“We are moving toward a Europe that is a combination of the unable and the unwilling”

From Steven Erlanger, New York Times:  Alarmed by years of cuts to military spending, the NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, issued a dire public warning to European nations, noting that together they had slashed $45 billion, or the equivalent of Germany’s entire military budget, endangering the alliance’s viability, its mission and its relationship with the United States.

That was two years ago. Since then, with the Afghan war winding down and pressure from the European Union to limit budget deficits, Europe has only cut deeper.

Now, as President Obama wrestles with his own huge budget deficit and military costs, the responsibility for keeping NATO afloat has fallen disproportionately onto the United States, an especially untenable situation as priorities shift to Asia.

The United States finances nearly three-quarters of NATO’s military spending, up from 63 percent in 2001. And yet among the alliance’s 28 nations, experts note, only the United States, Britain and Greece are meeting NATO’s own spending guidelines of 2 percent of gross domestic product. Even Britain and France — the two leading European nations willing to project military might — are slipping further. France says that by 2014 it may cut deeper still — to just 1.3 percent of G.D.P., down from 1.9 percent this year. By comparison, the United States spent 4.8 percent of its G.D.P. on the military in 2011.

In 2012, for the first time, military spending among Asian nations, in particular China, exceeded that of the Europeans.

“We are moving toward a Europe that is a combination of the unable and the unwilling,” said Camille Grand, a French military expert who directs the Foundation for Strategic Research. “European countries are continuing to be free riders, instead of working seriously to see how to act together. . . .”

NATO’s deputy secretary general, Alexander R. Vershbow, a former senior Defense Department official, said that “the financial crisis has been corrosive to the alliance” and that relations between the European Union and NATO remained “dysfunctional.”

Even as Britain and France have boasted of operations in Libya and Mali, those interventions have revealed Europe’s weakness more than its strength. In Libya, the United States supplied intelligence, drones, fighter and refueling aircraft, ammunition stocks and missiles to destroy air defenses, and in Mali the French required American intelligence, drones, and refueling and transport aircraft.

Senior American officials have warned that unless European countries spend more on defense, they risk “collective military irrelevance.”

A senior American official said that Washington was eager for partnership in the Middle East and Asia, but that “Europe’s decision to abdicate on defense spending increasingly means it can’t take care of itself, and it can’t be a valuable partner to us.”

While the United States would like to be able to rely more on its European allies, many experts doubt that even the strongest among them, Britain and France, could carry out their part of another Libya operation now, and certainly not in a few years. Both are struggling to maintain their own nuclear deterrents as well as mobile, modern armed forces. The situation in Britain is so bad that American officials are quietly urging it to drop its expensive nuclear deterrent.

Either they can be a nuclear power and nothing else or a real military partner,” a senior American official said. . . .

The European Union had a 1999 goal of 60,000 troops available for battle in a “Eurocorps.” That has been quietly abandoned, replaced by battle groups of 1,500 to 2,500 troops, also on a rotating basis among the many and differently equipped member states. The “lead” country is supposed to take the political risk and provide most of the troops and most of the money. . . .

There is also a French-German brigade, formed in 1987, of some 5,000 men, which proudly marched down the Champs-Élysées on Bastille Day. But it, too, has remained unused. When the French wanted to use it for Mali, the Germans objected. . . .

Whatever NATO’s weaknesses, “if it were gone, it would be very, very hard to recreate.”   (photo: News International)