NATO Has Become a Two-Tiered Alliance

Robert Gates

Brussels, Belgium

Thank you, Mr. Secretary General, Jaap, for that kind introduction.

And my thanks to Giles Merritt and the Security and Defense Agenda for the opportunity to speak here today. This is Day 11 of an 11-day international trip so you can understand why I am very much looking forward to getting home. But I am glad - at this time, in this venue - to share some thoughts with you this morning about the transatlantic security relationship in what will be my last policy speech as U.S. defense secretary.

The security of this continent - with NATO as the main instrument for protecting that security - has been the consuming interest of much of my professional life.

In many ways, today's event brings me full circle. The first major speech I delivered after taking this post nearly four-and-a-half years ago was also on the Continent, at the Munich Security Conference. The subject was the state of the Atlantic Alliance, which was then being tested with the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Today, I would like to share some parting thoughts about the state of the now 60-plus year old transatlantic security project, to include:

* Where the alliance mission stands in Afghanistan as we enter a critical transition phase;
* NATO's serious capability gaps and other institutional shortcomings laid bare by the Libya operation;
* The military - and political - necessity of fixing these shortcomings if the transatlantic security alliance is going to be viable going forward;
* And more broadly, the growing difficulty for the U.S. to sustain current support for NATO if the American taxpayer continues to carry most of the burden in the Alliance.

I share these views in the spirit of solidarity and friendship, with the understanding that true friends occasionally must speak bluntly with one another for the sake of those greater interests and values that bind us together.

First, a few words on Afghanistan. I have just returned from three days of visits and meetings with our troops and commanders there, and come away impressed and inspired by the changes that have taken place on the ground in recent months. It is no secret that for too long, the international military effort in Afghanistan suffered from a lack of focus, resources, and attention, a situation exacerbated by America's primary focus on Iraq for most of the past decade.

When NATO agreed at Riga in 2006 to take the lead for security across the country, I suspect many allies assumed that the mission would be primarily peacekeeping, reconstruction, and development assistance - more akin to the Balkans. Instead, NATO found itself in a tough fight against a determined and resurgent Taliban returning in force from its sanctuaries in Pakistan.

Soon, the challenges inherent to any coalition operation came to the surface - national caveats that tied the hands of allied commanders in sometimes infuriating ways, the inability of many allies to meet agreed upon commitments and, in some cases, wildly disparate contributions from different member states. Frustrations with these obstacles sometimes boiled into public view. I had some choice words to say on this topic during my first year in office, unfavorably characterized at the time by one of my NATO ministerial colleagues as "megaphone diplomacy."

Yet, through it all, NATO - as an alliance collectively - has for the most part come through for the mission in Afghanistan. Consider that when I became Secretary of Defense in 2006 there were about 20,000 non-U.S. troops from NATO nations in Afghanistan. Today, that figure is approximately 40,000. More than 850 troops from non-U.S. NATO members have made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan. For many allied nations these were the first military casualties they have taken since the end of the Second World War.

Frankly, four years ago I never would have expected the alliance to sustain this operation at this level for so long, much less add significantly more forces in 2010. It is a credit to the brave ISAF troops on the ground, as well as to the allied governments who have made the case for the Afghanistan mission under difficult political circumstances at home.

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Robert Gates is U.S. Secretary of Defense.

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