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Gates' Farewell Warning to Europe

Speaking to assembled representatives at the Security and Defence Agenda think-tank, out-going Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered his final policy speech last Friday. Gates used the moment to name and shame European NATO members who do not pull their weight in the alliance, and bluntly warned that the “ageing out” of Cold War era politicians may see a re-assessment of the value of transatlantic defense cooperation.

It was a thought-provoking speech, and whatever your views about the value of NATO, Gates has provided a realistic assessment of what Europe can expect if it cannot begin to address U.S. perceptions of its ineffectiveness.

Gates has always displayed a certain candor toward NATO’s European allies, with little love lost in the exchange. He has previously lambasted the “demilitarization” of Europe, which he claimed was “averse to military force and the risks that go with it.” He has also repeatedly criticized the inability of most alliance members to fulfill voluntary 2% of GDP defense spending targets (only four European allies achieve these levels.)

Yet facing retirement, the U.S. official chose to be remarkably specific in his criticism of European military performance. Breaking a time-honored NATO tradition of anonymity, Gates bypassed vague euphemisms and specifically identified the areas allies were falling behind the U.S. in Afghanistan and elsewhere. These include a lack of “helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance” assets.

In an even more direct attack, he then named those allies who were doing more than their fair share in Libya — notably Denmark and Norway, who have conducted nearly 1:3 of all bombing attacks — to actively shame other alliance members. Few punches were pulled: “frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines [in Libya] do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.”

Gates has been making such criticisms for years. The real sting in his farewell address to Europe was an explicit threat: the potential withdrawal of U.S. defense investment. Gates warned of the "dwindling appetite and patience" in the U.S. Congress “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 defense.

Indeed, the concluding point of this speech was what Gates called the “ageing out” of the emotional and political relationship with NATO. “You have a lot of new members of Congress who do not have the formative experiences that I had — I am the last senior leader who is a product of the Cold War,” he cautioned. Gates' actions would have raised “a lot of eyebrows” if he told the American taxpayer what he did regarding European defense.

So Gates has left Europe not only with a warning, but with a question. As Cold War personal relationships “age out,” what does Europe have to offer the U.S. to renew defense ties? Gates has made it clear that Europe needs an answer soon, if it is not to lose U.S. investment in its security.  

Photo Credit: Security and Defence Agenda

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