Robert Gates is by all accounts a pretty smart guy (though he got a few things wrong near the end of the Cold War), and he's been a much better Secretary of Defense than his predecessor (admittedly a low bar to clear). But the intemperate remarks he directed at a NATO meeting two days ago mostly reveals a complete lack of understanding of the theory of collective goods. As we've understood since Olson and Zeckhauser's classic article, multilateral alliances where one state controls a disproportionate share of overall resources inevitably encourage free-riding. Why? Because a powerful state's allies know that it will provide the collective good (in this case, military spending and protection) out of its own self-interest, and the weaker members can therefore spend a smaller percentage of their own wealth and still feel safe.
One implication is that it makes no sense for the stronger power to complain about this situation or expect it to change very much, especially when it keeps insisting on doing the lion's share in places like Afghanistan. The only way to get our European allies to bear a significantly larger share of the collective defense burden would be to reduce our own contribution significantly; nagging them as Gates did hasn't worked in the past and won't work now. Did Gates and the rest of the Obama administration notice that the Europeans didn't exactly leap to follow suit when Obama decided to send an additional 47,000 troops to Afghanistan (17,000 last spring, and 30,000 more beginning last fall)? We pounded the desk and asked for more, and got a mere token response.
Which is precisely what we should have expected. Again, the only reliable way to get Europe to take national security seriously is to stop subsidizing its defense, and a good case can be made that the United States no longer needs to do much of anything to help defend Europe itself. Europe is peaceful, democratic, and loosely united within the EU, and the danger of serious conflict there is remote. So if the United States is feeling over-extended and looking for a place to cut back, Europe seems like an ideal candidate. And it might even lead them to do a bit more on their own.
Just don't expect them to start matching America's bloated defense effort. The EU member states don't face any any significant military threats, and they aren't especially interested in our grand schemes for social engineering in various far-flung places. So it's not clear why they would want a military akin to ours, even if we were no longer protecting them. (Nor is it entirely clear that Washington would like that better, but that's another story.
The real source of Gates' frustration is his desire for our European partners to relieve some of America's current burdens. In other words, he just wants Europe to do what we tell them to I can understand why he thinks that would be desirable, but not why he thinks it will happen.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.