(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) When Thomas de Maiziere described the state of the trans- Atlantic relationship to a packed audience in Munich, he shied away from unpalatable truths.
Yes, the German defence minister conceded, there have always been ups and downs in the relationship, and there has always been criticism that Europe was not pulling its weight militarily, especially now. But on the whole, de Maiziere was upbeat. Europe was not doing so badly in terms of cooperating with the United States in Afghanistan, for example. And even the European Union's defence and security policy was not doing too badly.
Tell that to top US defence experts and Atlanticists, who were attending the Munich Security Conference that brings together defence and foreign ministers and experts from many countries. Unlike de Maiziere, these experts and former politicians did not pull their punches.
They said that the Europeans did not grasp just how bad the trans-Atlantic relationship had become as Europe refused to pick up more of the military burden. Nor did the Europeans understand the implications of Washington's strategic shift from Europe to the Asia-Pacific region.
A particularly hard-hitting analysis came from Stephen Hadley, a former national security adviser to former President George W. Bush. He is one of the experts for the new Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative that aims to forge a new cooperative relationship between the United States, Russia and Europe.
Europe, Hadley said in an interview, had become a "free rider." It was taking the United States for granted in providing defence and filling military capability gaps. "Europe has become so enamoured with soft power that it has stopped investing in hard power," Hadley said. "In terms of hard security, it makes Europe a free rider."
Hadley and other US security experts insisted that they did not want a Europe that was weak and divided to the point that the grand project of European integration that the United States has encouraged since 1945 would collapse.
With few exceptions, European leaders seem to ignore that Europe needs the tools of hard power if it wants to aspire to being a global player. Instead, they point to their success in toppling Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi's regime in Libya.
Sam Nunn, a former US senator, said Europe's performance in Libya and in Afghanistan "pointed out a whole number of deficiencies." He said that the Europeans lacked logistics, intelligence and air power. They could not have done it without immense military support from the United States.
The Europeans can always blame the global financial crisis of 2008-9, and now the euro crisis, for the sharp decline in defence spending. According to NATO statistics, defence spending among European NATO countries fell to 275 billion in 2010 from 314 billion in 2008. That is a drop of more than 12 per cent. Since most European countries are members of NATO and the European Union, Europe as a whole is in very bad shape militarily, say analysts.
But the problem is not just about money. Europe's unwillingness to invest in military capabilities like drones and electronic intelligence surveillance equipment predate these crises.
The European members of NATO believe that the answer to some of their deficiencies is "smart defence." On paper, it means NATO members pooling and sharing capabilities, and better coordination. In practice, little has happened.
If the price involves sovereignty, there are few takers. Indeed, despite paying lip service to cooperation and wanting to become global players, NATO and EU members put national sovereignty before collective interests.
Even Europe's two most important military powers, Britain and France, no longer have the capabilities to execute the whole spectrum of military operations alone. They have to rely on each other, and especially the United States, as they did during the Libya campaign.
Some of the smaller European countries have chosen to specialise. But they want a say over how their equipment is used.
De Maiziere, the German defence minister, and other European ministers, still believe that the trans-Atlantic relationship was fine, steered clear of such awkward questions in Munich.
Judy Dempsey is a commentator on European affairs