NATO is more active today than it has been at any time in its 62 year history. Some 40,000 non-U.S. troops, most from NATO member countries, are operating in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
In addition, NATO countries have been engaged in a three month air campaign to defeat the government forces in Libya and protect innocent civilians. This campaign involves tens of thousands of air sorties and several thousand strikes on a range of targets. While neither operation could take place without extensive U.S. involvement and support, NATO nations have contributed a lot to combat operations in both arenas and in Afghanistan they have paid in blood.
Nevertheless, the era of the Atlantic Alliance may be coming to an end. In an earlier blog I discussed former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ valedictory speech to the NATO Alliance on June 10, 2011. In it he severely chastised members of the Alliance for insufficient spending on defense and for spending what they had unwisely. But as the Secretary noted, he was but the latest in a long line of U.S. officials to offer the same critique all to no avail. Even when the Soviet Union was at its zenith and dozens of tank divisions and thousands of nuclear weapons stood poised for action along the Iron Curtain, most NATO members provided inadequate resources for their own defense. Now that there is no threat to its survival is it any wonder that Europe does not see wisdom in greater defense spending?
Gates was also not the first Secretary of Defense to propose that NATO spend what resources are available more wisely and strategically. This means spending more on critical enablers and much less on personnel and weapons platforms. It also means consolidating Europe’s fragmented defense industrial base along the line of international giants such as EADS and MBDA. If European governments were to do this, U.S. leaders would need to think strategically about the need for continuing collaboration with such trans-Atlantic defense companies as BAE Systems and Finmeccanica. Gates’ suggestions make eminent sense.
Where I part company with the former Secretary is with the sign-off portion of his speech in which he warned our allies that if they did not do more to shore up their defense capabilities the American people may decide that NATO is no longer worth the effort and commitment. There is no value in continuing to beat up our allies in Europe for their unwillingness to spend more.
U.S. government officials and members of Congress would be well advised to change their approach and recognize that the role of NATO changed with the end of the Cold War. Rather than trying to restore the Alliance to its limited glory, it would be better to take NATO for what it is able to be and to plan accordingly.
This does not mean that NATO will have no relevance but that its role will be increasingly restricted to managing the relative quiet of the European continent and nearby commons, bringing nations on the margin of modern Europe into the fold and serving as a hedge against an aggressive Russia. Even this third role may only be of a short duration as a combination of abysmal demographics and weak economic performance creates something of a death spiral for the Russian government and state.
Let’s be honest; the real threats to U.S. security and interests in the 21st century lie elsewhere, in the Middle East and Asia. If Europe is peaceful this is a good thing. If some NATO members such as Great Britain, France and Turkey can form coalitions of the willing with the United States to take on some of the burden in these regions that would be great.
But let us stop trying to command the tide of history to recede.