Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Gates: NATO's Retreat from Combat Assignments 'Unacceptable'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Gates: NATO's Retreat from Combat Assignments 'Unacceptable'

Article excerpt

Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the pronouncement in a speech Friday in Brussels, as part of a European tour before he retires at the end of this month.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates's cry of alarm to NATO partners about Europe's dwindling armies and military budgets is unlikely to alter a broad retreat from hard power that some of America's oldest allies are undertaking.

Instead, the significance of his words is likely to be as a historical marker indicating a global shift in the balance of power, some analysts of transatlantic relations say. The surprisingly unvarnished warnings came Friday in a speech in Brussels, delivered during what is Secretary Gates's valedictory European tour.

"This was a cri de coeur from a pro-European, from someone who believes in the alliance. But that doesn't mean it will have any better shot at changing the trend lines," says John Hulsman, an international relations analyst and consultant in Germany. "What I think this will be seen as one day is a significant historical milestone along the way to the atrophy of the alliance and the emergence of a multipolar world."

The trends that the Defense secretary hammered at in his speech at the Security & Defense Agenda think tank are not new and are well known. Gates, who retires at the end of this month after more than four years at the Pentagon's helm, spoke of NATO turning into a "two- tiered alliance" where the very few - led far and away by the United States - take on the "hard power" combat assignments. Meanwhile, a majority limits itself to "soft power" work such as delivering humanitarian and development aid and, at most, to participating in peacekeeping missions.

"This is no longer a hypothetical worry," Gates said. "We are here today. And it is unacceptable."

Already, the US accounts for 75 percent of NATO members' defense spending, up from just below 50 percent a decade ago. While America is planning to trim back projected defense-spending increases in the current deficit-cutting environment, the US share of the NATO military budget pie is still expected to grow.

Britain plans to cut its defense budget by 8 percent by 2015, and Germany this year decided to eliminate its compulsory military service and to trim back its ground forces.

True, there were some grumblings among Europe's military leaders that Gates gave short shrift to Europe's contributions in Afghanistan - and notably to the lead role that the French and British have taken on in NATO's military mission in Libya. But the broad reaction to Gates's alarm bells appeared to be a ho-hum, we've- heard-this-siren-before response.

"The Europeans I spoke with [about the speech] shrugged and said, 'He's right, but economic numbers are economic numbers,' " Dr. Hulsman says.

Most American analysts of the transatlantic alliance essentially agree that numbers don't lie. …

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