Europeans' aversion to military force is limiting NATO's ability to fight wars effectively, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday.
In remarks to a forum on rewriting the basic mission plan for the NATO alliance, Gates called for far-reaching reforms in an organization that was created 61 years ago as a political and military bulwark against the former Soviet Union and its Red Army.
The early successes of NATO in averting post-World War II eruptions of European conflict have led to a new set of concerns, Gates said.
"The demilitarization of Europe — where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it — has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st," he told an audience filled with uniformed military officers from many of NATO's 28 member countries.
The danger, he added, is that potential future adversaries may view NATO as a paper tiger.
"Not only can real or perceived weakness be a temptation to miscalculation and aggression, but, on a more basic level, the resulting funding and capability shortfalls make it difficult to operate and fight together to confront shared threats," Gates said.
In his more than three years as Pentagon chief, Gates has repeatedly urged European members of NATO to boost their defense budgets and to find ways to modernize their forces, while also praising their commitment to fighting alongside the United States in Afghanistan.
"For many years, for example, we have been aware that NATO needs more cargo aircraft and more helicopters of all types, and yet we still don't have these capabilities," he said. "And their absence is directly impacting operations in Afghanistan. Similarly, NATO requires more aerial refueling tankers and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms for immediate use on the battlefield."
In Prague, Michal Thim of the Association for International Affairs, an independent Czech think tank, said Gates' comments were not surprising.
"The United States have been concerned about the defense policies of European allies for a long time," Thim said. He interpreted Gates' remarks as indicating the Obama administration is losing patience with Europe.
Gates welcomed the in-depth effort by NATO to revise and update what it calls its "strategic concept," or its basic mission document. He stressed that it must be more than a paper exercise, given the real world conflicts NATO is fighting today — with about 120,000 troops, including U.S. forces, in Afghanistan, and the prospect of staying there in some numbers for years to come.
"Most are living in austere conditions, and many are facing enemy fire on a daily basis," he said. "That is a stark reminder that NATO is not now, nor should it ever be, a talk-shop or a Renaissance weekend on steroids. It is a military alliance with real-world obligations that have life-or-death consequences."
A group of experts led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is working to update NATO's strategic concept. It was last revised in 1999, before the alliance began substantial military operations beyond its borders — most notably in Afghanistan.
Gates' speech kicked off a daylong seminar at the National Defense University to wrap up preliminary thinking on how to revise the strategic concept. The final product is expected to be formally adopted at an alliance summit in November in Lisbon, Portugal. NATO nations had a major falling out over the Iraq war in 2003, with several, including France, Germany and Belgium, opposing it and blocking alliance participation.
In remarks Monday night on the same subject, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said NATO's basic purpose has changed little since its birth in 1949.
"I believe that the original tenets of NATO's mission — defending our nations, strengthening trans-Atlantic ties, and fostering European integration — still hold," she said. What needs to change is how the alliance pursues its goals, she added.
"As any good soldier knows, success in a protracted struggle is not simply a matter of having more troops or better equipment. It's also a function of how effectively you adapt to new circumstances," she said. "You don't win by fighting the last war."
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