U.S. President Harry Truman signs the bill ratifying the North Atlantic Treaty, part of creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) National Archives

Is NATO withering away?

At the beginning of this year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, pointing to the chronic “underfunding of NATO,” warned of the “demilitarization of Europe.” What was “a blessing in the 20th century,” he observed, is becoming “an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st.”

Not many people outside the bureaucracies that run NATO and the European Union paid much attention at the time. But they are paying attention now, as America’s NATO allies slash their defense budgets in response to the economic crisis. The scope of the cuts is difficult to grasp:

•Britain is cutting defense spending by 8 percent. The result: the British army is shrinking to 95,000 troops; Britain’s fleet of destroyers and frigates will be cut from 23 to just 10 ships; Britain’s only aircraft carrier capable of deploying fixed-wing planes will be mothballed; and entire squadrons of warplanes will be retired. Britain will withdraw 20,000 troops from continental Europe, delay upgrades to its nuclear deterrent, and speed up the decommissioning of an aircraft carrier. The NATO secretary-general calls Britain’s drastic cuts “a matter of concern.”

•Britain and France are so focused on defense-spending cuts that they just agreed to share an aircraft carrier. France, for its part, plans $5 billion in defense cuts over the next three years.

•A government commission has recommended that Germany shed 70,000 military personnel and slash spending by $13 billion over the next three years.

•According to Aviation Week, Italy is planning 10-percent cuts in every ministry, translating into the reduction of 10,000 troops and the cancellation of new warships and fighter aircraft.

This is worrisome not just because of the swelling number of challenges on NATO’s plate – a counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, piracy in the Indian Ocean, missile and nuclear proliferation, rising tensions in the Arctic, a resurgent and revisionist Russia – but also because it appears that NATO may be withering away.

To be sure, the United States has always been the center of gravity within NATO, shouldering a heavier burden than its allies. But even if the flesh of NATO’s European members was weak during the Cold War, the spirit was usually willing. Today, the flesh and muscle are atrophied, and the spirit seems unwilling to fight the disease.

That’s bad news, because the United States has come to rely on its NATO partners, even with their military limitations, to play important niche roles after the Cold War. These alliances within the alliance helped the United States liberate Kuwait, defend Saudi Arabia, stabilize the Balkans, take down the Taliban and topple Saddam’s regime.

In other words, NATO has served as a force multiplier for U.S. power. But those days may be over.

Even before this era of austerity, while the United States was spending 4 percent of its GDP on defense, only five NATO members mustered the will to meet the alliance’s standard of investing 2 percent of GDP on defense.

“The resulting funding and capability shortfalls,” Gates observed, “make it difficult to operate and fight together to confront shared threats.”

If you doubt this, look no farther than Afghanistan. Because of paltry investments on defense, NATO members have to hitch a ride with the U.S. Air Force, or rent Soviet-era transports, to deploy to Afghanistan. They “are not trained in counterinsurgency,” in the blunt words of Gates. They lack refueling planes, recon assets and helicopters – all essential to waging war in Afghanistan. And they have repeatedly underdelivered when it comes to troop deployments.

So the Americans fill the gaps. The United States is contributing 71 percent of all NATO forces in Afghanistan.

This is disheartening for at least two reasons. First, NATO is in Afghanistan because that country spawned an armed attack against a NATO member, which prompted the alliance to invoke NATO’s “all for one” collective-defense clause for the first time in history. In other words, Afghanistan is supposedly important to every member of the alliance, not just to the United States.

Second, the Europeans have the ability to do more. NATO’s European members boast a population of 567 million, command a GDP of $16.7 trillion, and field some 2.3 million active-duty troops and another 3.04 million reservists. The United States, by comparison, has a population of 310 million, a GDP around $14.4 trillion, and 1.4 million troops on active duty and less than 1 million reservists.

As NATO’s European members gut their militaries, those numbers will change in the coming years, and not for the better. The result will be the devolution of NATO from a military alliance with the means and will to do great things, into a political club that lacks both the will and the means to do much of anything.