It was a hot and difficult summer. And Europeans were pained to hear the blunt assessment that the U.S. would not be able to forever sustain NATO without greater investment on their part. The alliance was heading for “collective military irrelevance” and the current state of affairs was “unacceptable,” the American official said. He noted that America’s share of NATO spending during the Cold War was 50 percent, but after 1989 it steadily rose to become nearly 75 percent. European nations were enjoying the benefits of Article V guarantees, “be they security guarantees or headquarters billets — but don’t want to share the risks and the costs,” he said. In other words, America was getting ripped off.
That was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaking almost exactly seven years ago.
Gates noted that he was only the latest in a long succession of U.S. defense secretaries who had complained and cajoled NATO allies on these issues privately and publicly. “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 partners in their own defense,” Gates said.
Gates was speaking these words in the context of an ailing NATO mission in Libya. France had been leading the diplomatic effort to convince Allies to take action there. But, Gates said, the U.S. quickly discovered that European militaries were incapable of meaningfully contributing to a mission that was in their own neighborhood. The failures of that mission arguably contributed to the Mediterranean migration crisis that has roiled Europe and re-ordered its politics. They also likely influenced President Obama’s decision not to intervene even more dramatically in the Syrian Civil War in 2013 — a wise pull back from the abyss in my own view. Is was also arguably Europe’s own neighborhood. Syria certainly proved to be of vital interest to Europe in the coming years, as the war created a humanitarian crisis on the continent. But Europe’s own interventions in Syria’s civil war have been minuscule, dwarfed by what the Russians were able to do for their client Bashar al-Assad. Only the U.K. and France have contributed anything of substance.
Now Gates’s prediction that patience would begin to run out is coming true, as President Donald Trump reams out the Europeans. Given the increasing exasperation of U.S. presidents, Europe should have anticipated this problem. First, the U.S. cajoled. Then, under Obama it began to warn. And now, under Trump, it bellows. The U.S. is letting Europe know that it can treat this partnership for what it’s worth.
It is time for Europe to grow up. Many of the criticisms their publics, their press, and their politicians throw at Trump and America have some merit. It’s true that Trump is undiplomatic and he can be obnoxious to allies. Many Europeans are currently advertising their revulsion at Trump’s family-separation and detention policies at the border. Those policies deserve criticism.
But, Europe is the continent whose migration policies have turned Libya into a smuggler’s paradise. It was European migration policies that tolerated the sordid Calais jungle. It was Europe that recently cut a deal with the petty tyrant Erdogan to keep migrants out. And it is Europe that is preparing to set up encampments outside its borders to deal with migrants. What do you think those will look like?
Europe is lashing out as it is discovering the truth about what the U.S. really thinks of it.
The continent has real problems and real security challenges. It has real self-regard and sees its political union as a means of putting itself back at the center of the world’s affairs. But, in truth, it has almost no ability to project its power domestically, much less abroad. Only France seems able to maintain its sordid Africa policies.
Sometimes friendships turn toxic. And like anyone who has been enabled and enfeebled by a relationship, Europe is lashing out as it is discovering the truth about what the U.S. really thinks of it. Let it lash out for a bit. This is a partnership based on deep ties of history, civilization, and mutual interests, and one side of it really does have to grow up, and make decisions like an adult.