Two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired a parting broadside at the NATO alliance. Gates argued that many European countries have chronically underfunded defense, to the extent that they are now incapable of contributing to the multilateral expeditionary operations that have become part of the alliance's portfolio. Gates' exasperation focused mainly on operations in Libya, which have now considerably outlasted expectations and may soon outlast the will and capability of NATO's European members.
It is worth noting, however, that protection of Libyan civilians through airstrikes sits so far outside NATO's founding purpose that the framers of the 1949 treaty that brought the alliance into existence would hardly recognize the mission. NATO is a tool that has been effectively repurposed since the end of the Cold War, but tools are not infinitely malleable. So while the alliance may not be the ideal tool for managing military intervention in Europe's "near abroad," that does not mean that the organization is -- or risks becoming -- useless. Instead of disparaging allies, it would make more sense for critics to consider what NATO can and cannot do, and adapt their expectations accordingly.
Gates' speech won applause from American pundits across the political spectrum, some frustrated by the alliance's inability to prosecute the war in Libya without U.S. participation and others unhappy with long-term European "fecklessness." In the passage of the speech that drew the most attention, Gates declared, "In the past, I've worried openly about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance: Between members who specialize in 'soft' humanitarian, development, peacekeeping and talking tasks, and those conducting the 'hard' combat missions. Between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership -- be they security guarantees or headquarters billets -- but don't want to share the risks and the costs. This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today. And it is unacceptable."