Friday, 17 June 2011

US tells Europe 'we won't protect you forever'

Defence departments across Europe are bristling this week following the stern tongue-lashing delivered by outgoing US Defense Secretary Bob Gates last Friday. In a speech here in Brussels Gates lashed out at European nations for their weak military spending and their lack of troop commitments to the North American Treaty Organisation (NATO).

It was the clearest signal yet that the days of this military alliance, set up to defend Western Europe during the cold war, may be numbered. Gates implied the alliance may come to an end unless European countries agree to restructure it into an equal partnership rather than a US-led military fiefdom. Oddly enough, it is America that wants to see an end to the current state of US military dominance in Europe, and it is the Europeans who are resisting this.
"For the better part of six decades there has been relatively little doubt or debate in the United States about the value and necessity of the transatlantic alliance," he told the NATO dignitaries. "For most of the Cold War US governments could justify defense investments and costly forward bases that made up roughly 50 percent of all NATO military spending.  But some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the US share of NATO defense spending has now risen to more than 75%"

 "The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US 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 defence budgets."
In other words, this relationship just isn't working out for America any more. In days past it may have been in America's strategic interest to hold Western Europe as a military protectorate. But Europe does not have the same strategic importance today, and the US is not interested in the continuing existence of NATO if it is only a means for European nations to outsource their national defence.

Gates pointed out an uncomfortable and long unspoken truth to the assembled European delegates: though NATO membership requires that nations spend at least 2% of GDP on their military budgets, of the 28 NATO members only five actually do so (America, Britain, France, Greece and Albania). The truth is that in 2011, very few European nations have the capacity for self-defence. Having become accustomed to American protection, many have allowed their military budgets to dwindle to next to nothing.

The editorial pages of US papers almost universally cheered the speech, saying it was long overdue. Particularly in these tough economic times, the idea of reducing America's military expenditure – for so long an untouchable realm of US politics – is actually being talked about seriously these days. Even among neoconservative circles there is an increasing acknowledgement that cuts need to be made. Right now the US spends $690 billion on its military. This is 43% of all global military expenditure and is six times as much as is spent by China, the next biggest military spender. This number is clearly not sustainable, particularly as the US wrestles with enormous debt. There is an increasing consensus that America's role of 'world police' is increasingly not in its own interest and is unfair - particularly when wealthy European nations have the capacity to shoulder some of the burden, but choose not to.

The European media seems to have chosen to ignore the speech, taking the 'what we don't know can't hurt us' approach. But the stern words have clearly had an effect behind the scenes at the national defence departments in Europe. Before his speech gates had private meetings with NATO leaders including secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen during which he was no doubt more blunt. The pressure clearly got to the NATO head, who yesterday gave a speech in Madrid saying he was concerned about the low level of defense spending in Europe and the alliance's dependence on the United States.

Gates' speech was not made in isolation. It is instead part of a larger effort by the current US administration to push Europe to wean itself off of its military dependence on America. President Obama has been keen to stress this point in every speech he's given in Europe. The issue has been causing friction because the US is unhappy with the level of European commitment in Afghanistan.

But now, as the Libya operation is quickly turning into an entirely US-led effort because European military capabilities have been exhausted, the Obama administration seems to have reached the end of its tether. They did not even want to enter the Libya war, they were dragged into it by Britain and France. But those countries do not have the military capability to lead the effort. So it has yet again fallen to the US to bear the military burden for what is essentially a European problem, a conflict that has little strategic importance to the US but is incredibly important for Europe.

Time for an EU army?

Of course there are many in Europe, notably French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who wholeheartedly agree with the American president on this issue. For years Sarkozy has been trying to encourage European powers to increase their military spending in a strategic way that would pool military resources and capabilities. France has always been a reluctant NATO partner, and they have been keen to put forward the idea that Europe should be militarily capable of defending itself without US assistance.

One way to do this would be through the establishment of an EU army. This is of course an enormously controversial idea, particularly in the current period where the EU seems to be at an all-time low in popularity amongst the public. But if NATO really is in danger of collapsing or becoming irrelevant, as Gates says, then Europeans need to think realistically about alternatives to the alliance. If the US were to pull out of NATO, does Europe have a plan B for its own defense?

Such a backup plan could be through low-scale strategic bilateral partnerships like the unprecedented one set up between Britain and France last year. But such bilateral partnerships would be unlikely to yield a real system of coordinated defense. So Europe has three options: it can increase its military spending within NATO and make the alliance a truly European defense force with only loose US backing (reflecting the reality that 26 out of the 28 members are in Europe); it can dismantle or sideline NATO and instead set up a military collaboration within the structure of the EU (the so-called 'EU army'), or it can allow the NATO alliance to collapse and leave itself defenceless.

In today's world where threats seem to be coming more from non-state actors like terrorism, perhaps this last option could seem tempting to some. But it's a risky strategy, especially considering that no one knows what the geopolitical situation could be ten years from now. Considering the preference in Europe to ignore this issue - a preference from both political leaders and the public at large - the 'do nothing approach' seems like perhaps the most likely outcome.

1 comment:

Captain Kid said...

I always thought NATO was an organization that had lost its right to exist. I wouldn't mind if it disappeared.