Commentary Magazine


U.S. and NATO: If We Don’t Shoulder the Burden, Nobody Will

Bob Gates is leaving the Defense Department with a bang—or at least a blast—rather than a whimper. Today in Brussels he gave a tough speech blasting NATO allies for failing to do more and warning that the alliance faces a “dim, if not dismal future” unless they step up their contributions.

There is no disputing his list of particulars. As he noted, in Afghanistan, “ Despite more than 2 million troops in uniform – NOT counting the U.S. military – NATO has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25- to 40,000 troops, not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets such as helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and much more. “ Meanwhile, in Libya,  “while every alliance member voted for Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission. “

He went on to note that to run the air war over Libya, “the NATO air operations center in Italy required a major augmentation of targeting specialists, mainly from the U.S., to do the job.” “Furthermore,” he added, “the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country – yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.”

There is no secret about why other NATO members aren’t doing more. As Gates said, “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.”

That means that more and more of the burden has been falling on the U.S., but American politicians and the public are increasingly impatient with the costs of defense.  “The blunt reality,” Gates  warned, “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.”

All points well taken. But they are hardly novel: the trends have been present for decades. And just as long American policymakers have been decrying European free-loading—without achieving any real changes.

The problem is that European states devote such a large share of their GDP to social welfare programs that they simply have no money left to spend on defense. The real novelty today is that with their reckless spending binge President Obama and Congress are placing us in the same dire fiscal distress as the Europeans. Obama is devoting more and more of the budget to entitlements and other domestic programs—leaving less and less for defense.

Jawboning the Europeans to step up their spending isn’t going to achieve any concrete results. We might as well grow up and realize that if we don’t play “globocop” nobody else will—and our interests, above all, will suffer. That is why it is so irresponsible for Obama to advocate even deeper defense cuts—he wants to cut $400 billion more over the next decade—at a time when we face so many crises around the world. We know the Europeans aren’t going to fill the gap. Either we do it, or it doesn’t get done—and well pay the price.

That may not be fair but neither is life.