This is what’s called “going out with a bang,” said Jean-Jacques Mevel in the Paris Le Figaro. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is retiring in the next few weeks, bade farewell to his European counterparts in Brussels last week with a withering speech accusing them of “collective military irrelevance.” Gates said the failure of European leaders to spend on military hardware and training had consigned the alliance to a “dim, if not dismal future.” His fellow NATO defense ministers sat in stunned silence as Gates listed their failings. Just 11 weeks into the Libya mission, he noted, NATO was already running out of ammunition and turning to the U.S. for more. There is an “unacceptable” division, he said, “between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership—be they security guarantees or headquarters billets—but don’t want to share the risks and the costs.”
European leaders greeted this tongue-lashing with “a deafening silence,” said Pablo Pardo in the Madrid El Mundo. And really, what can they say? Even 10 years ago, when the U.S. was preparing to invade Afghanistan after 9/11, it “explicitly rejected the proposal to involve NATO in the overthrow of the Taliban,” preferring instead to cobble together a “coalition of the willing.” And since then, European countries have slashed their defense budgets, with the result that, while the U.S. used to account for half of NATO’s funding, it now makes up 75 percent. Spain, in particular, has resisted U.S. pleas to increase its defense spending, but we’re not alone. Only four of NATO’s other 27 members spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense, as required by the treaty.
But this isn’t just about a budgetary discrepancy, said the London Observer in an editorial. “In venting American anger, Gates has articulated the existential questions that have been hanging over NATO since the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, when its primary purpose evaporated: What is NATO for and can it actually deliver?” It sat idly by during the Yugoslav wars, only to jump in on the side of the Kosovars at the very end, in 1999, with the bombing of Serbia’s capital, Belgrade—a job it botched, by the way. In Afghanistan, which NATO took on only after the U.S. had toppled the Taliban, very few member states are willing to shoulder combat missions. And in Libya, it lacks not only ammunition but also a clear mandate. “The reality is that NATO feels like an anachronism, risk-averse, bloated, and militarily inefficient.”
That’s because it is an anachronism, said the Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Arab News. “What will it take for the West to face the reality that the Cold War is over and that NATO is long past its sell-by date?” The alliance played a useful role in controlling the Soviet Union. But with that empire long gone, there is no need for a U.S.-dominated alliance to play global policeman. “If the world needs an international peacekeeping force to deal with trouble spots like Libya, it should exist under the U.N.’s command.”