Can NATO be saved?

Secretary Gates has some broad suggestions for how to reform and improve the transatlantic alliance. The question is, will Europe act on them?

Here’s a story I heard once that may or may not be true : One day, when he was commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, Gen. Stanley McChrystal was striding along purposefully at his headquarters when he passed a group of Dutch soldiers carrying on and enjoying themselves. (One imagines they had big walrus mustaches.) The troops greeted McChrystal boisterously: Good day, general! That evening, hours later, when McChrystal returned, the same Dutch troops were still there, still carrying on, and still clearly having a blast during their Afghanistan vacation.

This anecdote may be apocryphal, but it encapsulates the tension between the U.S. and its NATO allies: McChrystal, the American warrior monk who eats one meal a day and sleeps four hours a night, curling his lip at the Continental mentality of his Euro-troops. It, and so many other NATO stories, immediately sprang to mind after reading Secretary Gates’ already legendary farewell speech to NATO, the full text of which DoD posted Friday. Gates called out the alliance on many of the problems that everyone recognizes but no one discusses, and he did not paint an optimistic picture of its future.

Gates did, however, lay out some broad suggestions for ways NATO could be saved:

[I]f 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.

What I’ve sketched out is the real possibility for a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance. Such a future is possible, but not inevitable. The good news is that the members of NATO – individually, and collectively – have it well within their means to halt and reverse these trends, and instead produce a very different future:

• By making a serious effort to protect defense budgets from being further gutted in the next round of austerity measures;

• By better allocating (and coordinating) the resources we do have; and

• By following through on commitments to the alliance and to each other.

It is not too late for Europe to get its defense institutions and security relationships on track. But it will take leadership from political leaders and policy makers on this continent. It cannot be coaxed, demanded or imposed from across the Atlantic.

And that reality — that Europe must save NATO, not the U.S. — is what may make it so difficult to avoid the fate that Gates predicts. Witness the weeks and months of debate it took before NATO agreed to intervene in Libya, and a decade before that, in the Balkans. The nature of the alliance, with all its sovereign members and their disparate cultures and politics, means that it’s likely to continue as a “two tiered” system, as Gates described it:

Between members who specialize in “soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks, and those conducting the “hard” combat missions.  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.  This is no longer a hypothetical worry.  We are there today.  And it is unacceptable.

What do you think? Can NATO reform and improve? Is it even worth saving for the 21st century?