Gates: NATO's retreat from combat assignments 'unacceptable'

Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the pronouncement in a speech Friday in Brussels, as part of a European tour before he retires at the end of this month.

Jason Reed/AP
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates speak during a Security and Defense Agenda event on June 10. In his final policy speech as Pentagon chief, Gates questioned the viability of NATO, saying its members' penny-pinching and lack of political will could hasten the end of US support.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s cry of alarm to NATO partners about Europe’s dwindling armies and military budgets is unlikely to alter a broad retreat from hard power that some of America’s oldest allies are undertaking.

Instead, the significance of his words is likely to be as a historical marker indicating a global shift in the balance of power, some analysts of transatlantic relations say. The surprisingly unvarnished warnings came Friday in a speech in Brussels, delivered during what is Secretary Gates’s valedictory European tour.

“This was a cri de coeur from a pro-European, from someone who believes in the alliance. But that doesn’t mean it will have any better shot at changing the trend lines,” says John Hulsman, an international relations analyst and consultant in Germany. “What I think this will be seen as one day is a significant historical milestone along the way to the atrophy of the alliance and the emergence of a multipolar world.”

The trends that the Defense secretary hammered at in his speech at the Security & Defense Agenda think tank are not new and are well known. Gates, who retires at the end of this month after more than four years at the Pentagon’s helm, spoke of NATO turning into a “two-tiered alliance” where the very few – led far and away by the United States – take on the “hard power” combat assignments. Meanwhile, a majority limits itself to “soft power” work such as delivering humanitarian and development aid and, at most, to participating in peacekeeping missions.

“This is no longer a hypothetical worry,” Gates said. “We are here today. And it is unacceptable.”

Already, the US accounts for 75 percent of NATO members’ defense spending, up from just below 50 percent a decade ago. While America is planning to trim back projected defense-spending increases in the current deficit-cutting environment, the US share of the NATO military budget pie is still expected to grow.

Britain plans to cut its defense budget by 8 percent by 2015, and Germany this year decided to eliminate its compulsory military service and to trim back its ground forces.

True, there were some grumblings among Europe’s military leaders that Gates gave short shrift to Europe’s contributions in Afghanistan – and notably to the lead role that the French and British have taken on in NATO’s military mission in Libya. But the broad reaction to Gates’s alarm bells appeared to be a ho-hum, we’ve-heard-this-siren-before response.

“The Europeans I spoke with [about the speech] shrugged and said, ‘He’s right, but economic numbers are economic numbers,’ ” Dr. Hulsman says.

Most American analysts of the transatlantic alliance essentially agree that numbers don’t lie. In a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, Europe and defense experts concluded that Europe’s recession and debt crises will only weaken further European countries’ waning ability and desire to sustain contributions to international security arrangements and missions.

“After more than a decade of defense-spending cuts, there were already serious questions about Europe’s force structure and its defense capabilities, and that was before the recent financial crises,” says Guy Ben-Ari, deputy director of CSIS’s Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group.

“And then there is the political level, and questions not just about whether countries are able to carry out their military capabilities, but whether they are willing to,” he adds. “Unfortunately, the current environment in Europe is, neither willing nor able.”

Like other experts on both sides of the Atlantic, Mr. Ben-Ari says he does not anticipate this environment changing. “The political will is not going to come back, and [defense] spending levels are not going to increase,” he says.

In his speech, Gates did hold out hope that Europe can find a way to punch above its weight through a better coordination of resources and a continued effort at increased efficiency. For example, he said, NATO’s non-US members do not get the bang they should for their $300 billion in annual defense spending because “the sum of the parts” is considerably less than it could be.

One bright spot that Ben-Ari sees is that Europe’s troop and military personnel numbers have been falling faster than overall defense spending. That should mean those fewer soldiers should be better trained, better equipped, and potentially better prepared for deployment in the kinds of foreign operations that the alliance is likely to take on, he says.

Predicting the slow death of the transatlantic alliance is not a recent sport, but Ben-Ari says he hopes Gates’s comments will be seen in the long run not as a death rattle but as a call to change. “I would hope the comments are intended not just to criticize, but to incentivize,” he says.

Some quick response out of Congress suggested agreement with Gates’s rebuke – and little patience with Europe. Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee issued a statement commending Gates for “stating the view shared by many Americans: our NATO allies are not carrying their weight, forcing American service members and taxpayers to bear nearly all of the burden in NATO-led missions.” This “current arrangement cannot continue,” Senator Corker added.

Ben-Ari says he hopes to see “patience with our European allies” as they reform their defense and security structures. But Gates’s blunt words may suggest the patience has run out.

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