than 75% of the NATO total, compared to 50% at the end of the Cold War.

– His warning was echoed by British defence secretary Liam Fox, who warned of a ‘lack of political will’ among many NATO allies, and NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who warned of a growing ‘technology gap’ which would damage inter-operability between the allies even if the political will to cooperate was there.

– Europe’s downgrading of its defence capabilities is having an effect in Libya, where the US has already been called upon to give extra support. Unity in Libya is also beginning to fray, with Italy calling for a suspension of hostilities.

– European governments, including the British government need to take these warnings seriously. The credibility of NATO is at stake in Libya, and further cuts in European defence capabilities risk making Gates’ warning of a ‘dim and dismal’ future for NATO come true.


Robert Gates’ warning

In a remarkable farewell address in Brussels on 19th June, outgoing US defence secretary Robert Gates issued an incredibly blunt warning to his counterparts from NATO’s European member states. The transatlantic gulf in defence spending, so often remarked upon, was not only growing but also unsustainable: “For most of the Cold War U.S. governments could justify defence investments and costly forward bases that made up roughly 50 percent of all NATO military spending. But some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. share of NATO defence spending has now risen to more than 75 percent – at a time when politically painful budget and benefit cuts are being considered at home.” [i] The US therefore now spends more than three times as much on defence as the rest of NATO added together. Gates pointed out that of 28 members of NATO, only five – the USA, Albania, France, Greece and the UK – spend the agreed target of 2% of GDP on defence. European defence spending as a whole has declined by 15% in the decade since 9/11.

Gates pointed out that in the Cold War, US politicians were willing to accept this: “The benefits of a Europe whole, prosperous and free after being twice devastated by wars requiring American intervention was self evident.” But now, “The blunt reality 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 defence. Nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defence budgets. Indeed, if current trends in the decline of European defence 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.”

This is a serious warning. As Gates pointed out, the lack of defence spending would not only have an impact on transatlantic relations, but was already having an effect on NATO’s ability to successfully fulfil its missions: “Though we can take pride in what has been accomplished and sustained in Afghanistan, the ISAF mission has exposed significant shortcomings in NATO – in military capabilities, and in political will. Despite more than 2 million troops in uniform – NOT counting the U.S. military – NATO has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25- to 40,000 troops, not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets such as helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and much more.”

Yet Gates’ most devastating critique came over Libya, a NATO operation led by European allies, primarily France and the UK: “while every alliance member voted for Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission. Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t.” As a result; “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.”

This was damning public criticism. It was echoed by NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who warned against NATO becoming a ‘two-tier alliance’. He argued that “this increasing economic gap may also lead to an increasing technology gap which will almost hamper the inter-operability between our forces. The Americans provide … still more advanced military assets and equipment; the Europeans are lagging behind. And eventually it will be difficult to co-operate even if you had the political will to co-operate because of the technological gap. All this may in the long run weaken our alliance.” [ii]




The question of political will


As Robert Gates had pointed out, whether NATO allies even have this ‘political will’ to cooperate is sometimes questionable. Three months into the NATO operation in Libya, the unity of the alliance is beginning to fray. Turkey, NATO’s only majority-Muslim member state, was publicly sceptical from the beginning. But, alarmingly, Italy has broken ranks and called for a suspension of hostilities. Italy was one of the first countries to call for a no-fly zone against the Gaddafi regime, is the former colonial power in Libya and contributes planes to the NATO mission. Italy also, crucially, provides the command centre and most of the bases for NATO aerial operations, due to its proximity to Libya.

This move was ostensibly in response to civilian casualties resulting from the NATO operation. Speaking in the Italian parliament, foreign minister Franco Frattini called for “an immediate humanitarian suspension of hostilities” to allow an aid corridor to be set up. He went on: “With regard to Nato, it is fair to ask for increasingly detailed information on results as well as precise guidelines on the dramatic errors involving civilians.” [iii]

This is a worrying move from Italy, and a suggestion which the other NATO allies ought to reject. As French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero rightly commented, such a move “would allow Muammar Gaddafi to gain time and reorganise. In the end, it would be the civilian population that would suffer from the smallest sign of weakness on our behalf.” It would be immensely damaging for NATO to start wavering just when diplomatic progress was being made elsewhere, with the Chinese government stating that the Libyan opposition Transitional National Council was “an important dialogue partner” and with even Russia publicly agreeing that Gaddafi has to go. [iv]


Liam Fox’s warning

Italy’s call for a pause to the operation seems to be the opposite response to Liam Fox’s call for “increased urgency” from NATO allies in Libya. [v] Fox had also warned, like Gates: “Having assets is of little help without the political will to use them.” He also gave his backing to Gates’ warning on the dangers of the transatlantic gap in defence spending, telling European ministers: “Unless Europe carries more of the share of its own defence, we should not assume that his successors will do the same.” Fox highlighted the fact that the land forces of twelve members fall short of NATO targets for deployability, along with the air forces of eleven members. “We simply have to improve on this,” he remarked. [vi]


Yet Gates’ warning is not simply something which is aimed at ‘other’ European countries. It includes the UK. In fact, he made a point of mentioning that “even military stalwarts like the U.K have been forced to ratchet back with major cuts to force structure.” With the UK and France being the leading military powers in Europe, and with both making defence cuts, his warning must have been aimed at these two countries as much as the rest of NATO. These are the two countries which can offer the most in military capability, and which both have the most to lose when they cut their defence budgets. Aside from the US itself, their defence cuts will have the greatest impact.



A ‘dim and dismal future’?


Gates concluded his speech by warning of “a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance”. European governments need to take this warning seriously, for NATO is the bedrock of their security. When the US defence secretary, the British defence secretary and the secretary general of NATO are all warning of an increasingly divided and strained NATO alliance, European governments need to listen. Since the end of the Cold War, many European countries have been happy to take a free ride on the back of US defence spending, but this cannot last forever.

As Gates warned, it is natural that, as the memory of the Cold War fades, US politicians will question the logic of paying for an ever greater share of NATO’s defence while European countries contribute less and less. This pressure is heightened by the fiscal challenges the US faces at home. The US administration, like most European governments, is making spending cuts, including cuts to its defence budget. The US defence budget is therefore likely to become more and more focused on defending the US homeland and less on supporting its NATO allies. European countries need to take more responsibility for their own defence. If not, one day they might have a rude awakening.

Added to this, the Obama administration has already shown less enthusiasm for the US taking a firm global leadership role, as demonstrated by its hesitancy over Libya and its decision to leave the leadership of the Libyan operation to France and the UK. European countries can no longer assume that the US will always take the lead militarily, or that the US will always be there to sort out any problems. The administration has also given less priority to its allies in Europe while focusing on its relationship with emerging powers in Asia. Its gaze is already fixed as much if not more across the Pacific as across the Atlantic. European powers cannot assume that the US will always put them first or take their side. In such circumstances, European nations need to consider the consequences before eroding their defence capabilities still further. How can they expect to have influence and ongoing relevance on the global stage if they have little left to offer?

Libya has been a welcome example of European countries being willing to take the lead. Yet the difficulties that have arisen, and the calls for additional US support, have highlighted the problems caused by Europe’s declining defence capacity. For NATO to fail, or to give up, in its campaign against Gaddafi, would be an immensely damaging humiliation in the eyes of the world. NATO’s very credibility is at stake. So is its future unity.


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