From today's edition of The New York Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/11/wo...e/11gates.htmlPerhaps most significantly, Mr. Gates issued a dire warning that the United States, exhausted by a decade of war and dreading its own mounting budget deficits, simply may not see NATO as worth supporting any longer.
“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,” Mr. Gates said.
IMO, this is an important speech. Secretary Gates sees and understands the big picture. Recognizing the magnitude and urgency of the challenges facing NATO, he did not evade addressing the tough issues.
A number of large trends are underway:
1. The U.S. and Europe have emerged from a financial crisis/severe recession that marked the most seminal event of the 2000s to date. The advanced nations were already facing looming fiscal imbalances, and the financial crisis/severe recession exacerbated those imbalances and made the timeframe for credible fiscal consolidation more urgent (leaving less time and room for transition).
2. An era of fiscal consolidation/austerity is now imminent. In parts of Western Europe, that era is now in its early stages.
3. Once fiscal consolidation spreads to the U.S., defense expenditures will not be immune to any credible fiscal consolidation strategy. The Pentagon, like any other government agency, will be asked to rationalize its expenditures in a way it has not had to, achieve greater results per dollar of expenditures, and to become more focused. Secretary of Gates has already begun early efforts in that direction.
4. In a bid to avoid deeper cuts to social welfare spending or greater tax hikes than would otherwise be the case, nations facing severe fiscal challenges have often refocused domestically. They have reduced overseas commitments, shrunk their ambitions and horizons, etc.
5. A retreat from international commitments can have an adverse impact on the balance of power. The equilibrium can shift more in favor of radical or hostile elements. Hence, security risks can increase. The danger that nations wind up abandoning more critical interests is real. Yet, in a quirk of psychology, some can be tempted to adopt the false assumption that non-interventionism/soft isolationism can effectively substitute for a decline in their relative or even absolute power. In other words, 'if we pretend the threat does not exist and act as if it doesn't exist, then the threat won't confront us.' Few approaches could be more short-sighted. The run-up to WW II proved just how disastrously wrong that assumption was in the face of a balance of power that rapidly shifted in favor of Nazi Germany.
Against that context, Secretary Gates is right to be concerned about the future of NATO should all NATO members not step up their contributions to the alliance. If NATO is increasingly perceived as weakening or ineffectual, its security credibility will wane. IMO, NATO's going beyond its founding principle to engage in regime change in peripheral situations such as Libya's civil war is a problem. It drains resources. It exposes limitations. It changes the calculations of hostile states.
One cannot help but notice that Iran has now announced that it will be tripling the production of enriched uranium and shifting that production to its underground facility at Fordow. Syria has ignored all pleas for it to refrain from brutally quashing its political opposition. North Korea has again rattled the saber, threatening South Korea. The Taliban has shown little commitment for power-sharing in Afghanistan, as it perceives a battlefield situation that still leaves it opportunity to pursue a less constrained course aimed at regaining control of Afghanistan.
Actual weakness or perceptions of weakness create problems. Secretary Gates recognizes that real problems exist. He raises the issue now, as the problems can still be addressed. Down the road, it will be more difficult to do so, especially if austerity becomes even more urgent should the U.S. largely delay credible fiscal consolidation.
Henry Kissinger once observed the importance of acting early, even when challenges are ambiguous. He declared:
Our security is not self-ensuring; our preferences do not automatically prevail; our interests and values require vigilance and effort if they are to survive. Indeed, as the world becomes more complex, our safety and well-being require more commitment at an early stage if the challenges are not to grow overwhelming. When the scope for action is greatest, the challenge is bound to be ambiguous. When the nature of the problem becomes unambiguously clear, the scope for creative action may well have disappeared. The task of statesmanship is to attempt to shape events according to a vision of the future, with the moral fortitude to act boldly when even consensus and certainty are often unattainable.
Today's speech by Secretary Gates was a call for just such action. It was blunt, but exactly what needed to be said.