WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has warned European members of NATO that unless they modernize their militaries and increase their defense budgets, the trans-Atlantic military alliance risks being seen as weak by the rest of the world.
Gates made the comments February 23 at a forum of experts that has been charged with rewriting NATO's strategic concept.
He said that while the 61-year old alliance had successfully kept the peace in post-World War II Europe, the continent's aversion to military force has compromised NATO's ability to deter aggression.
"The demilitarization of Europe, where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it, has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st," Gates said.
He warned that unless NATO members maintain robust militaries and make the necessary budget commitments to modernize their forces, Europe will be vulnerable to threats.
"Not only can real or perceived weakness be a temptation to miscalculation and aggression, but on a more basic level, the resulting funding and capability shortfalls make it difficult to operate and fight together to confront shared threats," Gates said.
Gates' speech is one of three public addresses given by members of U.S. President Barack Obama's national security team in the last 24 hours.
On February 21, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed NATO's future, and Presidential National Security Adviser James Jones was set to do the same after Gates spoke.
Gates has been the U.S. defense secretary for more than three years and this is far from the first time he has urged European members of NATO to increase their defense spending.
But he has just as often praised Europe's contributions to the alliance's operations in Afghanistan and other military missions, which all told involve some 120,000 NATO troops.
On February 23, he said NATO allies had recently shown an "unparalleled level of commitment" to the war effort in Afghanistan by increasing their troop contributions from 30,000 last summer to 50,000 this year.
Gates described NATO as "a military alliance with real-world obligations that have life-or-death consequences" and said the current effort to rethink and rewrite its strategic mission comes at a critical time.
"Right now, the alliance faces very serious, long-term, systemic problems. The NATO budgetary crisis is a case in point and a symptom of deeper problems with the way NATO perceives threats, formulates requirements, and prioritizes and allocates resources," Gates said.
He noted that NATO has long needed, and still needs, more cargo aircraft and helicopters for essential operations in Afghanistan. Gates also said aerial refueling tankers, and platforms for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance are desperately needed on the Afghan battlefield.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is leading the group of experts working to update NATO's strategic concept, which was last revised in 1999. The new language will be formally adopted at a summit in Lisbon this November.
At a State Department briefing, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder said despite the rethink, the alliance's core mission will not change.
"NATO's security promise has not changed despite the fact that the strategic landscape in which it is taking place is changing quite dramatically," Daalder said.
"We require new thinking about how we respond to new threats but that we will respond and that we will do so in a NATO context remains a bedrock principle of this alliance."
But even as the effort to strengthen NATO barrels toward its conclusion this fall, the eight-year-long-and-counting Afghan operation is exposing fault lines between members.
The Dutch government collapsed this month after being unable to agree on troop contributions, with plans to begin withdrawing the 2,000-strong Dutch force in August.
Canada has also announced plans to remove its nearly 3,000 troops by 2011.