Two articles in yesterday’s newspapers are working the same story about Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and NATO, with different angles. Panetta, speaking in Brussels, offered praise to NATO for its success in Libya but also charged member nations with failing to contribute their share to the Organization, instead leaving it to the US to fill in equipment and personnel gaps during conflicts, an argument American officials have been making for years. The Washington Post seized the success in Libya angle (“Pleased by the outcome of the war in Libya, the Obama administration is suddenly all smiles among its NATO allies.”) and glossed over the rest. The NYT, on the other hand, took a different approach:
…The Libyan conflict, [Panetta] said, also showed that American capabilities and supplies of ammunition were vital, and it illustrated “growing gaps that must be addressed.”He warned of “legitimate questions about whether, if present trends continue, NATO will again be able to sustain the kind of operations that we have seen in Libya and Afghanistan without the United States taking on even more of the burden.”NATO had too few targeting specialists to interpret intelligence and guide aircraft, so Americans filled in, he said.“But nowhere were the gaps more obvious than in critical enabling capabilities — refueling tankers, the provision of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms such as Global Hawk and Predator drones.”Without those American assets, “the Libya operation would have had a very difficult time getting off the ground or being sustained,” he said.
Both newspapers took the same story in different ways; the Times went for substance while the Post seems to have fallen for the diplo-spin. The Times is right. Robert Gates’s remarks last summer that NATO faces “a dim if not dismal future” unless European nations pick up the slack and coordinate on defense spending still reflects core US thinking about the future of the alliance.Americans have been telling Europe for decades now that a failure to maintain their military strength will result in an inevitable decline in Europe’s influence worldwide — and put new strains on the Atlantic alliance. And for years the Europeans have been blowing us off.The Americans are right and the Europeans are wrong about this but there’s not a whole lot we can do. Europe’s century long commitment to decline is something we observe and mourn — but it reminds me of the joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb.The answer is: only one, but the light bulb has to want to change. Europe doesn’t want to change, and this is a subject on which Europeans have the last word. Europe’s decline will be gentle and slow for a while, and NATO will slowly dwindle rather than suddenly vanish, but until and unless the Europeans choose something different, Europe will drift idly down the river of time, hoping no waterfalls lie ahead.Fortunately for the United States, Europe isn’t the only fish in the sea. While NATO weakens as European nations falter in their defense commitments, American alliances in Asia are strengthening. If the Europeans aren’t interested in shaping the new century with us, plenty of other people are.