Gates Warns NATO It Risks Growing ‘Irrelevance’


robert-gatesDefense Secretary Robert M. Gates sharply criticized NATO nations on Friday for what he said were shortages in military spending and political will, warning of “a dim if not dismal future” and “irrelevance” for the alliance unless more member nations contribute weapons, money and manpower.

In his final policy speech, Mr. Gates issued a dire warning that the United States, the traditional leader and bankroller of the alliance, is exhausted by a decade of war and its own mounting budget deficits and simply may not see NATO as worth supporting any longer.

“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,” Mr. Gates said.

Although NATO ambassadors attended Mr. Gates’s speech, the reaction was muted, and there was little response from NATO capitals, which have heard similar criticisms from Mr. Gates before, though not in such candid terms. “But people should take note,” one NATO ambassador said. “This is not just an old curmudgeon leaving office. He cares about the alliance and says you need to start investing in it.”

The United States accounts for about three-quarters of total military spending by all NATO countries, and has in the past taken the lead in military operations and provided the bulk of the weapons and matériel. But in a post-Soviet world, there is growing resentment in Washington about NATO effectively paying for the defense of wealthy European nations.

Those strains have deepened considerably during the air war against the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the first NATO-run multilateral war where the United States has pulled back from leadership.

The strains come from differing commitments to the war from different NATO countries, the difficulties of coordinating air attacks, deficiencies of aircraft and ammunition and the simple cost of the operation, which is going on longer than many countries, including France, expected when it began on March 19.

If the United States did not have large stockpiles of ammunition, a senior NATO official said, the Libyan war would already have come to a halt. The Americans are selling the ammunition, but it was the American military budget that paid for its manufacture and stockpiling.

Similarly, NATO allies must still rely on American AWACS and refueling aircraft, American suppression of air defenses and American intelligence gathering. Even in a secondary role, by mid-May, according to a Pentagon memo circulating in Washington, the Financial Times reported, United States operations in Libya had already cost $664 million.

To a certain extent, the Libyan campaign represents precisely the shift that Mr. Gates warned was coming – namely, the European nations paying for more of their own security, and to that extent represents a “major strategic shift,” said François Heisbourg, a defense expert at the Foundation for Strtaegic Research.

But the Libyan campaign has also revealed inadequacies in European budgets and equipment that are likely to have a bigger impact on European spending than any swan-song scolding from an American official, no matter how respected.

At around $2 million a day, by some estimates, France is spending almost as much on Libya as it is on Afghanistan, French officials said on Friday, and about the same as the United States.

Even at a lower estimate of roughly 1 million euros – about $1.45 million – a day Libya has already cost France at least $120 million. But the costs are likely to have increased since the United States pulled back from a frontline position.

The French military budget is about $900 million for 2011, said René Carlé, the defense expert for the finance committee of the National Assembly. But the budget is “always underestimated,” and the government typically comes back to parliament for supplementary funding. In 2008, the final operations budget was $1.2 billion, he said.

Last year, he said, French operations in Afghanistan, where there are ground troops, cost around $675 million. Adding that to Libya will badly stretch the budget, and then there will be further costs to restock.

Britain, too, is being cagey about its spending in Libya, even as the current government vows to cut military outlays by about 8 percent over the next four years. There are estimates that Britain is spending about the same amount as France, around $9.8 million a week. But the British defense secretary, Liam Fox, has said that the budget is adequate for both Libya and Afghanistan.

Britain and France rank second and third within NATO on defense spending, after the United States. But Britain’s military budget is only about 7.7 percent of Washington’s (France’s is about 6.6 percent). Norway and Denmark have tiny military budgets of only $6.4 billon and $4.5 billion respectively, yet they have been flying strike missions over Libya, while much larger countries like Germany and Spain have not – but not because they lack the capacity, but because they disagree politically with the air strikes.

Europeans argue that they are spending blood and treasure to support Washington in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, far from Europe, and they are eager to draw down their forces there. NATO, some argue, would be best served, since Russia is no longer judged an adversary, as an alliance with more limited goals like defending Europe against other kinds of threats, like piracy, cyber war or natural disasters.

But Mr. Gates is not alone in arguing that the European allies of NATO must spend more to keep credibility with the United States.

In February, even before the Libya campaign, NATO’s secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, delivered a similarly strong warning about shrinking military expenditures to Europeans at the Munich Security Conference.

If the trends continues, Mr. Rasmussen said, “we risk a divided Europe,” “a weakened Europe” and “a Europe increasingly adrift from the United States.” He noted the rise of China and the impatience of Washington and said: “If Europe becomes unable to make an appropriate contribution to global security, then the United States might look elsewhere for reliable defense partners.”

Nick Witney, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that the comments reflected a familiar Gates theme. But “irrespective of how little or much Europeans choose to spend on their defense,” he said, “the fact is that the Americans will increasingly be looking to the Pacific and will be looking to decrease their military investment in areas like Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.”

{The New York Times/ Newscenter}


  1. This article is from the New York Times. Since when does Matzav consider the New York Times a credible news source?