US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has launched a blistering attack on European defense complacency, saying NATO has become a “two-tiered” alliance of those willing to wage war and those only interested in “talking” and peacekeeping.
In his bluntest warning in nearly five years as the Pentagon head under two US presidents, Gates announced that Washington’s fading commitment to European security could spell the death of the 60-year-old alliance.
In a valedictory speech in Brussels three weeks before retiring, Gates bristled with exasperation and contempt for European defense spending cuts, inefficiencies and botched planning, and read the riot act to an elite European audience.
NATO faced a “dim, if not dismal” future, consigned to “collective military irrelevance,” Gates said, warning for the first time that the organization was living on borrowed time and that a new young generation of US leaders could abandon the key pillar of transatlantic security, established in 1949.
“If current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future US 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,” he said.
He attacked Europe’s conduct of the bombing campaign against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, told the Europeans to forget any notions of pulling their troops out of Afghanistan in a piecemeal manner and said the big new factor raising questions about NATO’s survival was the “political and economic environment in the United States.”
“The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country,” Gates said of the Anglo-French led campaign in Libya. “Yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference.”
The US share of NATO military spending had soared to 75 percent, much more than during the Cold War heyday when Washington maintained hundreds of thousands of US troops across Europe, he said.
He warned that the US taxpayer would not stand for it much longer. The US Congress and “the American body politic writ large” would rebel against spending “increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.”
NATO had degenerated into an alliance “between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership but don’t want to share the risks and the costs,” Gates said.
Saying that he was 20 years older than US President Barack Obama, Gates said Washington’s security guarantees to Europe, embodied in the NATO alliance, were fading.
His peers’ “emotional and historical attachment” to NATO was “ageing out,” he said, adding: “You have a lot of new members of Congress who are roughly old enough to be my children or grandchildren.”
Generational change, economic hardship and European refusal to take responsibility for their own security were all feeding NATO’s decline and possible end, Gates said.
“The drift of the past 20 years can’t continue,” Gates said. “In the past, I’ve worried openly about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance, between members who specialize in ‘soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping and talking tasks, and those conducting the ‘hard’ combat missions ... This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today. And it is unacceptable.”