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NATO's Future Is America's Dilemma

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This past week, in an unprecedented moment of diplomatic candor, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates heaped heavy criticism on European nations for their apparent incapability and unwillingness to pull their weight within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Gates' comments have sparked heavy debate as to the future of the 28 member military alliance.

Central to this debate are questions about NATO's relevancy in a post-Cold War era. "What have you done for me lately?" dominates this theme as critics point to NATO's now bygone raison d'être -- the defense of allied nations against a Soviet attack. A second critique by Gates illustrates US frustrations -- perhaps rightfully so -- at the fact that the United States now bankrolls 75% of the total defense spending within NATO.

Gates' critique points to a deeper intervention dilemma for the United States -- how to balance its known military might with its desired level of participation in global conflicts. America's military budget amounts to 43% percent of all global military expenditure. In 2012, the US defense budget will be $690 billion -- six times as much as China, the second biggest spender. This makes America the world's only real military superpower.

For better or worse, the reality is that no other nation has the military capability and resources of the United States, which means that when crises occur -- as in Libya, where immediate military measures are required -- the US will be a logical, and significant, default participant. Of course, there is a downside to this military power. In cases where such conflicts are described as "humanitarian crises", any refusal of the US to put its military to good use when it has the means to do so, will surely be met with global condemnation. Already, this is becoming the creeping condition in the case of Syria.

Alternatively, when the United States does intervene in humanitarian crises, and where military operations deepen and intensify (as they are so prone to do), the US is often chastised for its bullish interference and heavy-handedness.

NATO provides the logical vehicle for overcoming America's intervention dilemma.

But as much as the United States would prefer to be a face in the (NATO) crowd, its dominant presence provides fertile ground for free riders who wish to benefit from the alliance's collective security umbrella whilst contributing little to its maintenance. In what may be described as the ultimate community watch program, the United States contributes disproportionately to the defense of European nations, with hardware, programs, finance, and intelligence. As Gates points out, we are only 11 weeks into the NATO campaign in Libya, and participant NATO nations are running out of ammunition, forcing the US to take up the slack.

To be sure, European nations can argue that a lack of direct threat and a worsening economic climate have created limitations on their capacity and willingness to boost defense spending -- in fact, only five of NATO's 28 member nations spend 2% or more of their GDP on defense, a requirement for NATO members. To this, there are arguments that the US should follow suit -- be more prudent in its borrowing and its spending for military purposes; that it should put its money toward healing its own domestic affairs. There is much logic in this. Ironically, this argument -- which has traditionally been the mainstay of hardcore realists -- is now one that is more often heard amongst former liberal-interventionists, who, like most, have become fatigued by war and faltering domestic economies.

But where this isolationist logic falls apart is in cases where immediate and coordinated military intervention is required in times of humanitarian crises. Having joint military headquarters, rules, policies, and interoperability at the ready can make the difference when quick responses are needed. In fact, despite not being designed as such, NATO has (in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Libya), acted quickly in instances in which UN Security Council resolutions have benefited from NATO's teeth and claws. This is especially true of the UN's much-touted "responsibility to protect" doctrine. Such a bold promise to the world must be backed by an ability to quickly deploy the proper military resources.

While the threat of the Cold War may be over, the potential for human suffering due to conflict is not. The vast majority of post-Cold War conflicts are intra-state in nature -- as opposed to open warfare between nations. Inherent within this form of conflict is the victimization of non-uniformed populations, crimes against humanity, and intense human suffering. As a result of the political complexity and military risk of intervening in intra-state wars (even if only to get aid to those who need it) military response is far better served by multilateral alliances that can share the commitment, costs, and risk. Moreover, in cases where "national interests" are not directly served by the intervention (as is often the case in the plight of some distant other), sharing responsibility and efforts helps promote participation.

Currently, no other military alliance offers the flexibility and interoperability to respond to emergent conflict conditions as does NATO's. Should the United States pull back from this alliance, "our" ability to respond to serious crises would surely suffer. Likewise, the US clearly benefits from the international legitimacy afforded by NATO's multilateral structure.

So it would appear that NATO's future is America's dilemma. Their symbiotic relationship is an unavoidable one. Whether Gates' speech puts pressure on member nations to increase their share of the military burden has yet to be seen. What we do know is that when militaries are truly needed to separate belligerents or to rescue populations from horrific ends, it is far too late to begin planning and training a multi-national force. By its own name or one anew, and in the face of current threats to citizens around the world, NATO may be more relevant than ever. It is just in need of a little repair.