BERLIN — When the NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, addressed a gathering of defense experts last month in Berlin, his speech was called “Principles and Power.”
Mr. Rasmussen’s argument was that the legitimacy of the NATO alliance rested on a unique combination of those two elements. “Our principles demand that we protect our populations and inspire those who desire freedom,” he said at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“And when the cause is just, and the legal basis strong, we can put power behind our principles to protect them. When we have the responsibility to take action, we also have the ability to take action. And when we have to act, we do.”
Mr. Rasmussen made those remarks days before NATO ended its seven-month military mission in Libya, which precipitated the toppling of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s brutal regime.
People in the region have been encouraged by NATO’s involvement in Libya. Sections of the Syrian opposition have called for some kind of international intervention to stop the killing of protesters by President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces, which continues despite mediation efforts by the Arab League.
Mr. Assad has warned against any intervention. “Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground, you will cause an earthquake that would burn the whole region,” he told The Sunday Telegraph, a British newspaper.
Colonel Qaddafi had made similar declarations about any outside intervention. That did not stop the United Nations from giving the green light for the NATO mission.
Yet Mr. Rasmussen’s noble words about principles and power are unlikely to be translated into NATO action in Syria or, for that matter, taking on other new missions in the near future.
“The main reason is the profound change taking place in the United States with regard to defense spending and foreign policy priorities,” said Nora Bensahel, deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, a research group in Washington.
The U.S. defense budget will be reduced by more than $450 billion over the next 10 years, amounting to nearly 10 percent of current expenditure, according to the Pentagon. Such cuts, Dr. Bensahel said, “could undermine the ability of the U.S. to protect its vital interests worldwide, engage key allies and modernize after a decade of grueling ground wars.” Last year’s defense budget amounted to $553 billion, according to the Pentagon.
The United States’ foreign policy shift from Europe to Asia also means that if and when NATO next chooses to intervene on Mr. Rasmussen’s terms, there is no guarantee that Washington will be enthusiastic to play a leading part.
The Libyan campaign was the first test of how far the United States could depend on its European allies to lead a mission. Summing up the experience, Mr. Rasmussen said the Europeans lacked reconnaissance, intelligence and heavy airlift equipment. The United States filled those gaps. But analysts warn that the United States will not be willing to do so indefinitely, given its financial straits.
NATO’s response to these immense changes is “smart defense.” On paper, the concept is ambitious and practical.
“NATO officials are working on list of about 150 areas where NATO armed forces could strengthen their joint efforts,” argued Clara Marina O’Donnell, a security analyst at the Center for European Reform in London in a recently published paper. “The goal is to present about a dozen concrete suggestions at next May’s NATO summit in Chicago.”
But how many times since the NATO bombing of Serb targets in Kosovo in 1999 have Europeans been criticized by the United States over their lack of essential military capabilities, falling defense spending and duplication of equipment?
Europe’s defense ministries now blame their finance ministries for cutting their budgets to deal with the euro-zone crisis and the economic slowdown.
But even when the economies were buoyant, the majority of NATO countries, excluding the United States and a handful of other members, were not prepared to increase their defense spending. If the crisis now makes it harder to spend more, at least there should be more of an effort to share resources.
“Smart defense is a great idea and can be used as a bumper sticker for NATO,” said Karl-Heinz Kamp, director of research at the NATO Defense College in Rome. “In practice, not much is being done.”
Britain and France, which are slashing defense spending, last year took the lead in sharing resources, followed by the Nordic countries. But other countries are just cutting budgets, without any effort at synergy. “Governments across Europe have been introducing new and often large cuts to their defense budgets,” Ms. O’Donnell argued.
No wonder the United States is annoyed. It makes up 75 percent of NATO’s military spending. During the Cold War, it was half, even with a smaller NATO.
Even Europe’s much-touted A400M military transport aircraft, designed to improve the capabilities and credibility of the European Union and NATO’s European partners, is under threat from budget cuts.
Moreover, Mr. Rasmussen’s philosophy seems selective, not universal, as he made clear during a visit last week to Libya. When he was asked about NATO becoming involved in Syria, Mr. Rasmussen was quick to respond, “I can completely rule that out.”
And then, in an apparent contradiction, he added: “I strongly condemn the crackdowns on the civilian population in Syria. What has happened in Libya sends a clear signal to autocratic regime all over the world. You cannot neglect the will of the people.”
But as one of the participants at the Berlin conference asked Mr. Rasmussen, wasn’t that exactly what NATO was doing in the case of Syria?