In his first US address since become UK’s defense secretary, Philip Hammond blasted his fellow Europeans for “failing to meet their financial responsibilities to NATO, and so failing to maintain appropriate and proportionate capabilities.”

Speaking at the Atlantic Council in advance of a meeting with his US counterpart, Leon Panetta, Hammond declared, “Without strong economies and stable public finances it is impossible to build and sustain, in the long-term, the military capability required to project power and maintain defense.” Echoing former US Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, he added, “That is why today the debt crisis should be considered the greatest strategic threat to the future security of our nations. The fact is, in this era of austerity not even the United States can afford the astronomical resource commitment required to deal with every threat from every source.”


This austerity only reinforces the need for likeminded countries to work together to achieve their common security goals, Hammond noted, and “NATO is the only realistic way to coordinate combined operations” with its longstanding institutional strengths “impossible to replicate elsewhere.”

Yet, despite the obviousness of this fact, many allies are not following through. “Libya and Afghanistan have highlighted the significant difficulties we face in ensuring NATO continues to serve the needs of collective security,” Hammond observed. Then, echoing former US defense secretary Bob Gates, he charged, “Too many countries are failing to meet their financial responsibilities to NATO, and so failing to maintain appropriate and proportionate capabilities. Too many are opting out of operations, or contributing but a fraction of what they should be capable of.”

Cutting to the chase, he pointed out, “This is a European problem, not an American one. And it is a political problem, not a military one.”

There was surely little disagreement with any of that in an Atlantic Council audience. The frustrations of NATO allies not pulling their weight, even to the point of meeting the minimum two percent of GDP spending level that all agree to as a condition of Alliance membership, are so long standing that mentioning them amounts to throat clearing.

Yes, the problem is primarily political. But it appears absolutely entrenched. Simply put, most Europeans see little real threat to their security on the horizon; meanwhile, their economies are in dire trouble and the cradle to grave government support system most have become accustomed to is in danger of collapsing.

I’m thus left in the odd position of quoting Donald Rumsfeld in successive posts—or, in this case, Rumsfeld quoting Shimon Peres: “If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact, not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.” The bottom line is that, whatever cathartic benefit comes from lambasting the Germans and others for not doing as much as we would like on the security front, it’s simply a fact that we are going to have to cope with over time.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, while not above making the perfunctory calls for more resources, has long since accepted the reality and has the right vision for the way forward: smart defense. More resources are simply not coming any time soon. The only question, then, is how to get the most out of them.

And Hammond did ultimately get there, calling for “an objective and clear-sighted assessment of the current state of NATO’s collective competence” which we must then “stack up against NATO’s stated level of ambition.” Additionally, he called for doing away with the unanimity principle under which the Alliance has always operating, correctly noting the folly that non-members can “use NATO’s SHAPE HQ and assets to undertake EU operations” and yet coalitions of willing allies can not if there is no consensus at 28.  Additionally, Hammond called for alleviating the shortfall in resources by making it easier for non-Alliance members to join in NATO operations, thus closing the gap. 

These are practical solutions to a problem that is not going away. It is there, not wishing for an Alliance that does not and will not exist, where our conversation needs to be focused.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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