Defense Secretary Robert Gates used his final European trip to issue a blunt warning: NATO, the military alliance which the U.S. founded and has largely underwritten for the past 60 years, faces a "dim, if not dismal" future because of ongoing European defense cutbacks.
Gates has used much of his tenure at the Pentagon to encourage European powers to boost - or at least maintain - their military spending, arguing that NATO had become a "two-tiered alliance" in which countries like the U.S. and Britain maintained large and capable armed forces while other NATO members cut their troop numbers and armaments. Gates went even further in his remarks this week, pointedly arguing that Washington was losing patience with European nations who are "willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets."
Are Gates' comments likely to persuade NATO members to reverse their defense cuts, or will Europe's ongoing economic woes lead to even further reductions in the years ahead? Is it reasonable to expect European powers, which see no immediate threats to their own security, to boost military spending? Has NATO - which was founded to deter possible Soviet adventurism within Europe during the Cold War - simply outlived its usefulness, or can still it play a useful role in future conflicts? More fundamentally, has Washington erred by pushing NATO to take parts in distant, unpopular wars like Afghanistan as opposed to having the alliance retain its traditional focus solely on crises within Europe?