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by David T. Jones

On June 10, on his way out the door as Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates delivered a speech at NATO that was more an expression of exasperation than a measured judgment of Alliance circumstances . Gates vented frustrations that were doubtless personal and accrued during five years as SecDef, but were also institutional expressions of USG attitudes toward NATO.

Unfortunately, pique is not perspective.

One doubts that Alliance members were particularly impressed with Gates’ ire or particularly likely to “straighten up and fly right” so far as U.S. preferences regarding their defense and security efforts are concerned. In short, they have heard it all before; indeed, heard it in tone and substance throughout the 62 year history of the Alliance. They heard it during the Cold War, when the fear that Soviet tank armies would plunge through the Fulda Gap should have focused European attention and galvanized their reactions. They heard it following the collapse of the Soviet Union when they were urged not to take a “peace dividend” or at least not as much of a dividend as they intended. (We said, “peace is the dividend,” but Europeans acted as if “the end of history” had arrived.) And they have heard it repeatedly throughout the post-9/11 decade as the USG has emphasized the challenges facing the Alliance epitomized by terrorism, piracy, nuclear proliferation, failed/failing states, ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia, a revanchist (not a “reset”) Russia, and now the ramifications of the Arab spring illustrated by the effort to do regime change in Qadaffi’s Libya without getting our boots dirty.

The Europeans don’t buy it. If they didn’t commit to the rigors of significant defense spending during the Cold War when arguably their freedom was at risk or during the post-Cold War when their economies were booming, we are wasting our breath seeking major expenditures against ambiguous “out of area” threats during a recession. And we look more than a bit silly urging NATO members to do more when every USG fiscal budget projection predicts major defense reductions.

During the Cold War, Europeans had little interest in attempting to match the conventional forces of the Soviet/Warsaw Pact bloc, although their populations and economies would have so permitted. Essentially, as one European put it to me, “We have no interest in making Europe safe for conventional war.” In “translation” that meant they had no interest in a repeat of World War II again reducing Germany to rubble; instead, they preferred to depend on the U.S. nuclear deterrent with its intimation that NATO response to Soviet attack would not be tactically limited. Thus conventional forces, in European eyes, were ancillary; they needed to be more than a “trip wire” but only strong enough to accord time for sober second thoughts in Moscow to end Soviet aggression. Happily the logic of deterrence was never put to the ultimate test, but with the end of the Cold War eliminating the fear of Soviet invasion, the incentive for reducing conventional forces was even stronger. Just how much “fire insurance” do you need when you have moved from a straw to a brick house?

Moreover, conventional forces are expensive. This is particularly true when a country transitions from a draftee to a volunteer army as the young males in unthreatened modern societies see little purpose in military service that takes one or two years from their lives for no discernable benefit. Moreover, most military establishments prefer a volunteer army as soldiers commit to longer periods of service, indeed full careers in the military, and thus are better motivated and can be given longer periods of education in complex weapons and combat training. But volunteer army personnel costs escalate rapidly; you can pay a draftee minimal wages for a short, “rite of passage” stint of military service, but professional soldiers come with the impedimenta of families, the need for greater benefits for their extended service (including pensions), and requirement for pay commensurate to civilians with comparable skills.

And, almost needless to say, modern weaponry has grown exponentially in lethality but also in cost–and the easy answer to escalated costs is to purchase fewer systems and stretch existing weapons platforms far beyond their rated lifetimes. Moreover, the complexity of high tech systems makes it difficult to “ramp up” production when reserves are exhausted. And, as the advanced systems are almost invariably U.S. manufactured, our pleas for the Alliance to upgrade/modernize may also seem to be a plea to subsidize the U.S. defense industry.

Separately, Alliance members may look askance at or at a minimum may be skeptical regarding some U.S. military/security engagements during the past decade. While Afghanistan was a “war of necessity” for the United States, it was more a “war of choice” for NATO–and the level of commitment by Alliance forces (admitted by Gates) is now approximately 40,000, which is hardly trivial, regardless of employment caveats and equipment shortfalls associated with these forces. The 850 NATO dead over the decade wouldn’t even be daily wastage in the world wars, but today every death media morphs into boy/girl next door imagery without prompting any special incentive to continue absorbing even statistically trivial losses. Retail death is politically costly.

Iraq, featuring failed U.S. intelligence regarding Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, was certainly a U.S. war of choice, and a highly questionable one for many Europeans. It certainly did not engender confidence in U.S. intelligence assessments, a problem that redounds when we seek Alliance support on intelligence-driven action, e.g., sanctions against Iran.

And our engagement in a third war, against Qaddafi’s Libya, raises questions of its own. While Qadaffi was doubtless disgusting/deplorable to any European democrat, one doubts that many Alliance members felt a driving need for regime change, regardless of what he might have done to his population or contemplated doing. Hence another U.S. war of choice taken under a UN mandate ostensibly limited to protecting the Libyan population–a rationale that became totally transparent as our bombardiers sought to inflict a bin Laden moment on the odious Colonel Qaddafi. Even when ultimately successful, those who followed us into this expedition may well have privately remonstrated with Washington over the duration and expense of what was billed as a short, quick operation. Thus Alliance members may appreciate intellectually the USG desire to have Libya’s Mediterranean neighbors lead the effort, but our decision to step back from active air attacks obviously hobbled military results and protracted the fighting. Our semi-bystander, “lead from the rear” role, combined with our complaints that NATO doesn’t have the precision guided missiles for continued attacks retrospectively seems unappreciative at best and, to be polite, not very inspiring.

Consequently, Gates’ more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger observation that unless NATO does more, future U.S. leaders “may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost” has a hollow ring. To be sure, his comment reflects recent polling to the effect that while 49 percent of Americans believe we should stay with NATO, 27 percent would have us depart. Nevertheless, there is a touch of the puerile in the implication that we will take our ball and go home if NATO doesn’t do more/better. Alliance members also well know that NATO is a useful mechanism for the United States to project power and influence in Europe rather than cede the continent to France, Germany, and Russia. After all, they may conclude, if the price is too high for us, we can still scale back further. There is no legal requirement for us to pay 75 percent of Alliance costs.

Ultimately, NATO has proved a valuable device for rallying “willing” coalitions for expeditionary action out of the NATO area. It has been key to some of our efforts in the UN to have NATO available as an action agent for a UN resolution (both Afghanistan and Libya have UN mandates from which NATO action can flow). It is senseless to threaten, even implicitly, that Washington would jettison an effective politicomilitary mechanism that has served USG at least as much as it has served European interests.

One suspects that European listeners rolled their eyes and muttered “this too shall pass.”End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

David T. Jones
David T. Jones

David T. Jones, a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer, served as Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. He is frequent contributor to American Diplomacy and other publications as well as the co-author of Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs, a book about U.S.-Canada relations.

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