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Gates’s NATO speech and limits of multilateralism

June 10, 2011

It is often enough said that NATO has faced a sort of existential crisis since the absence of its existential enemy. Unfortunately, the strategy of primacy the US has pursued since the close of the Cold War has furthered this crisis, rather than resolved it. Granted, there are worse ways NATO could have dissolved. As a mechanism that allows the US to stabilize Europe, acting as an “empire by invitation.” NATO has been a resounding success. That today’s fears of Germany going its own way are not headlines in the international media demonstrate the difference NATO has made to the European security environment. That said, those hoping for NATO to leap to a new global role, rather than fade away, are in a more precarious position. This is bad news both for those Europeans who hope not to rely on the United States, and for Americans hoping to use NATO as a quick fix for the insolvency of US foreign policy commitments and its means to meet them.

Robert Gates’s speech is a blunt warning to America’s allies, to disabuse them, at least in part, of the sustainability of NATO’s ambitions and the state of the means necessary to meet them:

In the past, I’ve worried openly about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance:  Between members who specialize in “soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks, and those conducting the “hard” combat missions.  Between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership – be they security guarantees or headquarters billets – but don’t want to share the risks and the costs.  This is no longer a hypothetical worry.  We are there today.  And it is unacceptable.

Part of this predicament stems from a lack of will, much of it from a lack of resources in an era of austerity.  For all but a handful of allies, defense budgets – in absolute terms, as a share of economic output – have been chronically starved for adequate funding for a long time, with the shortfalls compounding on themselves each year.  Despite the demands of mission in Afghanistan – the first ‘hot’ ground war fought in NATO history – total European defense spending declined, by one estimate, by nearly 15 percent in the decade following 9/11. Furthermore, rising personnel costs combined with the demands of training and equipping for Afghan deployments has consumed an ever growing share of already meager defense budgets.  The result is that investment accounts for future modernization and other capabilities not directly related to Afghanistan are being squeezed out – as we are seeing today over Libya.


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 apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.  Nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.

Gates’s criticism of the investments by European militaries is right on. However, while Libya may be an example of the clay feet of the NATO alliance, it is not, in itself, a very convincing argument for Europeans to participate. Operations in Libya were primarily favored by France and the UK, and the most notable absentee from NATO operations have been Germany and the “new Europe” in the East. Ultimately, the US was dragged into intervening, in part, by desire to support its allies and uphold the internationalist and multilateralist credentials that it rebuilt to return the maintenance of its assertive global security posture to a more cooperative enterprise.

After all, even the countries willing to participate in the NATO operation have lacked the requisite capabilities in power projection, refueling capabilities, ISR, and munitions stocks to conduct the operation seriously. This is in an operation primarily endorsed by two major Western European states and in the backyard of Europe. Libya was not an Article V operation, as Afghanistan was. However, assuming Article V is invoked again, Libya should give us ample demonstrations of the difficulties European states will have in prosecuting it.

The Obama administration’s National Security Strategy made a commitment to reciprocal burden-sharing and multilateralism quite explicit, and posited such changes to the US grand strategy as a way to put its global responsibilities in balance with US capabilities and resources. Even though intervening in Libya was far more in the interest of its primary European advocates than it was in US interests, the US intervened in part to maintain cordial ties with the allies it would hope to support its own military adventures. The reality is that European states no longer have the capability to assist the US in “hard” security operations in a way that makes US adventurism affordable. Libya is a judgment on the NSS as much as the state of NATO.

The division within military capabilities is well and apparent in Gates’s speech, but lacking is the division in interests of NATO states, which Daniel Larison pointed out. Advocates of a stronger NATO have floated various new expeditions as ways to invigorate and unify the alliance, but in reality, the military imbalance means the opposite will be the case. Not only do European states fail to invest enough to provide a significant counterpart to US forces outside of the European neighborhood, but they lack the unity to make such a course plausible. Each expeditionary action of NATO, that is, each action not merited by Article V, has had its share of proponents and detractors. It is wholly unsurprising in Libya that Germany and Eastern Europe are not interested in Libya, since Libya has essentially no bearing on Central and Eastern European security. Indeed, it undermines it by distracting NATO resources from this more important theater (which has a far greater chance of requiring Article V operations than North Africa).

Unmentioned, and not surprisingly, in Gates’s speech, is the US contribution to the current state of European defense inefficacy. The US, through pursuing a strategy of primacy, and emphasizing NATO while undermining the emergence of the EU as an alternative bloc for European defense, has basically encouraged free riding. There is more relative parity in European military capabilities, and thus less potential for free riding, at a solely European level. With the United States added in, however, many more European states can skimp on defense and reliably expect the US to pick up the burden. After all, the US will have global interests whether the Europeans are helping pay the bill or not, so the US is more likely to pick up the bill for transoceanic power projection than any single European state. Ultimately, the reduction in US defense spending is not just a wake-up call to Europe, but a necessary precondition for a European re-investment in its own defense.

The crisis of NATO has more foreboding implications for the rest of the American NSS. If Europe is unwilling to finance its own power projection capabilities without US respite from its role as global policeman, how will the US be able to apply its cooperative security model to parts of Eurasia where the US has more pressing security interests and less institutional frameworks to compel foreign participation?

The US cannot expect to elicit more burden-sharing so long as it insists on a strategy without political or budgetary limits. As Europe demonstrates, if  countries view themselves merely as security dependents to the US, rather than partners, they will be happy to let the US pick up the tab of defense spending. Yet in other states, the US is even more eager to perpetuate the status of security dependency. The US is far more responsible for the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan than it is for the defense of Europe. These states are also investing more heavily in their defense. However, they have done so in part because the US has focused so much of its military effort in the Middle East, even as China’s military potential grew and the DPRK’s nuclear program advanced, that they realized they could not rely on the US.

These countries will only be partners in their own security to the extent that the US defines its security with their own pressing interests. Europe is only able to contribute what meager amounts it can to overseas interventions because it lacks serious security threats to distract its actual military potential. It is hard to imagine Europe increasing its defense expenditures to participate in operations it only pushes because it knows it will have US support, or for interventions that are more in the American interest than Europe’s own. For America’s Asian allies, it has even less chance of getting these states to take on a serious burden out of area because they have serious threats at home, unlike the Europeans. Essentially, Europe, a wealthy area with longstanding historic and institutional defense ties to the US, with no major threats to distract it, cannot fill the global security burden advocates of cooperative security have desired it to. Our new allies are even less likely to do so, and thus the Obama NSS faces even more serious challenges in the rest of Eurasia than it does in Europe.

Ultimately, what is misleading about Gates’s speech is the degree to which a lack of strategic clarity, rather than European miserliness, has brought the US to its insolvent position today. The European response to US exhortations to do more has been geopolitically logical, because the US virtually never signals it is serious about abandoning Europeans to their fate, and meanwhile is willing to stake NATO’s credibility to yet more strategically nebulous interventions. The United States must rid itself of its hazy fantasies of reciprocal burden sharing and global stakeholding. America’s refusal to back down from its hegemonic position and even more hegemonic strategy means its contributions to any given region’s security can never be repaid in another region by those states, precisely because of the dependence America’s desire to maintain its role as regional pacifier or stabilizer perpetuates. The math Gates points out about the failures of Europe to live up to its defense agreements is accurate, but it is the utterly expected result of a strategy America has, and is intent on continuing, to pursue.

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