It is almost a year since Robert Gates stepped down as US defence secretary yet his parting words were still ringing in the ears of the leaders assembled in Chicago for the two-day NATO summit.
Taking advantage of the freedom that comes from imminent retirement, Gates told a NATO gathering last June that the alliance had a "dim if not dismal future” and warned of possible "military irrelevance”. He added that there was "dwindling appetite” in the US to keep supporting the organisation.
The questions he posed go well beyond the practicalities of defence cooperation. In between the G8 summit on Friday and Saturday and the NATO meeting in Chicago on Sunday and Monday, this has been a weekend where the very idea of "the west” has been on trial. Amid all the talk of decline or the current buzzword of "G-zero”, the flurry of summits has provided a live test of whether there is any vitality left in the transatlantic relationship. And given the problems besetting the euro and the EU, that puts even more emphasis on NATO.
If he were still in office, Gates might find plenty of reasons to remain pessimistic about the future of NATO, given the economic malaise on both sides of the Atlantic. European nations used to provide near to 40 per cent of NATO’s defence spending; now that figure is closer to 20 per cent and is likely to fall further as austerity kicks in. America’s defence budget cuts are focusing heavily on Europe, with two of the four combat brigades expected to leave.
The Libya operation ended up a success but along the way it exposed myriad weaknesses in NATO’s operational capacity. Only nine countries were willing or able to supply aircraft to the exercise and after three months some of them had run out of munitions, forcing the US to send emergency supplies. And this was a small operation against a weak opponent.
For all the warm welcome to Chicago from US President Barack Obama, the European allies are also acutely aware that the signature piece of the Obama administration’s foreign policy has been the tilt towards Asia, the natural step for a president who by background and instinct is more focused on the Pacific than the Atlantic.
Yet stand back for a second and the view does not look quite so grim. The organisation was originally founded to counter Soviet aggression. The NATO leaders who watched the Berlin Wall fall might be surprised to find out that the alliance actually still exists 23 years later, let alone that it has been involved in military operations during three-quarters of the time since then.
Despite all the budget pressures in Europe and the pervasive pessimism among electorates about the war in Afghanistan, there are still 40,000 non-American troops in the country – which surely says something about NATO’s staying power.
Obama might have been hamming it up a bit in when he said NATO was "the strongest and most successful military alliance that the world has known”. But it is the only one capable of conducting operations beyond its borders.
If NATO really were withering away, it would probably not attract so much attention. Chicago hosted almost as many heads of state from non-NATO countries as from its 28 members, many of whom were keen to learn more about organising regional defence and to tap into NATO’s crisis management skills.
Some are countries, such as Australia, that have helped out in Afghanistan. Others are involved in NATO’s various partnerships in central Asia, north Africa or the Middle East.
There were also, as it happens, plenty of Asian leaders in Chicago. And that is the hidden point behind Obama’s Pacific tilt and why the US will not abandon NATO. The "pivot” to Asia is not an alternative to Europe and NATO: on the contrary, a robust NATO is a precondition. Washington can focus its attention on Asia only if it feels comfortable that the transatlantic alliance is still in working order.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.