Even Homer nods

Robert Gates has rightly earned the admiration of many in the security community. But his recent criticism of European contributions to NATO fail to come to terms with changes in how European nations conceive of their own security and the role NATO has to play in defending it.  

Delivering his “last policy speech as US defense secretary” on 10 June in Brussels (http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1581) , Robert Gates did not pull his punches. The levels of feebleness and incapacity demonstrated by many allies over Libya confirmed that NATO had become a “two-tiered alliance”. There was still time to “avoid the very real possibility of collective military irrelevance”. But unless Europeans began to assume a fairer share of the common defence, they could expect that “future US political leaders… may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost”.  

I do not have many heroes – but Robert Gates is one. His record as a public servant speaks for itself – culminating in the unique distinction of being pressed by an incoming Democratic President to carry on running the Pentagon as he had under the outgoing Republican. But what I have really admired about Gates has been his knack of moving ahead of events, and getting there early with succinct truths about the changing world scene – usually to the discomfort of the vested interests of what Eisenhower dubbed the “military-industrial complex”. Thus several generations-worth of argumentation in favour of unnecessary defence expenditure fell away when, in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, Gates pronounced that “Russia's conventional military… remains a shadow of its Soviet predecessor”. And anyone interested in defence reform should light a candle to his thoughtful analysis of how defence establishments left to their own devices will repeatedly sacrifice the needs of the present to their ambitions for the future. (His formative experience in this regard was his struggle to interest Pentagon generals in getting bomb-proof vehicles to their troops in Iraq.)

More recently, Gates has led the way in applying the brakes to the runaway truck of US military expenditure, even succeeding in cancelling some of the more egregiously extravagant equipment megaprojects, despite the inevitable resistance from Congress.

And Gates’s economic realism was on display again last Friday, when he acknowledged that NATO’s problem was as much about how the European allies chose to spend their reduced defence funds as about the fact of budget cuts in an age of austerity.

But still and all – what a pity that this smart and wise man should end up signing off with what was in effect the same ‘Europeans must try harder’ speech which American leaders have routinely doled out ever since the ink was dried on the North Atlantic Treaty. It is simply too easy to accuse Europeans of free-riding in NATO – with the implication that they are selfish, or lazy, or generally decadent – and ignore the underlying reality, which is that many of them simply do not want to be on board at all, or at any rate have serious concerns about the direction in which the ride is now taking them.

Gates speaks as though NATO was still primarily about America’s defence guarantee to Europe. Yet many Europeans now see that guarantee as less important – and, scarred by the Afghanistan experience, wonder whether NATO has not rather become a vehicle for dragging Europeans in to make up the numbers for ill-judged and counter-productive American interventions. Gates bluntly ascribes Europe’s patchy performance on Libya to lack of both courage and capacity – and whilst there is certainly truth in this, the analysis is incomplete without accepting that many Europeans have had genuine reservations about getting involved with another mission they have seen mutate away from its original purpose into an exercise in regime change.

Though beset by economic insecurities, most Europeans today feel safer, in terms of traditional military threats, than at any previous time in history. They have seen two major Western interventions, in Iraq and Afghanistan, back-fire. If they conclude that they therefore want, especially in the wake of the worst economic crisis for eighty years, to cut their militaries and to stay home, then they are unlikely to be moved by accusations of free-riding. As a response to how they see the world, theirs is neither irrational nor necessarily reprehensible. It may, of course, be wrong – short-sighted, for example, or based on an imperfect understanding of power will operate in the post-Western world. In embracing the notion of soft power, Europeans may have missed the extent to which hard power is not its antithesis, but a key constituent. But, mistaken or not, doubts about the modern-day utility of military power lie at the heart of Europe’s present half-hearted attitude towards NATO – and will continue to do so unless and until Europeans are convinced otherwise.

In Brussels, Robert Gates concluded that only Europe could “get its defence institutions and security relationships on track…. It cannot be coaxed, demanded or imposed from across the Atlantic.” And on this he is surely right. What a pity, then, that he wasted this opportunity to get Europeans thinking again about what they want to be in the world of tomorrow, and how far effective armed forces may be needed to achieve that role and position. Threatening them with the displeasure of the US Congress was not an adequate substitute. Fortunately, there is life beyond the Pentagon; and there will be many future opportunities for the great man to get to the real issues.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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