Defense Secretary Robert Gates is right to shed the diplomatic niceties and call out NATO for the free ride that America's European allies have enjoyed. American taxpayers cannot and should not have to keep shouldering most of the burden and paying the overwhelming majority of costs of defending Europe and advancing the West's security interests. By giving the issue such prominence in his final policy speech before retiring this month, Gates has created an opening for his successor and NATO to address a long-festering problem.
The message was not new but surprisingly blunt. Gates warned Europe last week that the United States — drained militarily and financially by a decade of war — has a "dwindling appetite" to bear the biggest share of security costs for nations "unwilling to devote the necessary resources" to be "capable partners in their own defense." His words said as much about America's need to manage its crushing debt as they were a call for NATO countries to accept more responsibility in the post-Cold War era.
The United States accounts for three-fourths of all military spending by NATO members, an unfair burden that allows the European allies to redirect domestic spending to infrastructure and social welfare programs. The United States has always taken the lead in NATO, and its defense spending has lavished the alliance with key equipment and intelligence capabilities. But America cannot continue to afford this outsized contribution. The defense budgets for Britain and France, the top two spenders after the United States, equal only about 8 percent and 7 percent, respectively, of America's defense budget. This is a gross imbalance that undermines the compact of shared responsibility.
NATO members need to step up and fill more of the void. The organization's overreliance on American money and might is on full display in Libya. After the United States ceded the leadership role in the fight against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, the NATO-led air operation bogged down as members disagreed over the course, conduct and costs of the campaign. Even though the United States is playing a subordinate role in Libya, the NATO campaign relies on American refueling and spy aircraft, American intelligence and American drones. It should alert Europe to the risks of having Washington carrying all the weight.
The Europeans need to up their contributions to NATO. There is a responsibility that comes with a commitment to the common defense. Sharing the sacrifice is not only fair but the surest way in this tough political and economic environment to maintain American support for NATO. The alliance is essential for America's security interests, and in promoting stability and democracy abroad. But the United States cannot be expected to continue to carry so much of the financial responsibility.