Even before outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates caused a ruckus earlier this month when he declared that NATO faced “a dim if not dismal future,” the long-term viability of the alliance was in jeopardy.
While America’s financial commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and defense has remained steady, European spending in both areas has decreased, forcing the United States to shoulder the largest portion of NATO’s $2.8 billion annual budget in the alliance’s 62-year history. And the war in Afghanistan and fledging NATO mission in Libya shows how member states individually undermine the alliance’s global strategy and cause political problems at home.
Gates’ speech led to a lot of diplomatic handwringing in European capitals, where politicians have become comfortable with the U.S. as NATO’s primary sponsor and military point man. In recent years, according to Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush, Europeans have become complacent about the mission of the alliance.
“Russia’s not a threat, and Europeans don’t like expeditionary missions,” said Volker. “They don’t believe they work very well.”
There is no argument that America is NATO’s sugar daddy. In 2009 and 2010, the United States kicked in $408 million and $430 million, respectively, to NATO’s military budget; $462.5 million is earmarked for 2011 spending.
The U.S. contributed $66.1 million and $84.1 million to NATO’s civil budget in 2009 and 2010
respectively. Some $90 million has been appropriated for this year’s budget.
And U.S. contributions to the organization’s security investment program, which pays for NATO installations and facilities, were $330 million and $197 million in 2009 and 2010, respectively, with $259 million earmarked for 2011.
Total U.S. financial contributions make up 25 percent of NATO’s budget. Germany, the U.K. and France are the largest NATO contributors behind the U.S. Yet the differences between the contribution amounts are substantial. Germany contributes 18 percent, while France and the United Kingdom contribute 9 percent. From 2000 to 2003 between 3.1 and 3.2 percent of America’s GDP to NATO, while Western Europe contributed between 2 and 1.9 percent of its GDP.
“The United States has decided it needs to behave in a way in which it undertakes any problem it sees fit,” said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. “The Germans haven’t made that decision, and neither have most of the other NATO countries.”
Past U.S. Defense secretaries have defended the size of the U.S. contribution as necessary to secure national security interests. Gates’ speech was a clear break from this policy.
Afghanistan and Libya
European spending decisions, the attitudes toward conflict they represent, and the political problems caused by the aging alliance are illustrated on the ground in NATO’s two active battlefields—Afghanistan and Libya.
In Afghanistan, the vast majority of the fighting is being done by American troops, who, in turn, have suffered the heaviest casualties. According to icasualties.org, 1,623 American soldiers have been killed. The UK has lost 374 soldiers, while Canada, also a NATO member, has suffered 156. Germany, Europe’s largest NATO member, has suffered 54 casualties. While Germany is constitutionally forbidden to engage in offensive warfare, it was an active participant in NATO operations in Afghanistan until a 2009 incident in which German troops called in an airstrike that killed Afghan civilians.