Does NATO Have a Future?

By Christine Hilt, Transatlantic Security Analyst

During his final speaking engagement on an eleven-day European tour, the outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sent a blunt warning to NATO members that the current state of the transatlantic security alliance is unsustainable and faces a “dim, if not dismal future.” He began his speech with a brief update on Afghanistan and Libya in order to raise awareness about NATO’s “serious capability gaps and other institutional shortcomings” that must be fixed in order for the organization to continue into the future.


But the hammer did not truly fall until the latter part of the speech, when Gates attacked the Europeans for failing to meet their share of NATO responsibilities. With the U.S. taking responsibility for 75% of NATO’s defense spending, and only four other states out of the 28-member organization meeting the minimum requirement of 2% of GDP spending on defense, Gates has the numbers to back his assertion.


The crux of his warning was that Americans may no longer be able rationalize the hefty NATO bill in light of their financial situation at home, and that Europe should invest more in its own defense.

“The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partner s in their own defense. [and]…if current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders – those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me – may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”

Yet this is nothing new. The problem of European free-riding in the NATO alliance was bred into the organization from its inception. The combination of American hegemony and European devastation in the wake of World War II forced the majority of defense spending to originate from the United States. In the following decades, to the fault of both sides, this situation was maintained.


Now, the need for austerity has brought this issue back to the fore. Countries are trying to trim their budgets, specifically in defense spending, without losing the NATO security umbrella. If members continue to cut their defense budgets, NATO must become less globally active; the Libyan intervention proved that NATO simply does not have the resources to successfully accomplish two global missions. But since many balk at the thought of compromising NATO, European members could choose to integrate their defense spending. This would augment European capabilities at existing levels of defense spending, allowing them to make larger contributions to NATO. Finally, a simple public relations push to gain constituency support for NATO seems necessary to ensure that future U.S. and European leaders understand the benefits of maintaining NATO.


Gates’ speech was a somber warning, but the doomsday bells are not quite ready to toll. Support for greater defense spending may be weak on both sides of the Atlantic, with financial woes weighing heavily on a discontented public, but the future is not completely dismal. There are still ways to strengthen NATO; all that is needed is the political will to see them through.

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