This is a question I ask myself quite a lot these days, as the bombing of Libya continues to little result. The how’s and why’s of that operation are worthy of a separate post, so I’ll save my thoughts on that for the near future.
But what is clear is that NATO is no longer the force it once was a generation ago. Twenty years of defense cuts, political incompetence, and the general anti-military feeling of Europe’s population has turned even the best of the European militaries into something akin to the common jellyfish, stinging, even painful, but not a life threatening opponent. Even the British military is facing painful cuts, with the British Army considering disbanding one of its most famous regiments, the Coldstream Guards, in order to cuts spending. Because of this, the U.S. military, and by extension, the U.S. taxpayer get left covering the weakness of our “allies acroos the pond”. This is intolerable, but what are we to do about it? Why do we care?
We care because NATO has stabilized European affairs to the point where a major European war is about as likely as a Martian invasion of downtown Duck Hill Mississippi. A U.S.-less Europe is much more likely to get itself into trouble that will eventually cause us to get involved, it’s happened twice before, and it will happen again if NATO goes down. Now, what to do about it?
Option#1 would be to use diplomatic pressure to make the Europeans spend more money on their defense. This is basically what we have been doing for years now and it has gotten us nowhere. Former Defense Secretary Gates gave them a firm warning shortly before he left and so far it hasn’t affected their thinking at all, as they are too worried about cutting popular (and unsustainable) social programs.
I suppose the most emotionally satisfying option could be called the “De Gaulle” option. Basically it’s the total withdrawal of U.S. forces from the military and political structure of NATO and the de facto end of the Atlantic Alliance. Troops and Equipment would return stateside, propping up the local economy of wherever they were placed and making some Congressmen and Senators very hapy in the process. The Europeans would be left to the mercy of Mr. Putin and his merry band of Russians.
The downside of this plan is that it leaves the newly freed states of Eastern Europe out from U.S. protection and most exposed to possible future Russian aggression. These are the very nations that are the most pro-U.S. in NATO and hanging them out to dry would leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. So that eliminates Option #2 for now.
Option#3 could be considered a variant of #2: a sudden, partial, draw-down of U.S. forces from Europe back stateside, along with an equally sudden increase of military aid to the Eastern European states. When asked why, the State Department would give the Europeans the type of vague and unsatisfying that they revel in, causing further alarm in the western European governments. The idea is to scare the other NATO members straight and remind them that the U.S. can leave whenever it wants to and focus on affairs closer to home or out in the Pacific. The could override a European politicians natural instinct of “bash America, more social spending” enough to cause them to to put more resources up toward their common self interest.
I think this last option has the best chance of achieving the long term goals of the United States, after all the whole purpose of NATO is to “Keep the U.S. in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” The Europeans know it too, they just need a little reminder every now and then. If not, then it’s back to the old “Fortress America” idea, which would be a tragedy for all involved.