Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 16:03 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 16:03 | SYDNEY

Europe calls Gates' bluff


Sam Roggeveen


15 June 2011 09:58

By now you've probably read that retiring US Defense Secretary Robert Gates had some stern words for European NATO members late last week:

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.

Gates' words are notable for being so blunt, but US presidents, defense secretaries and secretaries of state have been giving versions of this speech ever since Europe started cashing in on the post-Cold War peace dividend. And the reason European NATO members have for twenty years ignored these calls for greater sacrifice are right there in Gates' speech.

On Libya, for instance, Gates says '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.' In other words, the US bailed out its under-resourced allies.

Then there's this quote on America's global military presence:

President Obama and I believe that despite the budget pressures, it would be a grave mistake for the U.S. to withdraw from its global responsibilities. And in Singapore last week, I outlined the many areas where U.S. defense engagement and investment in Asia was slated to grow further in coming years, even as America’s traditional allies in that region rightfully take on the role of full partners in their own defense.

Why would European NATO members feel under any pressure to take on a bigger role when the US seems so keen to do the job itself, and when they know the US will step in whenever Europe is caught short?

To be fair, the Americans have in some ways made good on their threats that they would not carry the NATO burden alone — US troop numbers in Europe have plummeted since the end of the Cold War. But it's a measure of how secure European NATO members feel that this precipitous decline in the US military commitment to the continent has done nothing to change their defence spending habits. In fact the US is alone among NATO members in not substantially cutting its defence spending since the Soviet collapse.

Gates complains that European NATO members can barely sustain their modest operations in Afghanistan and Libya, and he reads this as a lack of will. But maybe European governments simply see the threat differently. They simply don't regard these two operations as being important enough to their security to really do anything about them, beyond their current meager efforts.