Gates & NATO: Misery Loves Company

Shorter SecDef Robert Gates: European members of NATO need to bankrupt themselves with military spending and wars just as the United States has done, or else the US Congress will stop being willing to support NATO’s war efforts.

The problem is that being less militarized is working for the German economy, e.g. Not having so many men under arms or stockpiles of expensive military equipment may actually deter military adventurism of the sort the US has pursued in Iraq (and of which Gates has himself been critical).

It is the US that needs and has needed NATO, in e.g. Afghanistan, not the other way around. The limited and likely short-term Libya intervention is mainly an Anglo-French initiative, and those two have a history of small wars in the global South, and they’ll be fine without a leading role for the US.

Gates’s lambasting of France, Britain and a few other NATO members for the slow progress in the Libya war is unfair. They have had major successes in protecting Benghazi and Misrata, both of which would have fallen without their intervention. Air power cannot take or hold territory, and the untrained and amateurish Free Libya forces are not in a position to just march into the capital of Tripoli. The US Air Force’s ‘shock and awe’ campaign in Iraq also failed to produce any tangible results, and it was only a land invasion that allowed the US to depose Saddam Hussein quickly. A purely air campaign in Iraq would have allowed the Baathists to hold out for months or maybe even years.

NATO appears to have declined to provide the Free Libya forces with heavy weaponry, which is probably a wise decision. In contrast, the US had great success in overthrowing the Taliban in fall of 2001 by giving close air support to the Northern Alliance; but this quick campaign and the installation of Tajik warlords in power contributed to the Taliban resurgence we are now seeing. NATO commanders no doubt wish they could achieve faster progress in protecting Libyans from the brutal Qaddafi regime, but it is better that things go slowly than that a quick victory by the rebels produces reprisals and feuds that destabilize the country into the future.

The US is is peculiar among industrialized democracies in the massive war budget it passes every year, and in its constant war-making. There is every reason to think that the bloated Pentagon budget actually drags the US into wars. Much of the money is given out to private contractors, who use it to lobby Congress for wars whereby the contractors can make more money. And, having a lot of shiny new military toys creates an impetus to use them before they become outmoded and the comparative advantage that they bestow is lost.

The German economy is doing rather better than that of the US, suggesting that a bloated military budget doesn’t make a country better off. The same could be said of the Chinese.

Getting altogether out of Iraq and quickly winding down the Afghanistan War would allow the US to start moving in a modern, European, direction, toward a smaller military budget and less reliance on land wars as policy tools. Gates himself said that the next president who considered launching a land war in Asia should have his head examined. What Gates does not understand is that the degree of militarization he is demanding of the Europeans, and which already characterizes the US, is what leads to such ruinous adventures. It is the US that needs to change, not Europe.

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32 Responses

  1. I think even more significant is the “opportunity cost” of the massive US national security state budget. OECD states spend 2% of GDP on defense; when you add in “all things military”, the US spends over $1 trillion and 6% or 7% of GDP.

    Some of the best minds in science and engineering are used unproductively in the military-industrial complex and not in the broader economy solving real problems for real people.

    While China builds a high speed rail network, with a Beijing-Shanghai travel time of 5 hours (the equivalent of NY-Chicago), we consume foreign oil driving on crumbling interstate highways.

    It won’t be until there is a complete bankruptcy of the US that the bloated military-industrial complex is finally reined in.

    Unfortunately we never hear of the true costs of the national security state in mainstream media.

  2. There is a lot of wisdom in this opinion piece. I would temper it a bit, after all China is engaging in a major military build up. The world would not be a safer place if the U.S. really went to European levels of spending.

    But I think Juan is right that we need a major rethink, not just a squeezing down of the budget. I certainly would like to see the U.S. withdraw from NATO, which would force the Europeans to build their own alliance. Europe and America should continue to cooperate as equal partners. The U.S. needs to drastically downsize its army personnel.

  3. Hello Juan,

    I am relieved that Nato’s airpower is blunting Gadaffi’s offensive capability. However, I don’t see any wisdom in Nato declining to provide weapons to the Free Libya Forces. The FL’s have been short of arms since the beginning of hostilities. To deny them small arms, anti-tank weapons etc, is to deny them the means to defend themselves and as a consequence has resulted in needless deaths.

    Nato did the same in Bosnia/Croatia with some spurious arguments that hostilities might expand, if the defenseless were to be armed. The moral bankruptcy shows that the stupidity and spinelessness of politicians hasn’t changed much.

    Perhaps you might write an article about why’s/why not’s of Nato supplying weapons to the FL.

    Kind regards & keep up the good work.


  4. Yes, when USA’s policy is determined not by the needs of the American people but by the desires (usually very short-term) of corporations (the BIGS: BIG BANKS, BIG ARMS, BIG AGRI, BIG OIL, BIG ISRAEL, etc ad naus) there are two sorts of extremely negative fall-out.

    First, these BIGs have no “brief” to look at or to understand the BIG PICTURE; they desire quick profits for themselves. That means that there is nobody (nobody of importance, that is) looking at the BIG PICTURE. The USA car rushes along the highway with one BIG controlling the gas pedal, another the brakes, a third the windows, a fourth the mirrors; but no-body driving tthe car knows or cares where the car is going.

    Second, because the USA has graciously allowed the “leadership” of the BIGs to be exercised through the expenditure of money (campaign finance contributions, largely) andd since the USA pays thes BIGs so well, they can skim a small part off their profits and use that small part to purchase (as I see it) other and further and continuing influence over the government.

    The USA pays the BIGS lavishly to bribe the USA a good deal less than lavishly.

    GLOBAL WARMING HAS BEEN IGNORED IN THIS COUNTRY BECAUSE NO-ONE IS MINDING THE STORE. And also because BIG OIL, BIG COAL, BIG GAS oppose stopping the exploration for and production and sale of fossil fuels.

    It’s rather as if a patient with cancer (over-use of fossil fuels) goes to the doctor only to find that the doctor has been paid by the cancer o refuse treatment.

    Same for war. Same for Israel/Palestine.

  5. We should note that Germany also did not allow its capitalists to exterminate its industrial sector, and thus its unions. German corporations are required to have labor representatives on their boards. Germany has even required its soccer league to transition to Packer-style fan-owned teams, and no one’s complaining since it keeps away the American entre-pirates who bankrupted Manchester United.

    In fact the only thing in Germany that looks right-wing by US standards is its central bank, which is making it impossible for southern Europeans to dig their way out of their crisis. But a very liberal social policy, free health care, 35-hour work weeks with generous time off, high-tech factories producing very expensive goods that sell overseas, and a bank that represents real conservatism instead of Prayer-Of-Jabez greed fantasies seems to have overcome the massive financial burden caused by the fall of East Germany 20 years ago. It’s as if Germany has prospered despite annexing a Rust Belt at the very moment that America has tried to starve its Rust Belt out of existence (and in Michigan, even legislated the termination of democratically elected city governments on fiscal grounds more likely to apply to towns with large black populations, a new twist on Jim Crow).

  6. I hope others choose to have a serious discussion in this thread about European social democracy and the problem with NATO, instead of pi**ing all over Germany for still being friends with the US or pi**ing all over Obama for still being an imperialist. The problem here is that power has corrupted us, as it’s corrupted everyone before. When the title of top gun passed from one European empire to another, those societies had much the same brain-dead right-wing dogma as America does now. Once you believe that imperial success is the proof that your “traditional” and “patriotic” culture is infallible, commissioned by God, and immutable, any sign of weakening will justify retreating back into a mythical past when the empire was secure.

    Until we make the case to the American people that we can safely retrench from a Superpower to a Great Power, their wounded pride and insecurity will make them cling, as someone once said, to guns and religion. Thus we will suffer the protracted misery of Spain instead of the decent post-imperial civilization of Sweden, both at one time the terrors of Europe.

    • we can safely retrench from a Superpower to a Great Power

      Well put.

      We could be the greatest Great Power in the world, by a mile, for half the money we’re spending.

  7. You are right on the spot. Europe does not currently need a standing military anywhere close to cold-war levels. There are simply no immediate military threats to european countries today.

    I live in Sweden – situated right on the old cold-war front. We have gone from conscripted armed forces prepared to mobilize the entire able population within a few weeks to being able to mobilize approx 40 000 within 10 days and 30 000 more within 2 years. The vast majority here do not miss that or having the phrase ‘Every message that the resistance should end is false.’ written on the special war page in the phone book.

    We are however not members of NATO (only PfP), and do not have any obligation to support the US global warfare (even though we currently have troops in Afghanistan). The only reason for us to have armed forces at all today is international missions (e.g. we currently have planes flying recon over Libya), keeping our obligations to the EU (NBG), maintaining somewhat updated equipment and help society handle local diasasters (snowstorms).

  8. I think you’re a little too sanguine about the capacity of the rest of NATO. While it’s true that Britain, France, and other European countries are flying the vast majority of combat air sorties in Libya, the US is providing most of the naval assets, and support missions like mid-air refueling. Rather than being fine without the American assets, the French and British would have ceased to be effective weeks ago without American support.

  9. “moving in a modern, European, direction”

    Is there any politician currently alive in the United States who would be brave enough to propose moving in a “European” direction? Indeed, of suggesting that the US can learn from any other nation?

    Dr. Cole, your essay makes a lot of sense. I’m going to forward it to all three of my Congressmen One is an ultraright Republican wbose district includes White Sands, but I’ll slant it to him as “SAVINGS!” The other two are, fortunately, liberal Dems and on their second terms, and ought to be receptive to your arguments.

    The fact is, US policies are reducing us to Third World status, in terms of infrastructure, public health, education, and even governance. Yet we never stint on military spending and military action. We’re looking more and more like “Oceania”, as a matter of fact…

    • We can’t refuse to consider the possibility that America is being reduced to 3rd World status on purpose; because some soulless accountant out there figured that the marginal short-term gains to the existing elites would be greater if America were a giant El Salvador instead of a giant Sweden. The scary part of this is that many poor, conservative Americans seem to agree that holding a gun or a whip on the evil, subhuman ni**er world is an honorable profession whether in foreign occupations or domestic prison farms, and that this therefore is the only proper function of government. It was literally the mentality of Europe until it blew itself up enough times to outgrow it.

  10. Of what possible relevance and utility is “NATO” any more, especially in its current vastly-US form, except (like its evil cousin, the US military industrial complex) to the people for whom it provides a very good job, a great if deadly-to-the-planet career path, and cover for really evil “war is a racket” activities in the marvelously expensive and expansive Networked Battlespace, in various out-of-the-way parts of the planet?

    Of course, it’s a nice game piece in the armchair game of RISK! tm that so many “policy wonks” and chicken hawks and war wimps and former general officers shilling for the Pentacle try to force all of us to play, as pawns and “soft targets” — and to pay for.

  11. Thank you Juan! I worked at the US Mission to NATO years ago, and that was the beginning of my understanding of the real US position in the world, not the fairy tale that we promote. Even during the Cold War, when there was really a purpose for NATO, the underlying principle of our NATO policy was to have a forum that we dominated and which would support our preferred force position in the world. Once the Wall fell, we tried to turn NATO into an instrument to encircle Russia, rather than really seize the opportunity to rethink our own national goals and reduce our bloated military spending.

    I fear that we have now reached a plateau in so many dysfunctional policies – e.g., our War machine, AKA the Pentagon, our War on Drugs – predicted long ago by Mancur Olson in the Decline of Nations. We may recognize that these policies harm the real national interest but those who benefit from them derive so much money from these policies, and are so totally focused on preventing any change, that absent a complete collapse no change will occur. We were able to do away with Prohibition because we had no defense contractors receiving billions of dollars for programs to enforce it. Today’s Drug War benefits not only the law enforcement community but the private prison industry, the pharmaceutical industry (which does not want legal painkillers that can be grown in your garden beyond the reach of industry), AND major defense contractors who have received billions to enforce our current drug policy. The same applies, many times over, to the “defense” budget.

    Gates probably knows this, as he is certainly not stupid, but he has shown repeatedly in his career that he is willing to sell whatever he believes in to advance his personal interests.

    • Thanks for mentioning Mancur Olson, a wise man.

      You’d think the easiest way to get the US out of NATO is to jump up and down pointing at our Social Democratic allies and screaming “COMMIES! COMMIES!!”

      After all, they all have socialized medicine, which Reagan assured us back in 1966 was the beginning of tyranny. They must all be deep into tyranny by now. We should go to Palin rallies and yell for America to pull out of this NATO den of pinko vipers and begin a long, unwinnable Cold War against every country that has gay rights, redistributive taxation, strong unions, enforced pollution laws, etc, etc.

      Yet no one on the Right sees a contradiction here. Which led me to a terrifying thought: They don’t want us in NATO to protect socialist Europeans. They want us there to occupy Europe and keep Europeans from spreading their Bolshevik evil by usurping their sovereign right to an independent foreign and military policy.

      Everybody, run this by your right-wing friends and see if they expose their true feelings.

  12. Gates saying that the US providing 75% of the funding for NATO forces should change and that the Europeans can afford to spend more in support of their own security needs is not a demand that the Europeans bankrupt themselves, merely a reminder that things are quite different from the conditions post-WWII.

  13. A couple of things:

    1) The United States is actually not being bankrupted by its occupations in interventions in the greater Middle East.

    link to

    You’ll see that the US, taking out healthcare and defense, still has a huge per-capita GDP, substantially (more than 10%) larger than those of Germany, France, Japan, etc.

    The US political system is comfortable with great domestic inequalities, but that is an entirely different issue. Germany is not doing better than the US for its lack of military.

    It seems to me that the US is being compensated for its military expenditures, maybe through capital account or exchange rate management but I’ve never seen a clear explanation of how.

    2) The limited and likely short-term Libya intervention is mainly an Anglo-French initiative, and those two have a history of small wars in the global South, and they’ll be fine without a leading role for the US.

    Wow. France and Great Britain’s experience with colonialism is “a history of small wars in the global South”?

    Where to even start? The project as a whole didn’t go well even for France and Great Britain. But more importantly, phrases like that sound like the minimize colonialism and sound therefore more sympathetic to that enterprise than I would hope an American would openly be.

    • Misplaced my earlier comment it is a reply that goes here.

      GDP is a notoriously bad measure for how well off a country is (-> referenced link).

      Nevertheless it’ll be interesting how US and Germany’s per capita GDP compare when also talking out the financial services (I’d argue they are highly bloated and dysfunctional in the US at this time).

      GDP reference:

      link to

  14. Maybe Gates just need s fall guy, and NATO is handy. After all he was at the Defense helm for the past four and a half years with little, or negative, progress in Afghanistan. Not only that, he’s legacied in at least three more years in that venue, thus eluding the “Who Lost Afghanistan” list. His partner Petraeus will also dodge the list by hiding out in the CIA.

    He might even be worried about getting on the “Who Lost Libya” list – making NATO a twofer.

    How does Gates earn so much respect for accomplishing so little?

  15. “Not having so many men under arms or stockpiles of expensive military equipment may actually deter military adventurism of the sort the US has pursued in Iraq”

    This highlights the difference between militarism and war. The Pentagon has always operated on the superstition that “if you want peace, you have to prepare for war,” while in fact, if you prepare for war, that’s exactly what you’ll get.

    • Delia, wasn’t the enemy that the Pentagon was preparing to go to war against the Soviet Union?
      I don’t think that we exactly got war against them.

    • Trick is, where are you preparing to fight the war – on your own soil, like Sweden and Switzerland do, or on the soil of a few clearly-defined vital interests, as Great Powers have always done, or every damn place on the planet not inhabited by penguins, like Superpowers do?

      That has gigantic long-term effects not just on your budget, but on your beliefs about the sovereign rights of other peoples versus your own.

  16. All efforts at meddling in other countries are in vain.

    They only result in unintended consequences.

    At this point, we just need all the Libyan oil back on the market.

  17. The real America First position was advocated by conservative nationalist Buchanan who has said —since the wall came down— NATO should be and should have been disbanded.

  18. I think it is Europe that is being assisted by the Afghanistan as well as Libya, not the other way around. After all,the struggle for control of pipelines and minerals in Central Asia more directly benefits Europe than it does the United States. Europe has been overly reliant on Russia for supplies of natural gas and oil, and Russia has been an unreliable supplier. Why else did Europe ever contribute to this foolish enterprise? Despite all the calamities and clumsiness on display in the Balkans, the U.S. ended up with Camp Bondsteel in place protecting a future pipeline corridor. Google Pipelineistan to make some sense out of U.S. foreign policy.

    • Gee, you do a search on “how to attack a pipeline” and 33 million hits, and a lot of good ideas on finding the many vulnerable spots and how to trash them. You think that Camp Bondsteel or any of the other hundreds of “bases” are going to “provide energy security” for the dead-end end-of-game consumption behaviors Our Kleptocratic Rulers are forcing us into, as a way of stealing almost all the real wealth and assets of the planet for their personal pleasure domes?

      As long as everything is just set pieces in the Great Game, played out in the Networked Battlespace, there is no security, and no future. But not to worry, those who dominate play today are in no danger of losing their hegemony over the lives and fortunes of all the rest of us.

    • Russia only has been an unreliable supplier because the Ukraine did not pay the price they demanded.

      They are quite reliable if you pay the market price on time. Hence Nord Stream.

      Admittedly you don’t want to be at the mercy of just one supplier but the dependency is mutual. After all Russia requires good customers to cash in on the riches of their natural resources.

  19. I distinctly remember Rumsfeld and others, in 2003, excoriating France et al. for not “doing their part” in the Iraq war. At the time I considered that comment interesting, in light of the fact that we were/are ALL supposed to be DEMOCRACIES that respond to the WILLS of their PEOPLE. The French were doing no more than simply that, then. NATO is doing no more than that now. Our government didn’t defer to public opinion then, or now, regarding ANY of our 3, 4, 5, 6 or more wars (depending on how you count them and how much the growing oligarchic national government allows us to know).

  20. The members of the EU spend less than two percent of their GDP on defense. They decided long ago that they were going to pursue social programs rather than maintain a strong military force. Ironically, many, including the UK, are finding that they cannot maintain the level of government spending on social programs demanded by their publics, and they must cut back.

    All this may be what they thought was best over the years, but when strong military force and logistical capacity are needed, it is always the United States that is called upon to provide it. Europe has little logistical capacity to speak of, and their force structure has been degraded. Thus, when a problem that is in their own backyard, such as Bosnia in the early 1990s and Kosovo in 1999, they dither because they have neither the force structure nor the political will to bring force to bear upon the problem. It is then left to the United States to provide it for them. In 1999, for example, the U.S. flew 80 percent of the sorties against the Serbs. The remaining 20 percent were flown primarily by the UK.

    And while we’re at it, it is worth pondering the irony that many who called the U.S. war against Iraq illegal because it lacked UN approval, were very supportive of the 78-day war against Serbia. Yet, there was certainly no UN imprimatur backing that action. That NATO (led by the U.S.) waged the war against Serbia did not make it any more “legal,” according to those who insist that any such action must gain UN approval in order to be legal.

  21. —“What Gates does not understand is that the degree of militarization he is demanding of the Europeans, and which already characterizes the US, is what leads to such ruinous adventures. It is the US that needs to change, not Europe.”—-

    Gates demanded no such thing and he certainly didn’t talk about NATO members bankrupting themselves.
    This is a very obvious misreading of Gates’ speech.
    What he DID say is that most NATO members aren’t meeting their commitment to spend that whopping 2% of GDP and that they don’t co-ordinate enough to spend those small sums wisely and eliminate duplication.

    His criticism of the Libya effort, the failure to provide adequate direction and munitions for all the aircraft committed, is also misread in this post.

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