Gates Warns Europe: America Won’t Defend You If You Won’t Help

Rumors that Robert Gates would deliver a provocative farewell to the European allies were well founded. Going further than he had to date, he bluntly warned that NATO has become a two-tiered Alliance and said it faces a “dim, if not dismal” future.

Gates has been displaying increasing frustration with the European Allies and pointedly criticized Germany, Poland, Spain, Turkey, and the Netherlands for not carrying their weight in Libya Wednesday. He took it up a notch in today’s speech at SDA.

I summarize his remarks, which I wholeheartedly endorse, in a New Atlanticist post titled “Gates: NATO a Two-Tiered Alliance with a Dim, Dismal Future.” I do, however, push back a bit, noting:

On the other hand, America remains a superpower that sees its interests as truly global. Our defense budget will likely remain massive for decades to come, simply because the ability to project power any where, any time is central to our self-conception. It’s not at all clear that there would be significant cuts in America’s defense budget if the Europeans suddenly stepped up. To paraphrase Cap Weinberger, They cut, we spend. They spend, we spend.

It would obviously have been a great relief if the Europeans had shouldered more of the burden in Afghanistan. But it was our fight, not theirs; they were there, in most cases against the strong wishes of the people who elected them to office, because we asked. We’d have fought it exactly the same way in their absence. In that light, every European and Canadian soldier was a bonus.

Libya is a different story. Click through if you’re interested.

Photo credit:Reuters.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I’ll repeat the remarks I made to you by email, James. First, I hope you find it as reassuring as do I that we can always fall back on Albanian military might.

    Second, I think that Gates is being kind. NATO is becoming more of a three-tier system. Not only is the spending inadequate but even those that are spending at a high enough level are having problems doing their own logistics. That’s one of the things that’s become apparent during the Libyan experience and I suspect it will become increasingly obvious the longer it goes on.

  2. Southern Hoosier says:

    I think the NATO members are scratching their heads trying to figure out what they are doing in Afghanistan and Libya. Afghanistan and Libya are not threats to Europe. And the are probably wonder what war we will drag them into next.

  3. Ben Wolf says:

    Agreeing with Southern Hoosier. Why should Europe have made an effort to be more involved in Afghsnistan when it doesn’t serve their interests? Our involvment with Afghanistan doesn’t serve our interests, and what Gates is really saying is “Europe needs to increase its military capabilities because the United States has a number of countries we want you to invade.”

    If there’s one word to describe the speech, it would be “arrogant”.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I think the NATO members are scratching their heads trying to figure out what they are doing in Afghanistan and Libya. Afghanistan and Libya are not threats to Europe

    WRT to Afghanistan you’re probably right. WRT Libya have you looked at a map lately? Tripoli is what, 200 miles from Ragusa?

    The question is why are we bombing Tripoli right now? Answer: humanitarian intervention and a healthy dollop of French and Italian neo-colonialism.

  5. Southern Hoosier says:

    It really makes no sense for Europe to attack Libya. Libya was a trading partner and a suppler of energy for Europe. Libya has had a stable government for the past 42 years. Its like Europe is biting the hand that helps to feed them

    I can’t help but wonder if Comrade Obama is trying to sabotage the BP Libyan oil deal at the expense of Europe and the the Libyan people.

  6. Southern Hoosier says:

    But Gates warned that consensus is under strain, delivering his most powerful shot: “Some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. share of NATO defense spending has now risen to more than 75 percent – at a time when politically painful budget and benefit cuts are being considered at home. The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – 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 defense.”

    Couldn’t we say the same thing about the UN?

  7. Ebenezer Arvigenius says:

    While I can’t find the article too convincing, the headline does highlight the absurdity of the US position very well.

    The US position usually is that the US is defending Europe. At the same time the main complaint about European efforts is not the lacking availability of conventional forces (that would enable NATO to actually defend its members), but the absence of easily deployable “force projection” assets.

    In essentia the complaint purports to be about a proper defence, while in reality it’s about insufficient support of the ongoing US/EU efforts of turning NATO from a defence association into a fig leaf for international interventions.

    As such, I cannot find the complaints of Mr. Gates too impressive. What he is saying is essentially “turn your self-defence forces into well-conscriptable auxiliary forces to reduce our costs or we will not lend you troops if you want to protect force in the future”.

    As an European, I must admit that this actually seems like a rather pleasant outcome. The EU members who regularly insist on using force would be forced to put their money where their mouth is, while all those who are primarily interested in self-defence would be able to concentrate on that without wasting lives and money on supporting the latest American self-assurance program just to grease the wheels of diplomacy.

    Even though EU forces are not as efficient as they could be, I remain pretty confidant in its ability to defend itself without too much US help given that its combined military expenditures are roughly five to six times that of its nearest rivals (China and Russia) and that it still has two of the worlds atomic powers among its members. Barring a scuffle between France and Britain, I am unlikely to loose too much sleep over my safety.