NATO: The Potemkin alliance

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In one of his final speeches as secretary of Defense, Robert Gates took NATO allies to the woodshed. Addressing the leaders of the alliance at a meeting in Brussels late last week, Gates criticized European spending priorities, which have led to penny-pinching on military spending as governments shift financial resources to domestic programs. If that did not change, he warned, NATO’s future was “dim, if not dismal.”

Gates did not mince words. “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 unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

Those are understandable sentiments, since the defense budgets of the European allies, which tended to be anemic even during the Cold War, have been in virtual free fall in recent years. The commitment that all NATO members made to devote at least two percent of their gross domestic product to defense spending is now little more than a quaint, irrelevant historical memory. Virtually none of the European members, from “Old Europe” or New Europe, have met that target.

Indeed, even before the current economic crisis led to drastic budget slashing, spending levels in several countries (including such major allies as Germany and Italy) were closer to one percent of GDP than two. And matters have gotten much worse in the past two years. The $700 billion U.S. defense budget now accounts for an astonishing 74 percent of total spending by NATO members. The other 26 members of the alliance spend a mere $220 billion — despite having a collective economy larger than that of the United States.

Not only are budgets collapsing, but key weapons systems are being eliminated right and left. With the partial exceptions of Britain and France, the NATO militaries are both small and second rate. And given the projected spending trends in Paris and London, the British and French militaries will soon be joining their ranks.

This problem has been building since the end of the Cold War. As early as the First Persian Gulf conflict, U.S. military commanders were skeptical whether most troop contributions from NATO members added much military value. By the turn of the century, U.S. alarm at the eroding military capabilities of the alliance was evident, and U.S. officials were voicing warnings not unlike those Gates expressed in Brussels.

But Washington’s threats to de-emphasize its commitment to NATO are probably as hollow as the alliance’s military capabilities themselves. The Europeans have heard this all before. Burden-sharing controversies go back to the early 1950s, punctuated by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s warning that the United States might have to conduct “an agonizing reappraisal” of its security commitment to Europe if the allies did not put forth a more serious effort. The Europeans suspected that threat was a bluff (which it was), and they probably suspect that the warning from Gates is merely the latest in a long, dreary series of empty threats.

But let’s hope that this time they’re wrong. Washington needs to ask what the purpose is of having allies. This country should not be simply a security partner collector — acquiring allies for the sake of having allies. The NATO “partners” now seem to fit that description. They bring less and less to the table in terms of security assets, and some of them, because of their own disputes with neighboring states, bring along the serious liability of potentially entangling the United States in unnecessary conflicts.

NATO has become a Potemkin alliance — an impressive façade, but little substance. There is a big difference between having capable security allies and having a collection of weak security dependents. It is long past time for Washington to conduct that “agonizing reappraisal.”

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, including Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America (Cato).