U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared last week that Europe’s declining military capabilities and its lack of political will threaten the viability of NATO. That’s correct, although it isn’t news. Ten years ago, Lord Robertson of the U.K., who was then the alliance’s secretary general, stated the problem more colorfully: “Europe is an economic giant,” he said, “but a military pygmy.”
But Secretary Gates may not have chosen the right moment for pointing out the obvious. After all, for the first time in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 60-year history, the U.S. has chosen to take a back-seat role -- in NATO’s air operations in Libya against the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.
Ten U.S. presidents -- from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton -- saw U.S. leadership of NATO as a vital national interest. Before Libya, the U.S. led all of the alliance’s operations, including those in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. The U.S. always determined the military objectives, the force structure and the exit strategy, and also committed up to two-thirds of the required troops. The U.S. was what former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the “indispensable nation.”
Unfortunately, the Obama administration has tried to change this tradition by “leading from behind,” as one White House official infelicitously put it. Such a strategy is a grand mistake.
Gates is right to worry that NATO is becoming a “two-tier” alliance -- with some countries running the combat missions and others managing the peacekeeping or political tasks. But he was wrong to cite Libya as an example of that problem. After all, Europe has done the leading on Libya. Since NATO took command of the operation on March 31, President Barack Obama has limited U.S. participation to refueling, intelligence and other support tasks. The Europeans have flown close to 75 percent of coalition air sorties, according to the administration’s June 15 report to Congress, and all 20 ships enforcing the arms embargo are European or Canadian.
So it seems odd now to criticize our partners’ weakness.
The lack of U.S. leadership and Europe’s reluctance to rebuild its military capabilities reflect a larger problem: The trans-Atlantic relationship increasingly resembles a stale marriage. Both sides are comfortable with each other and don’t want a divorce, but their passion and sense of joint purpose have dimmed. Expressions of affection have become largely ritualistic. Snipping about each other’s faults has increased but is still muted in front of strangers.
Appropriate U.S. Role
What, then, to do? First, Europe should spend more on defense, or at least spend more efficiently, and the U.S. should resume its natural and appropriate role as leader of NATO. Then, with respect to Libya, the Obama administration should end its experiment in back-seat driving.
The U.S. is already committed in Libya; the president has said Qaddafi must go, and with U.S. help tens of thousands of civilian lives have been saved. Washington can continue to make a difference in Libya at an acceptable cost. The sooner U.S. leadership is brought to bear, the sooner NATO’s mission can be brought to a successful conclusion.
More broadly, Brussels and Washington need to renew their relationship. With D-Day, the Berlin airlift and even the Cold War receding into history, younger generations of Europeans and Americans may no longer remember why NATO was created. The Arab Spring can bring a new sense of purpose. These past few months have shown that when historic events unfold -- whether in Egypt, Syria or Libya -- the partnership between the U.S. and Europe can provide the moral, financial and even military support that no other part of the world will offer.
To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at email@example.com.