European Council on Foreign Relations

Even Homer nods

By - 13 Jun 11

Delivering his “last policy speech as US defense secretary” on 10 June in Brussels ( , Robert Gates did not pull his punches. The levels of feebleness and incapacity demonstrated by many allies over Libya confirmed that NATO had become a “two-tiered alliance”. There was still time to “avoid the very real possibility of collective military irrelevance”. But unless Europeans began to assume a fairer share of the common defence, they could expect that “future US political leaders… may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost”.  

I do not have many heroes – but Robert Gates is one. His record as a public servant speaks for itself – culminating in the unique distinction of being pressed by an incoming Democratic President to carry on running the Pentagon as he had under the outgoing Republican. But what I have really admired about Gates has been his knack of moving ahead of events, and getting there early with succinct truths about the changing world scene – usually to the discomfort of the vested interests of what Eisenhower dubbed the “military-industrial complex”. Thus several generations-worth of argumentation in favour of unnecessary defence expenditure fell away when, in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, Gates pronounced that “Russia's conventional military… remains a shadow of its Soviet predecessor”. And anyone interested in defence reform should light a candle to his thoughtful analysis of how defence establishments left to their own devices will repeatedly sacrifice the needs of the present to their ambitions for the future. (His formative experience in this regard was his struggle to interest Pentagon generals in getting bomb-proof vehicles to their troops in Iraq.)

More recently, Gates has led the way in applying the brakes to the runaway truck of US military expenditure, even succeeding in cancelling some of the more egregiously extravagant equipment megaprojects, despite the inevitable resistance from Congress.

And Gates’s economic realism was on display again last Friday, when he acknowledged that NATO’s problem was as much about how the European allies chose to spend their reduced defence funds as about the fact of budget cuts in an age of austerity.

But still and all – what a pity that this smart and wise man should end up signing off with what was in effect the same ‘Europeans must try harder’ speech which American leaders have routinely doled out ever since the ink was dried on the North Atlantic Treaty. It is simply too easy to accuse Europeans of free-riding in NATO – with the implication that they are selfish, or lazy, or generally decadent – and ignore the underlying reality, which is that many of them simply do not want to be on board at all, or at any rate have serious concerns about the direction in which the ride is now taking them.

Gates speaks as though NATO was still primarily about America’s defence guarantee to Europe. Yet many Europeans now see that guarantee as less important – and, scarred by the Afghanistan experience, wonder whether NATO has not rather become a vehicle for dragging Europeans in to make up the numbers for ill-judged and counter-productive American interventions. Gates bluntly ascribes Europe’s patchy performance on Libya to lack of both courage and capacity – and whilst there is certainly truth in this, the analysis is incomplete without accepting that many Europeans have had genuine reservations about getting involved with another mission they have seen mutate away from its original purpose into an exercise in regime change.

Though beset by economic insecurities, most Europeans today feel safer, in terms of traditional military threats, than at any previous time in history. They have seen two major Western interventions, in Iraq and Afghanistan, back-fire. If they conclude that they therefore want, especially in the wake of the worst economic crisis for eighty years, to cut their militaries and to stay home, then they are unlikely to be moved by accusations of free-riding. As a response to how they see the world, theirs is neither irrational nor necessarily reprehensible. It may, of course, be wrong – short-sighted, for example, or based on an imperfect understanding of power will operate in the post-Western world. In embracing the notion of soft power, Europeans may have missed the extent to which hard power is not its antithesis, but a key constituent. But, mistaken or not, doubts about the modern-day utility of military power lie at the heart of Europe’s present half-hearted attitude towards NATO – and will continue to do so unless and until Europeans are convinced otherwise.

In Brussels, Robert Gates concluded that only Europe could “get its defence institutions and security relationships on track…. It cannot be coaxed, demanded or imposed from across the Atlantic.” And on this he is surely right. What a pity, then, that he wasted this opportunity to get Europeans thinking again about what they want to be in the world of tomorrow, and how far effective armed forces may be needed to achieve that role and position. Threatening them with the displeasure of the US Congress was not an adequate substitute. Fortunately, there is life beyond the Pentagon; and there will be many future opportunities for the great man to get to the real issues.




A rather unbalanced ECFR article with an unfortunate, self-righteous tone.

Mr. J Tattersall | U.K | 13 Jun 11, 13 Jun 11 EST

Nick Witney gets it right.  But not right enough. 

There is a widening view across Europe that the ‘conventional’ military threat to Europe is now virtually nil.  There are no hordes of tanks poised to roll across the Oder-Neisse frontier. 

What there is is an increasing threat from the broad Muslim world; NOT just the bogey-man ‘Islamic militants’; but billions of Muslims who see Europe entangling itself in George W Bush’s Fifth Crusade. 

Every time they see an Afghan wedding party getting massacred, or a German-ordered airstrike killing hundreds of villagers scooping up free petrol, they see see the red-cross-on-white on every European shirt.

So increasingly, European are coming to see NATO not as a defence, but as a danger.  If Bill Gates wants to withdraw the US ‘‘shield’’ from Europe, I suspect he might be surprised how many Europeans would sigh with relief…

Chris Tregenna | London | 17 Jun 11, 17 Jun 11 EST

Did I miss the point on Libya? I wasn´t aware that this engament is yet another example of the US “dragging Europeans in to make up the numbers for ill-jugded and counter-productive American interventions”. On contrary, I thought that France and the UK pressed hard to foreclose that Benghasi will become yet another Srebenica close to European shores. Unfortunately, it turned out that even France and the UK cannot run (or at least not to affordable costs regards civilian and military casualities) such an operation without recourse and support of the US.
What these obvious military defiencies mean for the among Europeans widely praised (and rightly so in my view) Responsibility to Protect is more than telling ...

Stefani Weiss | Brussels | 17 Jun 11, 17 Jun 11 EST

Me thinks the only Homer daft enough to nod to this article is Mr Simpson!

Pugg | Blighty | 19 Jun 11, 19 Jun 11 EST

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