Gates warned in his speech that NATO risks "military irrelevance" unless allies make smarter defense choices

From James Kitfield, the National Journal:  [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates is not the first U.S. official to publicly warn that the NATO alliance is at great risk of emerging from the war in Afghanistan fundamentally weakened , its political divisions, military limitations, and lopsided division of labor exposed for all to see. Before he retired in 2009, former Supreme Allied Commander Gen. John Craddock resorted to showing up at senior-level NATO meetings with a big cup labeled “Contributions,” attempting to shame defense chiefs into honoring their countries’ unmet troop commitments. “So where is your bid?” Craddock said at the time. “And I didn’t get anything! So yeah, I’m frustrated.”

In his own farewell address in 2009, former U.S. ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker warned that the alliance was headed for a “train wreck,” with vastly divergent views between the United States and Europe of global threats and the investments and sometimes violent measures required to counter them. “And the fact is, in the two years since my farewell address the problem has gotten much worse, because it’s been compounded by the economic crisis and subsequent severe defense cuts in Europe, and the continuing struggles in Afghanistan,” Volker told National Journal. “If current trends aren’t reversed, I agree with Gates that it could lead to the demise of NATO, which no one wants and would amount to a terrible loss. . . .”

Gates has been especially concerned about actions taken by what were once Europe’s wealthiest and most reliable allies. As part of its deficit-cutting austerity measures, Great Britain recently announced that it was scrapping 40 percent of its tank and artillery forces, cutting its buy of the new F-35 fighter aircraft by more than two thirds, and shrinking an already diminished royal Navy to fewer than 20 surface combatants. Such dramatic cuts in the British military put its status as America’s junior partner of first resort in jeopardy. For its part, France has announced its own cuts that will require the once proud world power to share a single aircraft carrier with Britain. Germany will cut $19 billion from its own defense budget by 2013, leading to a reduction in its armed forces from 250,000 to 190,000 troops. . . .

“Gates is correct that the Europeans have cut their defense budgets to an unacceptable level, and he criticized them heavily for their operations in Afghanistan, where most of our allies don’t see a real interest in being other than to stand alongside the United States,” said Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO now at the Rand Corporation think tank. “At the same time, the Europeans don’t see us sharing equal risks in Libya, which is the only operation in NATO history where the United States has chosen not to lead. So we need to mend this divergence in the assessment of threats and interests across the Atlantic, or there is a real danger that the alliance comes through this period severely weakened.” (photo: Jason Reed-Pool/Getty)