Gates to NATO: Man Up!

My title above can’t really top the one DOD Buzz gave its summary of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s comments to NATO ministers yesterday.

Here is the passage from Gates’s speech that is getting the most attention:

The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress … to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.

The gist of his comments were quite clear: the NATO allies must do more, spend more, and take their security responsibilities more seriously.

A parade of U.S. presidents, dozens of secretaries of defense and state, and countless lower-level officials have begged, pleaded, cajoled, threatened, and whined about our NATO allies’ unwillingness to spend more on defense. Gates’s remarks yesterday fit this pattern, and isn’t all that different from a speech that he gave last year. So his comments shouldn’t come as a surprise.

What is surprising, to me at least, is the fact that apparently none of these people have ever read any of the scholarly literature on the economic theory of alliances. If they have read it, they obviously don’t understand it. This research, as Justin Logan explained, conclusively shows that weak countries have a very powerful incentive to free-ride when one very large partner in an alliance spends far more. I also wrote about this in my book.

If you read the rest of the speech, the tone was not quite as pessimistic as the headlines have suggested. The outgoing secretary of defense reflects, like most people, a general confidence that the alliance will survive, despite recent setbacks. And most importantly, Gates believes that it should survive. His aim is to save the alliance, not kill it.

That is a mistake. While the alliance might have made sense in a different time, and in very different strategic circumstances, it now persists largely by inertia. Saving the alliance becomes the leading rationale for countries to participate in wars, both for Europeans who have no great desire or interest to actually be fighting in Afghanistan, and now for Americans who have no desire or interest to be fighting an undeclared war in Libya. We should have allies for wars, not wars for allies, as Ben Friedman says in the Cato video below.

NATO is both costly and unnecessary, and Secretary Gates has missed an opportunity to shift the burdens of defense to other countries. Talking about why the Europeans should do more — even in blunt terms — isn’t going to change anything.