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.
Part of this predicament stems from a lack of will, much of it from a lack of resources in an era of austerity. For all but a handful of allies, defense budgets - in absolute terms, as a share of economic output - have been chronically starved for adequate funding for a long time, with the shortfalls compounding on themselves each year. Despite the demands of mission in Afghanistan - the first ‘hot' ground war fought in NATO history - total European defense spending declined, by one estimate, by nearly 15 percent in the decade following 9/11. Furthermore, rising personnel costs combined with the demands of training and equipping for Afghan deployments has consumed an ever growing share of already meager defense budgets. The result is that investment accounts for future modernization and other capabilities not directly related to Afghanistan are being squeezed out - as we are seeing today over Libya.
I am the latest in a string of U.S. defense secretaries who have urged allies privately and publicly, often with exasperation, to meet agreed-upon NATO benchmarks for defense spending. However, fiscal, political and demographic realities make this unlikely to happen anytime soon, as even military stalwarts like the U.K have been forced to ratchet back with major cuts to force structure. Today, just five of 28 allies - the U.S., U.K., France, Greece, along with Albania - exceed the agreed 2% of GDP spending on defense.
Regrettably, but realistically, this situation is highly unlikely to change. The relevant challenge for us today, therefore, is no longer the total level of defense spending by allies, but how these limited (and dwindling) resources are allocated and for what priorities. For example, though some smaller NATO members have modestly sized and funded militaries that do not meet the 2 percent threshold, several of these allies have managed to punch well above their weight because of the way they use the resources they have.
In the Libya operation, Norway and Denmark, have provided 12 percent of allied strike aircraft yet have struck about one third of the targets. Belgium and Canada are also making major contributions to the strike mission. These countries have, with their constrained resources, found ways to do the training, buy the equipment, and field the platforms necessary to make a credible military contribution.
These examples are the exceptions. Despite the pressing need to spend more on vital equipment and the right personnel to support ongoing missions - needs that have been evident for the past two decades - too many allies been unwilling to fundamentally change how they set priorities and allocate resources. The non-U.S. NATO members collectively spend more than $300 billion U.S. dollars on defense annually which, if allocated wisely and strategically, could buy a significant amount of usable military capability. Instead, the results are significantly less than the sum of the parts. This has both shortchanged current operations but also bodes ill for ensuring NATO has the key common alliance capabilities of the future.
Looking ahead, to avoid the very real possibility of collective military irrelevance, member nations must examine new approaches to boosting combat capabilities - in procurement, in training, in logistics, in sustainment. While it is clear NATO members should do more to pool military assets, such "Smart Defense" initiatives are not a panacea. In the final analysis, there is no substitute for nations providing the resources necessary to have the military capability the Alliance needs when faced with a security challenge. Ultimately, nations must be responsible for their fair share of the common defense.
Let me conclude with some thoughts about the political context in which all of us must operate. As you all know, America's serious fiscal situation is now putting pressure on our defense budget, and we are in a process of assessing where the U.S. can or cannot accept more risk as a result of reducing the size of our military. Tough choices lie ahead affecting every part of our government, and during such times, scrutiny inevitably falls on the cost of overseas commitments - from foreign assistance to military basing, support, and guarantees.
President Obama and I believe that despite the budget pressures, it would be a grave mistake for the U.S. to withdraw from its global responsibilities. And in Singapore last week, I outlined the many areas where U.S. defense engagement and investment in Asia was slated to grow further in coming years, even as America's traditional allies in that region rightfully take on the role of full partners in their own defense.
With respect to Europe, for the better part of six decades there has been relatively little doubt or debate in the United States about the value and necessity of the transatlantic alliance. The benefits of a Europe whole, prosperous and free after being twice devastated by wars requiring American intervention was self evident. Thus, for most of the Cold War U.S. governments could justify defense investments and costly forward bases that made up roughly 50 percent of all NATO military spending. But some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. share of NATO defense spending has now risen to more than 75 percent - at a time when politically painful budget and benefit cuts are being considered at home.
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. Nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.
Indeed, if current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, Future U.S. political leaders- those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me - may not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost.
What I've sketched out is the real possibility for a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance. Such a future is possible, but not inevitable. The good news is that the members of NATO - individually, and collectively - have it well within their means to halt and reverse these trends, and instead produce a very different future:
* By making a serious effort to protect defense budgets from being further gutted in the next round of austerity measures;
* By better allocating (and coordinating) the resources we do have; and
* By following through on commitments to the alliance and to each other.
It is not too late for Europe to get its defense institutions and security relationships on track. But it will take leadership from political leaders and policy makers on this continent. It cannot be coaxed, demanded or imposed from across the Atlantic.
Over the life of the transatlantic alliance there has been no shortage of squabbles and setbacks. But through it all, we managed to get the big things right over time. We came together to make the tough decisions in the face of dissension at home and threats abroad. And I take heart in the knowledge that we can do so again.