NATO has been a most successful military defence alliance but in seeking to move away from old fashioned territorial defence to defence at arms length its very clear mission has become blurred. Instead of a military alliance with a very clear purpose and significant support it has now become synonymous with dubious overseas military adventurism.
In his parting shot the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, delivered a stinging rebuke to NATO about pulling their weight.
Its not the first time Robert Gates has been critical of NATO nations and I am sure as he moves on to pastures new it won’t be his last and in many ways there is substance to his claims of European nations fighting to the last American. The spectacle of European nations running our of bombs whilst conducting what in reality is a low intensity operation over Libya is both embarrassing and indicative of the post cold war levels of defence spending in Europe.
The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defence. If current trends in the decline of European defence capabilities are not halted and reversed, future US political leaders — those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me — may not consider the return on America’s investment in Nato worth the cost.
In 2009 I looked at who was pulling their weight in Afghanistan, it’s an old article but worth having a read if you get a few minutes.
I am always very reticent about measuring commitment by how many body bags you can fill but the notion that all European nations are not carrying their weight, sucking on the US defence teat or hiding under a US security blanket is blatantly nonsense and insulting to those who contribute.
What Mr Gates has to realise, and this is something that most US politicians just don’t get, is that the nations of Europe have experienced first hand the consequences of war. Between 1939 and 1945 the calorific intake, GDP and general standard of living in the USA increased, whilst in Europe it plummeted. Several million civilians died and whole areas laid to waste the scars of which are still evident today. Wartime Europe had to invent radar, jet fighters and cruise missiles and whilst not wanting to diminish the huge technology progress made by the US during the period, in the same few years the Slinky and the electric guitar came forth from the USA!
These are enduring collective memories for European nations and individuals, politicians will self evidently reflect the mood and national character of their electorate. Most Europeans see Iraq and Afghanistan as American wars that have actually increased security threats so why exactly should they join in. This is the mindset of most Europeans, with pretty much everyone in Europe having first hand family experience of war and the devastation it brings there is a natural tendency to move in the opposite direction.
But that should not mean we become a continent of pacifists.
The US needs to look East so moving its resources and attention that way should not be seen as anything other than self interest, the US looking after itself. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, its what all nations should do.
If he is saying that Libya is Europe’s back yard and it is not for the US to step in then he is absolutely correct, Europe as a whole does not invest properly in defence and as a wake up call this is as good as any, for that I absolutely applaud him and wholeheartedly agree.
There is no point spending money on defence you can’t afford and true security comes at the point of a cheque book, not gun. This means spending money on defence and security where it makes the most difference.
Perhaps European nations should consider the cost of maintaining operations in Afghanistan and realise that Libya is a strategic interest and Afghanistan is not.
Perhaps the UK right wing, whilst it is shitting its pants about being told off by the US because we are not doing enough might consider US support for Argentina in its ongoing claims over the Falkland Islands.
The UK and Europe definitely need to spend more money on security but maybe NATO has had its day and its time to move on, look back with good memories, thank the US for their undoubted support and realise that the world is a different place.