Adrian Hamilton: Nato is dead – it's just that we won't admit it

International Studies

Related Topics

If ever the death knell was sounded for an organisation, it was sounded by the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, in a farewell speech to Nato in Brussels last Friday.

Of course, in talking of the 60-year-old alliance facing a "dim if not dismal" future of "military irrelevance", he was primarily expressing Washington's growing irritation with its European allies for not doing more in Afghanistan and over Libya. If they didn't pull their socks, up, he said with the bluntness that only a departing minister can voice, it would all be over for Nato.

You can't fault his analysis. The longer the Libyan intervention has gone on, the more it has shown up an alliance whose European members are divided on the goals and whose leader, the US, just doesn't want to go on providing the heavy lifting for something it feels should be a European show.

But then this only reflects the fundamental dichotomy of view between the US and Europe over how they see their security interests now. For most European countries, the fall of the Berlin Wall meant the end to the most direct military threat to their security, the raison d'être of Nato. Their populations looked for a scaling down of defence investment, not an expansion.

For the US, on the other hand, the Fall of the Wall left a fractious and unstable world in which they, as the sole hyperpower, now had to hold the ring. What they wanted was support from their allies, not a lessening of it.

It is this divergence of interest which is coming to the surface with the interventions in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya. To the military leaders of the organisation in Brussels and some of the more enthusiastic political supporters, such "out-of-theatre" operations were seen as a welcome opportunity to reassert Nato's relevance in the post-Cold War world. To the population of most European countries, they were aberration.

There was never the political consensus behind either Iraq or Afghanistan intervention, still less so as the costs escalated and the purpose became more confused. Washington might paper over the cracks with the help of Britain and some tokenism by others in Afghanistan, but the longer the entanglement lasted, the lower became the enthusiasm for it.

Could Libya prove the straw that breaks the alliance's back? In one sense it ought not, for the Europeans, led by David Cameron and President Sarkozy, were the ones who forced the pace of this intervention.

But the same problems of sustaining determination in a long haul that we have seen in Afghanistan applies to Libya as well, while the big difference this time round is in Washington's willingness to lead.

Behind Gates's speech was the clear implication that the US itself is beginning to tire of shouldering the burden. "The blunt reality," he said, "is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expand increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources to make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defence."

Gates might phrase this as a warning to Europe, but the "blunt reality", as he knows himself, is that it isn't the pusillanimity of its Nato allies which is driving Washington to think again but an American public that is turning more inward and has grown tired itself of expensive foreign wars.

Washington will no doubt try to keep up its obscenely large military expenditure (the equivalent of the budgets of all its allies put together), if only in response to China's rising spending. But – and President Obama's recent speeches reflect this – America is turning away from the idea of working through alliances towards taking care of the threats it sees as directed towards itself.

China's rise is one. Terrorism from Pakistan is another. But Europe and Nato, once the troops are out of Afghanistan, don't really figure.

The implications for Europe, including Britain, are clear enough if only any politician was willing to own up to them. The transatlantic partnership, in so far as it was a military alliance based on the mutual self-interest, has reached the end of its shelf life. Attempts to give it new meaning as an arm of US post-Cold War policy and as a global intervention force have proved expensive and divisive.

Of course it would be more effective to keep the US involved in European defence matters, and they may well see it in their continued interests to do so. There are many mutual concerns, from terrorism to the Arab Spring. If it helps to keep Nato alive as a pact, then it may serve a purpose.

But it is really up to the Europeans to organise their own defence now for a new era. Britain and France have made a start in co-ordinating their forces, as much for financial as strategic reasons. But there is no point in repeating the mistakes of Nato in the last decade, with one tier of the "willing", ready to offer up "hard power" troops and equipment, and another of the reluctant, giving only soft-power support in a non-combat role.

You're not at the moment going to get public backing for European states to up dramatically their defence spending, nor to see in defence an arm of an expansionist EU foreign policy. But Libya has given a start in propelling Britain and France together. Given the leadership, wider integration is possible. It's not as though there are plenty of security challenges in the region, from what is happening now in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean to troubles in former Soviet republics.

On this, at least, Robert Gates is right. It's time for Europe, including Britain, to get its defence act together.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Systems Analyst (Retail)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Up to 20% bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: An...

Technical BA - Banking - Bristol - £400pd

£400 per hour: Orgtel: Technical Business Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £400pd...

Head of Digital Marketing,London

To £58k Contract 12 months: Charter Selection: Major household name charity se...

Lead Hand - QC

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Lead Hand - QCProgressive are recruiting...

Day In a Page

Read Next

The daily catch-up: fathers looking after children, World Cup questions and Nostradamus

John Rentoul

Letter from the Political Editor: Phone and data laws to be passed in haste

Andrew Grice
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice