Coalition of the Unable

All eyes at the upcoming NATO summit will be focused on expansion and the Afghanistan operation, but leaders ignore another topic at the alliance’s peril: the widening gap in military capabilities between America and Europe.

NATO's member-state heads are getting together this week for the biggest summit in the alliance's history. But diplomatic etiquette may well preclude bringing up the one topic whose public discussion, insofar as NATO is a military alliance, needs greater attention: the growing gap between members with respect to capabilities, a deficit which threatens the very future of the transatlantic partnership.

All three of the remaining U.S. presidential candidates have pledged to rebuild America's transatlantic ties, including security links. However, pieties do not substitute for substance. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) has promised that he would "rally our NATO allies to contribute more troops to collective security operations," but left unaddressed where such troops would actually come from. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) has affirmed that "when America and Europe work together, global objectives are within our means," but that presumes, at least on the "hard power" side of the equation, that the European militaries are capable of operating with U.S. forces, a proposition questioned by many officers in NATO.

Only Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has openly addressed in more than merely passing mention the question of inequalities in the alliance, writing in Foreign Affairs last year that "our recommitment to Afghanistan must include increasing NATO forces, suspending the debilitating restrictions on when and how those forces can fight," acknowledging the limitations that come when allied "troops are not all part of a common structure." Going further in a February interview with the Sunday Telegraph, McCain spoke of "NATO's failure to do the heavy lifting in Afghanistan," pointing the finger at "some of the countries [which] have not contributed what they can" as well as the dual-command structure whereby some allies are fully integrated while others essentially cherry-pick the missions their units will undertake.

While NATO expansion and the ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo will headline the meeting's agenda, leaders cannot afford to ignore the widening transatlantic military gap. In the immediate aftermath of the apparently successful invasion of Iraq, Admiral Sir Ian Forbes, then Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, warned of its implications for the future of the alliance: "The brutal truth is that, with NATO's current military capabilities, the alliance could not fight at a level comparable to the recent U.S. operations in Iraq . . . For the United States, NATO is no longer a tool of first resort, nor will it be until Europe and Canada upgrade their capabilities and change their intellectual course."

The intervening years have only widened the gap. The U.S. defense budget for the current fiscal year exceeds $650 million, a little more than 4 percent of the country's gross domestic product, which means America is outspending its NATO allies by between 50 and 400 percent in terms of GDP per capita. Despite a longstanding commitment on the part of alliance members to spend a minimum of 2 percent of GDP on defense, only five of America's allies-Bulgaria, France, Great Britain, Greece and Turkey-have even attempted to meet that bare threshold. While the combined armed forces of its America's NATO allies exceeds two million men and women, military analysts note that barely one-tenth of those personnel are actually deployable-and European Union commitments to Kosovo and, more recently, to Chad and the Central African Republic have whittled the latter number down even further.

Thus, while NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer avows that the alliance's mission in Afghanistan is "the most challenging and critical" task that it has ever taken on, the fact is the brunt of the operation is born by its American, British, Canadian and Dutch contingents. While the largely secret, but reportedly varied, rules of engagements that the thirty-seven different countries fighting in Afghanistan have set for their personnel are blamed for part of this, in actuality the rules may be an all-too-convenient cover for lack of material capacity and/or political will on the part of some of the allies themselves. The secretary-general's own director of policy planning warned last year that NATO governments cannot afford anything less than full success here, going so far as to raise the alarm that failure would ultimately impact "the ability of Europe and North America to live in peace for the next generation."

The raw fiscal and personnel numbers, however, only tell part of the story of the growing imbalance. Despite a global security environment that requires what American military-speak calls "jointness"-broadly understood as the elimination of redundant weapons systems and overlapping roles and missions in favor of integrating land, sea and air forces in a war-fighting strategy that involves simultaneous attack, shared risk-taking and mutual trust-America's European allies remain as fragmented as ever for a variety of nationalistic reasons. To cite just one example, the current issue of the Economist reports that "Europeans operate four models of tanks, compared with one in America; 16 kinds of armored vehicles compared with three American ones; 11 types of frigates versus one in America."