I think the logic underlying Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ argument that Europe needs to take military force seriously again is solid, even if the idealist in me (yes, he lives) wishes the world would move closer to the European consensus against war than vice versa. The problem is that Gates, like most American defense thinkers, presents NATO as the only acceptable expression of a remilitarized Europe. And for a variety of reasons, that’s just unrealistic.
To begin with, this is akin to repeatedly insisting to a lazy teenager that he has to help out around the house. No matter how many times or how loud you say it, it just doesn’t work. In fact, the more and louder you say it, the less it works. On the other hand, greeting him at the door with two suitcases packed with his affairs and asking him whether he’s found a place to stay for the night is more likely to get his attention. Europeans will never adequately provide for their own defense so long as the moral hazard for not doing so is generously covered by the U.S.
Another reason it’s unrealistic is that, despite the “forward defense” consensus among Western strategic planners, and notwithstanding the fact that NATO’s next Strategic Concept is likely to extend the alliance’s out-of-theater role for another 10 years, this is a posture that will exist on paper only. Politically speaking, Europe is finished with the kind of nation-building/counterinsurgency intervention represented by Afghanistan. In fact, the only way that European opinion was sold on the Afghanistan war was because it was passed off as the kind of humanitarian, peacekeeping and post-conflict stabilization mission that Europeans are comfortable with.
Once the Afghanistan war is drawn down, whatever collective progress Europeans make on such humanitarian operations will be on an ad hoc and piecemeal basis, because it will happen through the EU. And that is for the best. European opinion does need to awaken to the need for a robust defense and security posture in order to protect and advance European interests. But that awakening has to come from within Europe. And it is more likely to happen as a result of contact with reality than as a result of prodding from an enabler.