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NATO's troubled marriage

Published:Sunday | May 20, 2012 | 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON (AP):The NATO meeting in Chicago is a chance for alliance leaders to proclaim solidarity and promise success.

But the two-day gathering that begins today probably won't resolve the underlying anxiety about sharing the burdens of defence, a concern heightened by Europe's economic crisis and America's growing weariness at carrying the heaviest load.

Drastic budget cuts in some European countries are exasperating tensions over a yawning gap in military capabilities between the United States (US) and other NATO members.

From NATO's birth in 1949 at the dawn of the Cold War, the US has provided the bulk of the military might. That arrangement, however, is fraying in an age of austerity and in the absence of a Soviet-like invasion threat to compel more military spending by the Europeans.

"NATO needs a new bargain," says Barry Pavel, director of the international security programme at the Atlantic Council, a think tank.

"The time when Europeans can expect the US to dominate operations in Europe or nearby without US vital interests are over."

Worry in Europe and the US about fractures in the alliance are nearly as old as NATO itself. In recent years, a more ambitious military agenda, including a formal NATO fighting role in Afghanistan, has created deeper divisions.

For example, the Europeans largely have viewed Afghanistan as a humanitarian, not combat, mission, and that explains why Washington for years had trouble getting Europeans to provide more forces.

Also, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 caused a deep rift with important European partners, including France and Germany, which publicly opposed the war.

Even as the alliance has expanded its reach outside of Europe, declining defence spending on both sides of the Atlantic, but particularly in Europe, is crimping NATO's capabilities and trying the US willingness to take on every European security issue.

A case in point is Libya. The operation last year to ground Moammar Gadhafi's air force by imposing a "no fly zone" over the country was carried out under a NATO flag. But the mission probably could not have succeeded without the American military, which provided most of the firepower, especially in the riskiest early stages.

set of goals

NATO has long set a goal for each of its 28 members to spend at least two per cent of its gross domestic product on defence, but the only members consistently doing that over the past two decades are the US, Britain, France, Turkey and Greece, according to NATO statistics.

The recent economic turmoil in Europe, punctuated by the threat of bank failures, is making the gap worse and leading to more urgent questions about burden-sharing. In one tangible example, the Netherlands announced last year that it would eliminate one in six of its military personnel and liquidate its entire tank arsenal.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep Howard P. 'Buck' McKeon, recently complained that for every dollar the US is spending on homeland missile defence it is spending four times that much on regional missile defences such as the one being erected in Europe.

The Chicago summit is expected to announce that a nascent NATO missile defence system has achieved an "interim", or start-up capability, a milestone that in practice means it is mainly an American system. It is unlikely to be fully operational, with substantial European contributions, before the end of the decade.

The widening disconnect across the Atlantic prompted Robert Gates, in his final policy speech as US defence secretary 11 months ago, to say that the alliance faced a "dim if not dismal" future.

A short time later, he said he did not expect NATO to shatter but rather to slowly grow apart. "It's a troubled marriage," he told The Associated Press.

The impression that the US is losing interest in Europe was reinforced, however, when the Obama administration declared last year that in the aftermath of US wars in the Middle East, it was "pivoting" to Asia as part of a shifting of strategic priorities. Administration officials are so concerned about this perception that they have started substituting the word "rebalancing" for "pivoting", to avoid the notion of turning away from Europe.

Annette Heuser, executive director of Germany's Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington, which focuses on transatlantic cooperation, said in an interview that Europe is unmistakably anxious about US intentions in Europe.

"NATO is the one and only institutional anchor that Europe has with the United States, and also the only way Europe can magnify its military power," Heuser said. "Without NATO, Europe could not play on the world stage as a security actor."