NATO--the US has a hard time living with it but believes it cannot live without it. For better than sixty years now we have been in a relationship with a tedious bunch which was not sought by us. The treaty which ties the US to a couple of dozen other states was and remains a form of shotgun marriage--compelled by force of circumstance and, presumably, preferable to the alternative.
Nearly every secretary of defense has been frustrated by the pervasive unwillingness or inability of the member states to carry their fair share of the alliance's water. Yesterday, Robert Gates, feeling free with his impending departure from the Pentagon, let it all hang out as he reamed the group for its collective failures of political will and military capacity.
His words were not particularly harsh. Neither were they the petulant complaints. His assessments were not even new. Each and every one of the criticisms mentioned in his speech have been said before. Often. What made the Gates Warning substantially different was that it came in public. The words were not murmured behind closed doors, minister to minister. No. These came in public for all to hear. And, that sort of thing is just not done, don't you know.
Stripped to the essentials, the Gates Warning was simple and blunt. As the cold war faded as even a memory, the American people and their representatives were decreasingly willing to spend ever more scarce resources underwriting the defense needs of countries unwilling to shoulder their own responsibilities. Pointedly, Gates noted, the US carried roughly half the aggregate NATO military budget just before the Berlin Wall crumbled soon to followed by the Soviet Union. He added the kicker: Currently the US staggers under three quarters of the total NATO military budget.
This one metric suggests strongly that something is amiss in NATO. In case anyone missed the point, Gates commented that only four countries (the UK, France, Greece and Albania[!]) joined the US in spending more than the target two percent of GDP on defense. The target figure of two percent was not established by some sort of fiat out of Washington but rather by consensus of all NATO members. Nor is it some fossil of the cold war having been established long after the collapse of the Vanguard of the Proletariat.
More than a few of the assembled Dignitaries and Deep Thinkers must have squirmed when Gates not only acknowledged an awareness and appreciation of the budget crises enveloping most of the NATO members but went on to demonstrate how some (very) small countries were "punching well above their weight" by having used their defense money in an intelligent, forward looking, and combat focused way. He singled out the Libyan efforts of Norway and Denmark in this regard. By so doing Gates obviated the cringing and whining response offered by such European apologists as Daniel Korski, a senior fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations. Or, for that matter, the spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry who protested that Germany was pulling an awesome amount of freight in Afghanistan.
The reality of NATO is as it has been for many, many years. That reality is simply the belief on the part of chancelleries throughout Europe that the US would always be there to pick up whatever burdens were necessary to guarantee European security. The view has been the US has no alternative but to do so as Europe was the frontline of American defense. As a consequence for three generations now the several old members of the alliance have shirked in defense so as to underwrite the extensive programs of social benefits and security which have long been the distinguishing characteristic of post-World War II Europe.
The majority of the old members of NATO have ridden in great comfort on the alliance's gravy train while the made-in-America locomotive pulled the freight. The new, post-cold war members, the former Warsaw Pact states which have joined the alliance, have been quite willing to do the same--while complaining that the US is not doing enough to deter and inhibit the Russians in their efforts to reestablish some form of suzerainty over the Eastern European glacis.
NATO was challenged with the end of the cold war. The collapse of the Soviet Union removed the reason for the alliance's existence. More than ever it became obvious that the organization was an ill-assorted array of bed fellows who had little, if anything, in common beyond apprehension regarding Soviet ambitions in the West. Not even geography tied the group together given that it spread from Turkey to Canada, Norway to Italy and Spain. The very term, "North Atlantic Treaty Organization" had no rigorous meaning. Arguably only one word, "treaty," was factual. All the rest was well-intended diplomatic fiction.
The big question of 1991-2 which was never really asked let alone answered was, "What is NATO's justification now?" The pseudo-answer focused on some critter called "out-of-theater operations." That term is one of those phrases which is every bit as portentous rolling off a diplomat's lips as it is empty of actual substance.
The first "out-of-theater" NATO mission was not particularly "out-of-theater" if one defines NATO's area of responsibility to be Europe. Specifically, it was the confused peace imposition operation in Kosovo. That meant it was an R2P campaign without the term. The US as always carried the majority of the burden despite the very compelling fact that no salient American interest was in play in the ruins of Yugoslavia. Insofar as any state or states had interests in play, those states were all European. NATO was invoked simply because the directly effected states (can we say, "Germany?") were unwilling to act.
The next "out-of-theater" operation was the ongoing mess in Afghanistan. NATO with a rush and a flourish invoked its famous an-attack-on-one-is-an-attack-on-all article for the very first time while the smoke still hung heavy in the air over lower Manhattan. What came out of this demonstration of one for all, all for one solidarity was the unfortunate applicability of the alternative meaning for the abbreviation ISAF. To many Americans who have fought in the place the abbreviation does not mean International Security Assistance Force but I Saw Americans Fighting.
While some NATO contingents such as those from the UK, Canada and, shockingly, France have actually taken the war to the bad guys, others, (can we say, "Germany?") have done everything possible to avoid, evade, and ignore even the most remote chance of actually encountering the enemy. Leaving aside the responsibility which must be assigned to the Bush/Cheney administration in the conduct of the war in Afghanistan and the alienation of allies attendant upon the invasion of Iraq, the residual actuality on the ground in Afghanistan is simply that NATO as an organization has done all too little relative to its capacities.
Now NATO is engaged in yet one more "out-of-theater" operation. This time, unlike the previous efforts, the US has been a major non-participant. Indeed, we would be even less involved if NATO had sufficient assets in critical areas such as overhead surveillance, reconnaissance, targeting, mid-air refueling, and electronic warfare. Secretary Gates as much as said this as he detailed the glaring deficiencies in the NATO effort. He also underscored that the engaged NATO contingents had already run short of critical munitions thus requiring urgent American restocking. This, he stated, was the foreseeable consequence of not properly spending even limited defense money.
In its post-cold war missions, NATO has shown itself to be a coalition of the unwilling and unready. This reality is not mitigated by the excellent performance of some national contingents in each and every of the three "out-of-theater" endeavors. Nor can it be lessened by pointing to budgetary matters. Neither can the situation be expected to improve any. In his optimism, limited as it was, Dr Gates is being entirely too kind, too considerate of ruffled diplomatic and political feathers within the alliance's membership.
(In connection with this it is of more than passing interest that the Obama White House attempted mightily to put blue sky between Secretary Gates' position and its own. An unidentified White House "official" took the stance that the Secretary was either speaking solely for the Pentagon or was expressing his personal frustration with some NATO states. The most the white-feathered crew at the White House was willing to grant was that Gates had raised "legitimate issues." A fine bunch of courageous statesmen and women in and near the Oval, don't you think?)
Dr Gates warned NATO that the day would soon come when post-cold war Americans would cease funding Europe's defense needs. That day may be far closer than the secretary indicated. The dismal record compiled by NATO in its post-cold war actions shows rather conclusively that it has no reason to keep on keeping on.
The concept of "out-of-theater" operations is intellectually bankrupt, ethically suspect, and diplomatically useless. Beyond that, it is a military nullity marked with asymmetry of effort, confusion of command, vagueness and contradiction politically. NATO is a broken tool without any real purpose other than inhibiting Russian ambitions should such exist with respect to Central and Eastern Europe.
The US would be far better served by assembling an ad hoc coalition of states with coinciding national interests when interventions of whatsoever nature might be required. The diplomacy of George H. W. Bush in the run-up to the First Gulf War is paradigmatic in this regard. Ad hoc coalitions might be a bit difficult to put together, but no more so than achieving consensus within the councils of NATO. Should it be necessary for the US to carry the overwhelming majority of the water in a coalition, there is at least the advantage that such groups are short duration (provided the war is fought with an appropriate doctrine and force package.)
The time has come to say to NATO, "Thanks for the memories."