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NATO's Troubled Future

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.

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  • Gene

    I am bewildered about Europe’s problems. I just can’t figure out how a continent full of people who are–as they themselves and many elite Americans have been telling me for half a century–both intellectually and morally superior to Americans can possibly be facing such serious troubles. Perhaps I’m just having a bad dream.

  • Mrs. Davis

    The Americans are right and the Europeans are wrong about this but there’s not a whole lot we can do.

    We can leave Nato. And should.

  • WigWag

    “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.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    Although he was widely ridiculed when he said it in January, 2003, Donald Rumsfeld was prescient; there really is an “old” Europe and a “new Europe.”

    Specifically Rumsfeld said,

    “If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the centre of gravity is shifting to the east.”

    I think that it is important to recognize that not all of our European NATO allies are shirking their responsibilities. Poland and the Czech Republic in particular have been anxious to step up to the plate in a manner appropriate to their resources. So have the Slovaks, the Baltic nations and surprisingly even the Italians, the Danes and the Norwegians.

    The real laggards have been the British (especially since Cameron was elected), the French and the Germans.

    The Turks are busy turning themselves from a NATO ally into an adversary that may very well need to be expelled.

    Perhaps the time has come to reconstitute NATO. At the very least, the time has come to recognize that the Turks are now our enemy and that Britain, France and Germany are more anxious than ever to freeload on the United States for their security needs.

    Maybe its “new” Europe that we should be cultivating. Naturally, the Obama Administration is too dimwitted to see it this way. Shortly after his arrival in the Oval Office, Obama decided that the best way to reward the Poles for their high level of cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan was to renege on the deal to base operational Patriot Missiles there.

    Nor has he provided anything to make it up to the extraordinarily cooperative Poles. British, French, Italian and even Hungarian citizens can travel to the United States without visas. Poles have to face the indignity of standing in long lines at the American Embassy in Warsaw or Cracow to obtain visas before they can travel to the United States and often these tourist visas are denied.

    The United States should start rewarding our real friends while at the same time we send a message to our freeloading allies. It needs to be made clear that there on consequences for their failure to do their fair share.

  • Peter

    “Europe doesn’t want to change, and this is a subject on which Europeans have the last word.”

    No sir, Mr. mead, no sir. All the U.S. has to do is withdraw from NATO and then you’ll see action.

    Until then, the Euro-elite will be content to milk us for all it’s worth.

  • Greg R. Lawson

    NATO should stay focused on intra-European stability and stay away from out of theater operations. New regional security alliances make more sense than trying to stretch an underwhelming alliance further.

    A new SEATO or CENTO anyone? May not have worked before, but with China on the rise, this may be a more propitious time…

  • Vilmos

    > 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

    But didn’t the Americans actually *WANTED* to weaken Europe? Robert Kagan’s superb essay, Power and Weakness (, claims this:

    —– excerpt starts —–

    But Americans of Roosevelt’s era had a different view. In the late 1930s the common conviction of Americans was that “the European system was basically rotten, that war was endemic on that continent, and the Europeans had only themselves to blame for their plight.”10 By the early 1940s Europe appeared to be nothing more than the overheated incubator of world wars that cost America dearly. During World War II Americans like Roosevelt, looking backward rather than forward, believed no greater service could be performed than to take Europe out of the global strategic picture once and for all. “After Germany is disarmed,” fdr pointedly asked, “what is the reason for France having a big military establishment?” Charles DeGaulle found such questions “disquieting for Europe and for France.” Even though the United States pursued Acheson’s vision during the Cold War, there was always a part of American policy that reflected Roosevelt’s vision, too. Eisenhower undermining Britain and France at Suez was only the most blatant of many American efforts to cut Europe down to size and reduce its already weakened global influence.

    —– excerpt ends —–

    OK, that was a different era (and Kagan also mentioned this).


  • Joseph Somsel

    The US certainly wanted to push back European colonialism. This was for both moral/historical reasons and for geopolitical ones.

    Eisenhower supported the French in Indochina only as a way to help prevent the French communists from taking over at home.

    His reaction to Seuz was partially to increase US popularity in the Middle East.

    Too bad about NATO – cool flag.

  • Otis McWrong

    @ Greg R. Lawson “New regional security alliances make more sense than…” – no they don’t. An alliance with toothless nations (all of Europe) isn’t an alliance but a security guarantee. I’m with George Washington on this one – “Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?

    @ Vilmos “But didn’t the Americans actually *WANTED* to weaken Europe?”…without a doubt we wanted it and we received it. But 66 years after the end of WW2 it’s time to move on. The Soviet Bear has been gone for 20+ years. The Germans are effete’, self-hating, and toothless; the Brits even more broke than we are; and soon-to-be-Moslem France views us only as nominally a friend. None of the “new Europe” nations has a military that would impress a random US state’s National Guard.

    NATO is like many other government programs – long since obsolete and filled with bureaucrats desperate to justify its existence. The sooner it’s dissolved the better.

  • don

    I’m reminded of the joke about psychiatrists treating delusional patients who build sand castles in the air but getting to collect the rent on the sand castles. The problem is when it comes to the Libyan operation, I can’t figure out who the patient is.

  • Luke Lea

    The U.S. is to Nato as Germany is to the Euro Zone? Seems similar to me.

  • Luke Lea

    @WigWag – “Perhaps the time has come to reconstitute NATO” EETO? Russia would be out for now of course, but what about the day after tomorrow?

  • Jim.

    What always surprises me is the position of otherwise rational people that “The US spends as much on defense as the rest of the world” (true enough) “Therefore we should cut back.” (Does Not Follow!!)

    The fact is that the rest of the Free World doesn’t spend enough on defense to maintain itself as the Free World. Its dependence on the US was tolerable after WWII while the US was the only economically intact democracy on the planet. Nowadays, though, there’s no excuse for them to lecture us on the inadequacy of our entitlements while they pour the money that they should be using to defend themselves into porking up their useless classes.

    On the other hand, let me note that this is perhaps a dangerous time to be calling for a European defense buildup. With the total political fragmentation of Europe a strong possibility, the resurgence of the garrison-state mentality that cursed Europe in the years between the fall of Rome and 1945 is not something to be contemplated lightly.

    If we had a more competent foreign service and more far-sighted statesmen, it might be possible to guide this situation to our advantage — but our political establishment has a long, long way to go before they have a chance of proving that they’re up to such a challenge.

  • Vilmos


    > The Turks are busy turning themselves
    > from a NATO ally into an adversary that
    > may very well need to be expelled.

    I don’t think this would happen. Not that I like Erdogan. Just look at the map. Not Via Meadia but via Turkey, the US/NATO can deny the Russians easy military access to the Mediterranean Sea – Europe’s soft underbelly. Imagine the nightmare if Turkey were expelled from NATO, and in turn, they would ally to Russia. No, whatever disgusting Erdogan is behaving, I just cannot imagine that Turkey would ever be expelled. Or, it would be expelled, when Istanbul will be renamed either to Constantinople or Byzantium…


  • Toni

    Oh golly. I fear I sound as monomaniacal as the Ancient Mariner. But, contra Mr. Vilmos, I attribute “old” Europe’s failure to contribute its fair NATO share to its devotion to the Blue Social Model.

    Starting in the late 1940s, the US perceived and acted on Stalin’s global ambitions. The Marshall Plan was proposed and implemented to prevent devastated Europe from turning Communist. (Yes, really. See John Lewis Gaddis.) Then, as the US and the USSR built more and more nukes to aim at each other, NATO countries discovered they could have their cake and eat it too. They had security because the US was determined to save the world from the totalitarian threat, but also the freedom to spend their own monies on socialized medicine and anti-capitalist taxes and labor rules.

    What could the US do? “Fine. We’re going to take our nukes and go home”? Thus handing “old Europe” NATO countries over to Stalin and Krushchev?

    I think it’s no accident that (as noted above) former Warsaw Pact NATO members — “new Europe” — are more enthused about NATO membership and obligations than the old members. Old Europe practiced Communism Lite. New Europe had no choice; it was forced to live the full-strength version for half a century.

    To mangle a metaphor, if someone else is willing to build me a fine mansion and maintain its fire and burglar alarms, I am free to spend my money on fine furnishings. But maybe my benefactor should someday wise up and make me pay for my own security.

  • Richard F. Miller


    With respect, agree and disagree. I agree that the Obami are too dimwitted to grasp the differences between Old Europe and the New (Got Nuance?) Moreover, the differences should be exploited by a new alliance with New that slowly shifts to them resources currently allocated to Old. Let the Old wither.

    I disagree (in part) with your analysis of Turkey. Ally? Not since the ascendancy of AK. Adversary? Sometimes. Useful? Yes, and for this reason, working with the Turks can still serve U.S. interests.

    First, if one examines Turkey’s hegemonic arc, its clash with Iran is inevitable. The vacuum Turkey sees is not just that caused by U.S. withdrawal and European weakness but also the debilitated Sunni states that includes the ex-Sunni Iraq (but with a large Sunni minority), the statelets along the southern shore of the Gulf, and on to Jordan and Egypt.

    Turkey likely is to assume the role of leadership. It will need the U.S. to do this, and included among Obama’s dimwittedness is his failure to see this.

    And we will need it as our catspaw in dealing with Iran. Sure Erdogan is a SOB. But our goal should be to make him our SOB.

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