BRUSSELS — In a stern rebuke, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Friday that the future of the historic NATO military alliance is at risk because of European penny-pinching and distaste for front-line combat.
Some NATO countries bristled, but Britain agreed.
Gates' assessment that NATO could face "a dim if not dismal" future echoes long-standing concern of U.S. policymakers about European defense spending. But rarely, if ever, has it been stated so directly by such a powerful American figure, widely respected in the United States and internationally.
The speech comes as the United States prepares to begin withdrawing some of its forces from Afghanistan this summer and as it and other NATO powers engage in an air campaign against the forces of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. In both cases, Gates said, budget cuts and sheer reluctance among European partners to fight have made the missions significantly more difficult and shifted the burden onto the United States.
"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," said Gates, who retires at the end of the month.
That assessment may cause Europeans to question the future of their defense relationship with the United States, on whom they have counted for a large measure of their security for six decades. It comes on the heels of the withdrawal of one American combat brigade from Europe as part of a significant reduction of U.S. troops.
The United States has been the brawn behind NATO since its birth in 1949. But the disparity between strength and allies' investment has only grown wider.
In a question-and-answer session after his speech, Gates, 67, said his generation's "emotional and historical attachment" to NATO is "aging out."
For many Americans, NATO is a vague idea tied to a bygone era, a time when the world feared a Soviet land invasion of Europe that could have escalated to nuclear war. But with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO's reason for being came into question. It has remained intact — and even expanded from 16 members at the conclusion of the Cold War to 28 today — but European reluctance to expand defense budgets has created what amounts to a two-tier alliance: the U.S. military at one level and the rest of NATO on a lower, almost irrelevant plane.
Gates said this presents a problem that could spell the demise of the alliance.
"What I've sketched out is the real possibility for a dim if not dismal future for the trans-Atlantic alliance," Gates said. "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."
Without naming names, Gates blasted "nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets."
A German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman defended that nation's contribution. However, defense spending is uneven within Europe.
Liam Fox, defense secretary in Britain, a strong U.S. ally, told NATO on Thursday that European governments were undermining military cooperation with the United States by failing to spend enough on defense. He also said other European nations should be more willing to send their forces to NATO operations such as Afghanistan. He praised Gates as a champion of the trans-Atlantic relationship.
"Unless Europe carries more of the share of its own defense, we should not assume his successors will do the same," Fox said.
Gates's criticism drew mixed reactions from European think tanks. Daniel Korski, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the speech displayed ignorance about widespread budget cuts across Europe. But Jonathan Eyal, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said Gates delivered a message that Europeans need to hear.
The White House stood by Gates' comments Friday, though officials emphasized that the outgoing defense secretary was not guaranteeing a dim future for NATO, only saying that the possibility existed if allies cannot provide the resources needed. "I don't think anyone would argue with that," said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council.
Gates has criticized the Europeans before. He bruised feelings at NATO by publicly calling for larger troop contributions in Afghanistan. He has also criticized the heavy restrictions many European governments set for their soldiers, including bans on night patrols that mean many of them rarely leave their bases.
In February 2010 at the National Defense University in Washington he said NATO was in danger of becoming a paper tiger.
On Friday, to illustrate his concerns about Europe's lack of appetite for defense, Gates pointed to Libya, where France and other NATO nations pushed hard for NATO intervention and where the United States insisted on a back-seat role.
"While every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission," he said. "Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate but simply because they can't."
The challenges facing the Libyan campaign were underscored just hours after Gates spoke, as Norway announced it would pull its forces out of operations by the beginning of August because of the burdens on its small military.
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.