It was the shot heard around the Alliance.

In a hard-hitting farewell speech delivered in Brussels just days before his retirement as US Secretary of Defense on July 1, 2011, Robert Gates offered a tough-love message to America’s NATO allies. He warned that future US policymakers, and the American public, would lose interest in the Alliance if Europe and Canada failed to make the investments and tough political choices needed to remain America’s ‘go-to partners’ for global challenges.

This May, leaders of the twenty-eight NATO allies gathered in Chicago for the first US-hosted NATO summit since 1999. The summit agenda focused on diminishing defense capabilities in an era of budget cuts, the future of the troubled NATO mission in Afghanistan, and developing strategic global partnerships by working more with partners in Asia and the Middle East. But it is an open question whether the allies are actually prepared to meet the challenges facing the Atlantic community.

In the past year, NATO nations have faced two major tests—a debt crisis and rapidly declining military budgets—in nearly every country, including the United States. The cohesion of the Atlantic community is under strain from economic crisis, political paralysis, and the emergence of new global powers in Asia. The Eurozone crisis has plunged Europe into a new era of internal soul-searching and structural reform, distracting it from focusing on the demands of the global agenda. A wave of economic austerity is sweeping across the Alliance, resulting in a race to the bottom to cut defense spending and military capabilities. These cuts threaten to further weaken Europe’s militaries. While NATO succeeded in Libya, the campaign demonstrated worrisome shortcomings in Europe’s defense capabilities and reliance on American military support. Enhanced specialization among the allies—including Smart Defense and pooling and sharing—will be essential to minimize the impact of defense cuts in the midst of the economic crisis. Indeed, the upside of the current predicament may be that it spurs allies to further efficiencies in these areas. When Europe emerges from the depths of the financial crisis and its current period of severe austerity, the allies must show a renewed commitment to investing in defense to remain capable members of NATO. Allies must always remember that robust security is itself a prerequisite for a strong economy.

It is not just Europe’s commitment to the future of the Atlantic Alliance that is in question. Unsustainable levels of debt in the United States have forced significant cuts to defense spending. After a decade of bounty, the Pentagon now faces close to half a trillion dollars in cuts over the next decade and perhaps more, forcing tough choices about US defense priorities. A Pentagon focused on the implications of a rising China has chosen to ‘rebalance’ its force posture and withdraw two brigade combat teams from Europe. While these moves are understood among many allies in NATO, others fear they reflect US inattention to Europe and drift within the Atlantic Alliance.

It would be a historic mistake if a Europe preoccupied with its own economic woes and a United States distracted by internal political dysfunction were to set the Alliance adrift just when it is needed most to defend our interests in Afghanistan and the Middle East. For all its flaws, the transatlantic community is home to the United States’ most loyal, capable, and effective global allies and represents the largest concentration of market-oriented democracies in the world. Too many forget that the United States and Europe account for the largest share of military power, economic heft, and democratic governance on the planet today. Despite legitimate concerns over cuts to Europe’s defense budgets, the transatlantic community alone accounted for over two thirds of the world’s defense spending in 2010. Similarly, the transatlantic economy today accounts for over fifty-four percent of global output. Europe alone provides over fifty percent of global development assistance. Europe is also America’s largest trade partner, its largest investor, and the greatest single global market.

The United States should consider itself fortunate indeed to have such prosperous, capable, and like-minded allies at its side, because it needs friends now more than ever before. If NATO did not exist today, transatlantic leaders would be trying to create it from scratch. The hard truth for Americans is that isolationism and unilateralism are twin recipes for failure in our foreign policy. Particularly at a time when globalization presents new challenges and new countries are rising to global power, the United States needs all the help it can get to maintain its power and effectiveness and to help preserve international stability and peace. In this sense, NATO is our twenty-first century foundation for American power and prosperity.

For the United States to achieve its international aims in a competitive and resource-constrained twenty-first century, it needs a strong, capable, and ambitious Europe as its leading partner within a robust NATO Alliance. Moreover, in the years to come, the Alliance will actually grow in importance to the United States as a force-multiplier worldwide.

A ‘dim if not dismal’ future is not preordained. But it is possible if allies do not take dramatic steps to reinforce the NATO Alliance in the decade ahead.

R. Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and a board director of the Atlantic Council. Damon Wilson is executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. Jeff Lightfoot is deputy director of the Council’s International Security Program. This piece is adapted from the Atlantic Council publication “Anchoring the Alliance.”

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