Time For Nato to Shut Up (23 june 2011)

Europe ought to be grateful to Robert M Gates. In his farewell speech in Brussels he read the allies a lesson they could not have misunderstood. If, from hereon, Europeans are not prepared to deliver more to the alliance, American voters – and with them Congress – will dump NATO. Why be grateful for that statement? Because a better demonstration of the bankruptcy of the alliance is difficult to imagine. The Europeans can only gain from a confrontation with that reality, and Gates has just made such a confrontation more likely. If the European states comply with the demands made by the departing American defense secretary this would boil down to them accepting a permanent status as vassals of the United States. Washington determines how many, where and when. The why of it all remains unclear and can change by the day. Take the case of Libya where as the main purpose of military action regime change has been substituted for protection of the population.

What did Gates say about Afghanistan? A recent visit to that country had convinced him of the reality of progress. But “It is no secret that for too long, the international military effort suffered from a lack of focus, resources, and attention …. When NATO agreed at Riga in 2006 to take the lead for security across the country, I suspect many allies assumed that the mission would be primarily peacekeeping, reconstruction and development assistance – more akin to the Balkans. Instead, NATO found itself in a tough fight against a determined and resurgent Taliban returning in force from its sanctuaries in Pakistan.”

How does Gates evaluate what NATO has made of this fight? “Though we can take pride in what has been accomplished and sustained in Afghanistan, the ISAF mission has exposed significant shortcomings in NATO – in military capabilities, and in political will. Despite more than [a combined 2 million non-American] troops in uniform 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.”

What did he say about Libya? Also here the minister begins on a positive note. “To be sure, at the outset, the NATO Libya mission did meet its initial military objects – grounding Qaddafi’s air force and degrading his ability to wage offensive war against his own citizens. (…) However, while every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission. Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.” For example: “We have the spectacle of an air operations center (in Italy) designed to handle more than 300 sorties a day struggling to launch about 150. Furthermore, 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.”

And then comes Gates with a grand conclusion: “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 headquarter 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 contradicts himself, it is not about not being able to but also about not wanting to. Worse than that, it is about allies who wish to have the pleasure without the pain.

What can one say about how America’s defense secretary inherited from the George W. Bush administration sees the world? At a minimum through a very distorting lens with respect to the reasons why Europeans continue grudgingly to lend soldiers to American efforts in the first place. He appears to presuppose a great deal of naïveté on the part of the European allies. He portrays things as if the American security guarantees and the headquarter billets, which come with it, still mean anything in a world in which the security guarantee offered by the United States has been replaced by the security risk of American adventurism.

All right, but what about Libya? One could argue that here we have, in the first place, an instance of European adventurism, with Britain and France in the front lines. It is possible that these two militarily inclined European states would like to think that about themselves. But if so, Paris and London have a rather warped view of things. After a moment’s thought, it is not in any way imaginable that a European group of countries would have begun an aerial war somewhere in North Africa on its own. Gates’ scathing remarks about that group’s performance should be enough to remind everyone who is boss in this adventure.

Parenthetically, Gates says sweet things about Greece, Albania, Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Canada. But no wonder, these countries have by now an ingrained habit to behave as American vassals and to look after America’s dirty laundry. But for the rest, Gates appreciation for NATO’s pioneering in Libya is scornful, his utterances about it interwoven with disdain. The U.S. is still needed ‘to make up the difference’. And that has consequences.

As he says: “… some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. share of NATO defense spending has now risen to more than 75 percent. (…) 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. Nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.” And for those who have not fully figured it out yet: “Indeed, if current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders – those for whom the Cold War was NOT the formative experience that it was for me – may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”

Whether Gates’ threat of dumping NATO will find much support in the rest of America’s military establishment is doubtful. It has until now lent just a little bit more official legimitacy to American military actions. As long as it is there, it remains a huge reserve pool of auxiliary troops that can be employed for American purposes by cajoling or even intimidating the official allies, when these are reluctant to send their soldiers into American battles. Gates farewell speech appears designed to do exactly that in advance. It also takes advantage of American public ignorance with his cheap populist appeal to the imagined taxpayer who bears the burden.

Through their domestic propaganda, Americans have the impression that ungrateful Europeans left them mostly to fend for themselves after the terrorist attacks of 2001, being unaware that NATO for the first time ever invoked article 5 of the treaty – stipulating that an armed attack against one shall be considered an attack against all – but was told by Colin Powell to stay out of what Washington was planning to do and would only be called upon when needed. Americans are also ignorant of the fact that their president George W. Bush violated article 4 of the treaty – [members] will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any … is threatened – and when asking NATO for particpation in Iraq and Afghanistan substituted command for consultation.

Things are topsy turvy in the Atlantic Basin. While Americans portray NATO as a weight around their neck, it has become clearer by the year that the supposed alliance with shared goals is a weight around Europe’s neck. Is more evidence needed than Gates’ unvarnished way of expressing himself in Brussels?

Not if the European political elites listen carefully. The Atlantic playing field has drastically changed and the old rules of the game are superseded. European states have mortgaged their sovereignty to Washington. No European sovereignty has taken the place of surrendered national sovereignty. If there could have been any doubts about that, the recent apparently intractable problems with uncoordinated financial systems within the European Union and the fear for the future of the euro should have taken those away. They demonstrate that European cooperation has so far not delivered a political institution, a political mechanism with the authority and credibility to overcome a damaging impasse kept going through ideologically inspired memberstate governments and banks.

The same goes for Europe’s relations with the rest of the world. As long as the governments of Europe support the American approach to the world out of their conviction that ‘without United States nothing will work’, and believe that superior wisdom with regards to international relations can only be found in Washington, there would be no future for European-style cooperation.

The key word in the utterances of Gates is ‘defense’. Along with many of his colleagues and commentators in Washington he exists in an imaginary world in which the Cold War continues, and security can only be expressed in military terms. In this collective fantasy the front line has moved from the Elbe to the Hindu Kush. What is known as ‘out of area’ unrest immediately makes the alarm bells go off. Self-control was, once, one of the most valuable characteristics of NATO. America’s thirst for action and Europe’s docility have ended that.

Servitude to what America sees as its interests obstructs the development of an European vision. Responsibility for the place that Europe occupies in the world has been outsourced. The security insurance policy is kept in the White House. But the U.S. has unilaterally rewritten that policy. The grand Atlantic alliance has detoriated to an opportunistic ‘coalition of the willing’, and in that same timeframe the infantilization of European politics has become inescapable. It is huge what Gates has brought to our attention.