Outgoing SecDef Robert Gates delivered a blunt message to America's NATO allies last week. If they don't start pulling their weight, he warned, the alliance "faces a dim, if not dismal future." In particular, he said that public opinion in the United States will not support our continuing to subsidize European defense in an era where Asia merits greater attention and when the U.S. economy is performing poorly and our fiscal situation is especially parlous. Money quote:
I am the latest in a string of U.S. defense secretaries who have urged allies privately and publicly, often with exasperation, to meet agreed-upon NATO benchmarks for defense spending. However, fiscal, political and demographic realities make this unlikely to happen anytime soon, as even military stalwarts like the U.K have been forced to ratchet back with major cuts to force structure. Today, just five of 28 allies -- the U.S., U.K., France, Greece, along with Albania -- exceed the agreed 2 percent of GDP spending on defense.
Regrettably, but realistically, this situation is highly unlikely to change."
Well, duh. NATO has been on borrowed time ever since the Soviet Union collapsed, because military alliances form primarily to deal with external threats and they are hard to hold together once the threat is gone. In a sense it is remarkable that NATO has persisted as long as it has, but that was mostly because the United States could afford to subsidize European security and because Washington saw NATO as a useful tool for maximizing U.S. influence in Europe.
The problems the alliance faces today have little to do with European fecklessness, American militarism, or the particular errors of individual leaders. The central problem here is structural: there's just not much of a case for a tightly integrated military alliance anymore, and not much reason for Europe to be armed to the teeth. Although both European and American defense intellectuals have worked tirelessly to invent new rationales for the alliance, none of them have been especially convincing.
Americans want Europe to spend more on defense, so that they can contribute more to our far-flung global projects. But why should they? Europe is peaceful, stable, democratic, and faces no serious external military threats. Its combined GNP exceeds ours, and the European members of NATO spend almost eight times more on defense than Russia does. So where's the threat? The plain truth is that Europe has little reason to invest a lot of money on defense these days, no matter how much Americans implore them to, and so they turn a deaf ear to American entreaties.
To give U.S. interventions a veneer of legitimacy and to give itself something to do, in recent years NATO has tried to transform itself into some sort of global expeditionary force. Unfortunately, not only is a multilateral alliance with twenty-eight members a very ungainly structure for conducting this sort of operation, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed the folly of this sort of global policeman role. Iraq was not a NATO operation, of course, but a lot of NATO countries participated in the debacle and all of them came away with a dim view of occupation and little desire to do more nation-building. Similarly, the repeated difficulties encountered in Afghanistan -- where NATO has had an official mission -- have reinforced the conclusion that occupying failed states is costly, difficult, and probably unnecessary. If this sort of activity has become NATO's main raison d'etre, you can understand why the alliance is in some trouble.
In other words, the central problem is that U.S. and European leaders have failed to invent a convincing reason for Europeans to spend more on defense than they already do. And when you marry that reality with the normal incentives for free-riding (as explained by the theory of collective action), then it is easy to understand why NATO is slowly fading into irrelevance. As I wrote over ten years ago:
The Atlantic Alliance is beginning to resemble Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, appearing youthful and robust as it grows older-but becoming ever more infirm. The Washington treaty may remain in force, the various ministerial meetings may continue to issue earnest and upbeat communiqués, and the Brussels bureaucracy may keep NATO webpage up and running -- all these superficial routines will go one, provided the alliances isn't asked to actually do anything else. he danger is that NATO will be dead before anyone notices and we will only discover the corpse the moment we want it to rise and respond."
It's actually worse than I anticipated: We probably hastened NATO's demise by saddling it with a series of missions that it was never expected to perform and that were badly handled from the start. Secretary Gates deserves credit for some plain talk about the current situation, but his sober words won't be nearly enough to overcome the deep structural forces at work.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.