It is an open question whether United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would have been as blunt in his criticism of NATO’s European members in a speech on June 10 if he was not stepping down. He warned that U.S. patience and its bankroll are running thin. Mr. Gates’ words need to be heard by other U.S. allies as well. The United States has entered a new fiscal era. Washington will be far more focused on efficiency and creating genuine partnerships with its allies. Failure will lead to “a dire if not dismal future” for those alliances and possible irrelevance.
Mr. Gates has been on a farewell tour in recent weeks, circumnavigating the globe as he prepares to leave office after serving as secretary of defense for four years. He announced last year that he would step down this summer and in recent weeks he has offered both advice and warnings to policy makers in the U.S. and elsewhere. The constant in his remarks has been acknowledgement of the new fiscal reality that exists in his country and the need for America to get its own house in order. That demands a new approach to defense decision making, one with the potential to have severe effects on U.S. allies.
Speaking in Brussels, he warned of a “dwindling appetite and patience” among U.S. taxpayers “to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.” His irritation is understandable: With a military budget of $700 billion, the U.S. accounts for roughly three-quarters of all military spending by all NATO countries -more than three times the combined military spending of all 26 European members, which slightly exceeds $220 billion. And in recent years, military spending among those European nations has decreased by $45 billion.
The result is an alliance increasingly under strain. Take the campaign in Libya to support rebels fighting the government of Col. Moammar Gadhafi, for example. While the U.S. has ceded the leading role to European governments, U.S. forces took out the air defenses, a critical first step in the establishment of a no-fly zone. Since then, U.S. intelligence and refueling aircraft have made the campaign possible. And yet, Mr. Gates warned, in Libya, “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.” NATO troops are similarly committed — and overextended — in Afghanistan.
Mr. Gates’ message is not new. In February of last year, he complained that 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.” In fact, it was the absolute certainty about his commitment to the trans-Atlantic partnership that muted the response to his speech. The audience knows that few individuals have worked harder or longer — and his is a particularly long and distinguished career; he has served eight U.S. presidents.
But the truth is that there is a new fiscal reality, not just in the U.S. but in all developed countries. The continuing crises in the euro-zone are the most immediate expression of a new economic environment that will demand hard choices for politicians and publics. Historically, the U.S. has been able to pick up the slack as Europeans downplayed defense priorities. That is no longer the case.
European governments are already economizing. Britain announced that it will cut defense spending by 8 percent over four years; Germany plans to shrink its army by about 50,000 troops, a little less than one-quarter of its size. Done intelligently, the impact of such cuts can be minimized. There are some signs that European governments are adapting to this new reality. Britain and France last November signed a defense cooperation agreement under which they will establish a joint force to share an aircraft carrier. Earlier this year, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia announced the formation of a battle group that would be led by Poland.
Still, the results are less than impressive. Mr. Gates rightly point out that NATO members could get a lot more bang for their buck if they better coordinated their defense spending.
There is a lesson for Japan as well. This country faces straitened economic circumstances in the aftermath of the March 11 triple disaster. At the same time, the Japan-U.S. alliance is undergoing modernization and transformation. This process reflects both demands by Japan for the U.S. to lighten its footprint in this country as well as the need to be better prepared to respond to an evolving security environment. Success will require the two countries to develop new capabilities, spending money efficiently on new technology and the means to ensure that both the new capabilities and new technology are used properly.
The U.S. will be looking to its partners to be partners — that is to shoulder equitable burdens and contribute to the realization of shared goals and objectives.
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