Gates’ Farewell to NATO and Europe: Europe’s Opportunity? (The Long View Versus the Short View)

There is nothing surprising about Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ blast at the European members of NATO over their lack of support for the “common defense” embodied in the NATO alliance. This problem has been building for decades, as long ago as when I served at the US Mission to NATO in the late 70s and early 80s when the Cold War was still the “Cold War.” But it is getting worse given the earlier 50- 50% split on cost sharing which is now 75-25%.

The European reaction however is what really matters now. In some ways, this is both the worst of times and the best of times for this issue to once again come to a head. It is the worst of times because of the global financial crisis and the disturbing intra-European conflicts regarding the specific problems of the most economically troubled nations, such as Greece, Portugal, and Ireland and likely some others, the high unemployment levels in almost all nations, and the cost of saving the euro zone and maintaining economic unity.

Further, many states in Europe are blindly following a policy of depression/retrenchment, which is likely to worsen their economies and decrease income for government programs. Any careful look at Europe and its policies can only make a grown man cry.  They are not only eating their children, prolonging high unemployment, cutting education and vital R&D expenditures, but also possibly moving towards dismantling the only firm military alliance that has American power committed to their defense in a world that still looks dangerous and unpredictable.

It is the best of times because the Libyan conflict has exposed the hollowness of NATO European military capability despite all the rhetoric to the contrary. The UK defense review (which I urge you to read about in an earlier blog) was largely a sham “fixed” on justifying cuts without a realistic look at real threats and priorities.

Let’s be clear: Gates was right about the Europeans failing to sustain support for the alliance over time and even developing an expanded constructive engagement in the world fitting for a region the economic equivalent of the U.S.  But America has some of the same problem.  A denial of sufficient resources for global outreach is coming mostly from Gates’ own Republican Party, its ascendant “Tea Party” wing, and neo-isolationist elements. Take a look at the pygmies vying for the GOP presidential nomination and their view of America and the world. It ought to give Europe pause to look at its own defense and scramble to affirm the wisdom of collective security and an alliance that was and is still (Gates’ rhetoric aside) among the best of 20th century creations, despite needing updates and reform but not abandonment.

But Europe’s failure to do its fair share is also angering Democrats who have supported the alliance and what some call a “liberal interventionist” stance to promote democracy and especially to protect human rights and stop the slaughter of innocent civilians en mass around the world.  This, in the UN context, is called the “duty to protect.” It is best dealt with through multilateral mechanisms and with costs shared by all.

I disagree with the critical judgment of Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times (June 11, 2011) that “the Gates speech effectively marks the end of the American ambition to turn NATO into the global, military arm of a unified western world.” Indeed the trend, despite the imperfections of the Libya effort, is just such a “transformation” of NATO’s “out-of-area” role, and it is likely to continue in a world of increased conflict and chaos.  Perhaps one day the world will give to the United Nations a greater capacity to act militarily on behalf of the larger global community, but that day unfortunately is not now.

The bottom line in the long view is that both America and Europe have the means and the obligation to patch up the fractures that have appeared in the alliance and to get their economies growing in unison rather than continue to embark on a destructive deflationary trajectory. They need to restructure and strengthen the NATO alliance and other institutions of global and regional importance in order to address the most critical challenges of the 21st century.

Unfortunately few major leaders, except perhaps President Obama (and he has to contend with a dim-witted and myopic Republican House), have either the vision or the courage to address the fundamental, underlying difficulties to work towards a growing, fairer, and more secure global community.  Gordon Brown, the former UK Prime Minister, had the vision but had a failing government. His replacement seems bent like our Republicans on an economically destructive path for his country. The Germans are bent on the same shortsighted and even more selfish direction. The French, under Nicolas Sarkozy, have neither the strength nor the will to lead alone in a different direction under his conservative if sometimes innovative leadership. They even appear unable to summon the will to save the euro zone or heal the growing EU fractures let alone keep an effective defense establishment.  Where then will leadership and “followership” come and who will be at the gates when crises come calling?

We welcome your comments!

By Harry C. Blaney III.

4 thoughts on “Gates’ Farewell to NATO and Europe: Europe’s Opportunity? (The Long View Versus the Short View)

  1. Harry Blaney June 22, 2011 / 11:12 PM

    I agree with Alan Berlind’s comment on the key link between NATO and the EU. Europe does matter and so does the U.S. As I have said earlier in this space. They are both needed to make the global system work and to address the most serious challenges. The question is whether they will be able in this time of economic crisis and disarray to muster the will and resources to show the way ahead and provide the necessary resources.

    Here in the U.S. we seem to be fighting two difference types of “neo-isolationism” from both the right and the far left. From the left it seem the argument is we need to shift resources from abroad to making jobs here in American. Why do they not push harder for more taxes and less tax breaks for hyper profitable oil companies? The right does not want to create jobs here, they just want to reduce the taxes on the rich and damn the worker that really produce the goods.

    In Europe the Conservative governments are cutting back on defense and also on re-floating their economies and cutting programs for people in need. . The worst outcome for all would be to for us to go back into a deep recession and at the same time withdraw from engagement in a still dangerous world and from dealing with problems like global warming, poverty, human rights and failing states, and proliferation of nuclear weapons which can threaten our security and well being.

    I argue we can address BOTH, if we are willing to tax those that can afford it and and push policies that grow our economy and support a stronger multilateral cooperative strategy.

    We welcome your comments!

  2. Alan Berlind June 22, 2011 / 4:40 AM

    Defense Secretary Gates’ foolish farewells created an opportunity for a very good exchange between CFR President Richard Haass in the Washington Post of June 17 and David Rothkopf in Foreign Policy of the 20th.
    The world has changed radically since the end of the Cold War, from the appearance of new threats to the need for broader and more innovative means of confronting them to the evolution of both NATO and the EU into groupings with agendas and membership rolls that challenge their original purposes and homogeniety.
    Notwithstanding the need for new thinking to meet new threats and opportunities, NATO remains one key element, not least because of the essential lnk it provides between the U.S. and the EU, given their largely overlapping membership and interests.

  3. Following the aforementioned speech questioning the dedication of America’s European NATO allies, Gates was interviewed by the NYT. The interview offers a peek into Gates’ career as Secretary of Defense and offers advice to his successor. As Gates prepares for retirement, he verbalized his stance on military actions as a tool for foreign policy: “If we were about to be attacked or had been attacked or something happened that threatened a vital U.S. national interest, I would be the first in line to say, ‘Let’s go.’ I will always be an advocate in terms of wars of necessity. I am just much more cautious on wars of choice.” This statement reflects his skepticism of US involvement in Libya. If American’s future leaders share Gates’ aversion to “wars of choice” and NATO allies continue to shirk responsibilities, the European community could find itself in a tricky situation.

    Read the rest of the Gates’ interview and find out his fast food preferences here:

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