Afghanistan has revealed the same European shortcomings. Once upon a time, all 28 NATO members committed themselves to spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. According 2010 data, France, Great Britain, Albania, Greece and the U.S. met the commitment, but since then Greece has slashed defense spending.
European members point to their own current economic crises, with Greece the nightmare case, but Spain, Portugal and Italy are also battling potential bankruptcy and default. This, too, is blunt reality.
Gates, in what amounted to a plea for foresight despite current fiscal woes, put Europe's failure to meet alliance commitments in historical and generational contexts. "If current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders -- those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me -- may not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost."
Massive debt and economic recession, combined with a lack of foresight and lack of leadership, may achieve what the Soviet Union could not: the destruction of NATO.
The loss of NATO, however, would leave a tremendous void. As a political network as well as military alliance, NATO has served Europe, Canada and the U.S. very well. Despite the numerous obituaries for the organization -- many written after the Berlin Wall cracked in 1989 -- NATO did not die. The pundit undertakers underestimated NATO's political value and as a result woefully misjudged its post-Cold War resilience.
Today, Russia remains unstable. Iran's dictators seek nuclear weapons. 2011's Arab Spring has jolted the world. NATO connectivity is a bulwark against uncertainty.
Secretary Gates understands this. Hence his warning -- and lamentation.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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