It’s becoming an alliance without a military.
NATO is moving to station Patriot missiles in Turkey along its border with Syria. But if war erupts, it won’t be the Europeans doing the fighting.
The organization is moving toward a first. With the Europeans continuing to shrink their militaries, it may eventually become an alliance without a military, at least an effective one.
From its start the organization has generated international dependency. While Europeans understandably concentrated on economic reconstruction after World War II, they proved little more ready to spend their money on their defense after they recovered. Throughout the Cold War — when there really was a threat to their security — the Europeans preferred to let Washington provide it.
At the time, the U.S. also carried a disproportionate defense burden in Asia, eventually adding the Middle East and even Central Asia to its long list of military responsibilities. So American officials routinely badgered their NATO allies to do more, but the Europeans just as routinely broke their promises to do so. It was almost as if Uncle Sam enjoyed being taken advantage of.
At least the trans-Atlantic alliance had a purpose during the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact there was no longer the slightest chance that Moscow could dominate Europe, let alone Eurasia. The Europeans were capable of defending themselves against whatever dangers remained.
NATO should have transformed itself. America could have turned the alliance over to its European members. The Western Europeans then could have decided whether to add the newly freed Central and Eastern European nations. Washington and Brussels could have built a strong cooperative relationship to handle issues of genuine trans-Atlantic concern.
Instead, NATO’s organizational survival instincts took over. Its members decided to get involved in “out of area” activities, that is, controversies in which they had no direct interest. As a result, countries increasingly drag each other into conflicts that they would have better avoided. America ended up fighting in Kosovo, occupying Bosnia, and intervening in Libya for no good reason. The Europeans have spent more than a decade trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, democratic nation state, also without justification.
Yet NATO’s non-American combat capabilities continue to atrophy. The Europeans have essentially decided that it isn’t worth their while to have militaries capable of doing what militaries are supposed to do: fight wars.
A recent Brookings Institution report, “The Implications of Military Spending Cuts for NATO’s Largest Members,” highlights the problem. Before retiring, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates blasted the Europeans for doing so little as to court “collective military irrelevance.” NATO Secretary General and relentless cheerleader Anders Fogh Rasmussen nevertheless admitted: “if European defense spending cuts continue, Europe’s ability to be a stabilizing force even in its neighborhood will rapidly disappear.”
Several authors contributed to the paper. Admitted editor Clara Marina O’Donnell: “current military spending trends are reducing the ability of most NATO allies to contribute to international security.” Unless the Europeans change course — which seems unlikely — both Gates and Rasmussen will be proved right.
Christian Moelling, with the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, reviewed military efforts within the European Union. Cuts in military spending are pervasive, with smaller states making the largest reductions: 36 percent by Lithuania in 2010, 21 percent by Latvia in 2009, 19 percent in 2011 by Greece, 13 percent by Romania in 2010, 11 percent by Portugal in 2010, and 10 percent by both the Czech Republic and Ireland in 2011.
Of even greater concern are cutbacks by the larger nations upon which European efforts necessarily depend. Both Germany and Great Britain are planning an 8 percent cut in military outlays by 2015, though economic exigencies could accelerate and intensify the cuts.
Along with reductions in the budget have come cuts in the number of military personnel — down about 160,000 continent-wide from just 2009 to 2011. “The United Kingdom, one of Europe’s most important contributors of deployable troops, has been amongst those making significant personnel cuts,” said Moelling. Others are likely to follow suit.
Equipment procurement, too, faces significant cutbacks. Governments are delaying acquisition of equipment, reducing order size, retiring weapons early, and reselling equipment. Explained Moelling: “The largest equipment cuts have taken place in small and medium-size EU states, some of which have canceled entire military capabilities. For example, the Netherlands and Denmark are eliminating their main battle tanks. Denmark is also getting rid of its submarines and land-based air defense.”
With U.S. officials determined to maintain an outsize military despite the enormous cost to the U.S. economy, the disparity between American and European capabilities continues to grow. For instance, Washington modernizes its forces more often, “leading many to suggest that NATO was already a multi-tier alliance,” noted Moelling. Increasingly, the Europeans won’t be capable of doing much of anything serious when it comes to war.
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