U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates is not amused by the lack of military esprit de corp among America’s NATO allies. “The blunt reality,” he lectured, “is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress—and in the American body politic writ large—to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defence.”
One can appreciate his disappointment. The Americans have invested heavily on tens of thousands of troops in Europe training with local forces so they can work effectively together defending common interests. Yet when called upon to defend these interests, as defined by the U.S.—Iraq and Afghanistan for example—the Europeans participate only halfheartedly.
The problem, of course, is that NATO was created to defend North Atlantic nations and many Europeans have difficulty understanding how waging wars on the other side of the world is related to that purpose. Indeed, with the collapse of the threat from the Communist East, the prime justification for the alliance, they begin to wonder if NATO itself has any purpose.
The Americans on the other hand, being in the empire business, see threats everywhere, and want to use NATO as backup for the military adventures they deem necessary to mitigate those threats. Unfortunately, Europeans now tend to see themselves as out of the empire business and don’t seem particularly interested in helping the Americans stay in.
For that matter, the American people aren’t all that keen either. A recent survey indicated that about half of Americans think the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally” and 65% approved of reducing overseas military commitments as a way to cut the budget deficit. It seems the “American body politic writ large” already has a “dwindling appetite” for spending money on global military involvement.
All of this is encouraging. The United States is the world’s most bellicose nation, constantly at war with somebody. An increasing reluctance of its allies to support its imperial designs, combined with an increasing reluctance of Americans to pay the price, may bring the great power to heel.
This does not mean there is no role in the world for NATO. If it changed its name, incorporated troops from other parts of the world, and put itself at the disposal of the UN, it could serve a new and useful purpose, a truly international one, perhaps under the Responsibility to Protect initiative. However, as long as it remains primarily an instrument of U.S. hegemony, it deserves to dwindle and die.