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NATO's relevance at risk if Europeans don't spend more on military budgets

If NATO's European members don't increase their military spending and their combat capabilities, then the relevance and the usefulness of the military alliance is at risk.

Speaking in Brussels to the think tank Security and Defence Agenda (SDA), U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates did not mince his words when speaking about America's European partners. "In the past, I've worried openly about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance between members who specialize in 'soft' humanitarian, development, peacekeeping and talking tasks and those conducting the 'hard' combat missions," Gates said, stating that "this is no longer a hypothetical worry, (...) We are there today. And it is unacceptable."

Gates particularly noticed the lack of sustainability for ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Libya, which forces the U.S. to fill the gaps. After 11 weeks of military operations against Libya, "many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference," Though he acknowledged that the war in Iraq has seriously burdened the budgets needed to continue the mission in Afghanistan, he insisted on the fact that Europeans' contribution to combat efforts in Afghanistan must not halt. He stressed that President Barack Obama's plan of transition and withdrawal of troops by 2014 doesn't mean there can be any rush to the exits: "NATO cannot afford some troop-contributing nations to pull out their forces on their own timeline in a way that undermines the mission and increases risks to other allies," Gates warned.

"Total European defense spending has declined by nearly 15 percent over the last 10 years," the Secretary said. As a result, Europeans now contribute 25% of the Alliance's military spending (300 billion U.S. dollars annually) and seem to take pleasure in the American leadership on defense and collective security issues. Gates reminded that while every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, grounding Moammar Gadhafi's air force and degrading his regime's ability to kill his own people, less than half have participated, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission. "Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can't. The military capabilities simply aren't there," he noticed.

A number of commentators and media found that Gates' calling for more European defense spending contradicts with decades-long U.S. containment of the emergence of an independent European defense of which France was the most supportive in the 1990s. "Washington never really supported European efforts to build a coherent and robust military and now they complain that it doesn't exist," a European diplomatic source told ISRIA, in comments related to the speech. "Although it is true that Europeans must do more when it comes to defense and security, the U.S. should clarify its stance before giving lessons," the source added. "The context has changed and America wants to see Europe play a greater role in world security," an American official told ISRIA. "Today's context has not much in common with the 1990s," the official added.

Popular in his country, Gates may be now a little less popular with European political circles, although his speech to the Security and Defence Agenda (SDA) will likely be favorably welcomed by European soldiers who wish to carry out their present and future missions in best conditions. After serving as Secretary of Defense under republican George W. Bush and democrat Barack Obama, Robert M. Gates is to leave his post to Leon Panetta, the incumbent CIA director and former White House Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton.

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