PARIS • Established as a bulwark against Soviet expansion, NATO is facing an identity crisis as its members grapple with just how much its long and often-unpopular mission in Afghanistan and its new air campaign in Libya size up as national interests — or not — when many countries' budgets are under strain.
In an unusually blunt parting speech Friday, outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called on the Atlantic allies of the U.S. to pay and do more to overcome the alliance's military shortcomings — raising the question: What is NATO today, and what does it need to be?
The allies will be doing some soul-searching in the coming months, with Osama bin Laden dead, many European state coffers squeezed by high debt and slow economic growth, the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan about to start and tough questions about how long its air campaign over Libya could last.
The alliance has grappled with diverging internal views over whether NATO should be an instrument of "hard" combat missions — generally the U.S. view — or the preference among some in Europe for 'soft" power, such as "humanitarian, development, peacekeeping and talking tasks," as Gates put it.
Since the Berlin Wall fell, NATO's reason to exist has been questioned. Now, with its hands in two big military campaigns in Afghanistan and Libya, the doubts about the alliance's future have hit a new crescendo.
Gates pointed to the "real possibility of collective military irrelevance" and called on members to look at new ways of raising combat capabilities in procurement, training, logistics and sustainment.
Richard Clarke, a NATO watcher and director of the Royal United Services Institute in Britain, said the U.S. still needs NATO as a political conduit to Europe — but acknowledged that the alliance was struggling militarily.
"There's no doubt that militarily, NATO is approaching something of a crossroads — it's been approaching this crossroads for some time," he said. Gates, he said, expressed publicly what was long said in private: "that NATO's capabilities risk falling below a threshold where they can be effective."
Founded in 1949, NATO was aimed to counter the Red Menace of Stalin's Soviet Union. Although that threat is long gone, Gates and others say some of the alliance's 28 member states remain too comfortable under Washington's security umbrella. Gates said the U.S. share of NATO defense spending was now more than 75 percent, and just four other members — Britain, France, Greece and Albania — spend more than the agreed 2 percent of economic output on defense.
The former Soviet specialist all but thumped his shoe on the table at Friday's NATO meeting in Brussels, saying its future appeared "dim if not dismal" because of Europe's alleged penny-pinching and aversion to combat.
As U.S. military expenditures rose — notably under President George W. Bush — its share of NATO defense spending swelled. Gates cited an estimate that Europe's defense spending has fallen 15 percent since 2001.
Jan Oberg, a director of the Transnational Foundation, a think tank in Sweden, said the strains were of Washington's own making: by devoting too much money to defense — or roughly 45 percent of the total $1.7 trillion spent worldwide each year.
"If the secretary of defense of that country tells the rest of the alliance that they are paying too little, the objective truth is that it's a perverse level that the United States is on, and it can forget about ever having the European countries invest as much — because we're not having any military troubles within Europe," he said.
NATO has come a long way since the end of the Cold War. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. saw its key security threats migrate east and south — mainly the Middle East and Central Asia. Europeans tagged along eventually in Afghanistan, often begrudgingly, under the NATO banner. Washington then eased back from Europe, prodding the continent to shoulder more of its own defense while Washington focused on Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. and European security interests have been diverging for years. Gates reiterated concern about a "two-tiered alliance" — one built on military might, and another devoted to more political and diplomatic tasks.
Many Europeans believe the strong-armed U.S. approach to battling enemies — using force, not persuasion or other less violent tools — is wrong-headed and costly, and could spell trouble for NATO, Oberg said.
"If we keep having wars that only a few countries want — in this case, Libya-France, and other places the United States, and God knows where it will be in the future — others will ask: Why should we pay for that?"