(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) When US President Barack Obama spent 10 days in Asia last November to publicise the new US pivot to that region, the move was met with concern, not just in Beijing, but in Brussels as well. NATO members have reasons to worry about the new Asian focus of their principal North Atlantic partner.
With the developed world drowning in debt and shrinking budgets, the American shift could mean trouble for the Western alliance unless properly managed.
NATO leaders will grapple with this question when they meet in Chicago in May. For years, policymakers have said that NATO, perhaps the most successful standing military alliance in history, must operate "out of area" or it would be "out of business." But its European members have evinced little interest in allying with the United States against a rising China, which in several respects is becoming their most important economic partner.
The US Defence Department announced at the beginning of this year that the United States would make major cuts in US forces deployed in Europe over the next two years to save money and permit the Pentagon to concentrate US military power in the higher priority region of Asia. In rolling out the Pentagon's new Defence Strategic Guidance, Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta explicitly stated that Europe has become a lower defence priority compared with Asia: "US military's force posture in Europe will, of necessity, continue to adapt and evolve to meet new challenges and opportunities, particularly in light of the security needs of the continent relative to the emerging strategic priorities that we face elsewhere." The US decision to withdraw two of the four US Army brigades from Europe and the other forces follows last year's constrained US participation in the military campaign in Libya and new indications that the Obama administration is eager to reduce its combat commitments to NATO's mission in Afghanistan.
There is a risk that Europe will become increasingly irrelevant and unable to promote stability even in nearby regions. Like the wars in Bosnia and Afghanistan, Operation Unified Protector over Libya again demonstrated NATO's continued reliance on the United States for essential capabilities such as logistics, drones and intelligence analysis, despite the effort to place European countries in the lead of the operation. Of course, if ever there was a NATO operation that should be European-led, Libya was it. The campaign encountered little domestic political opposition, did not involve NATO ground forces on Libyan territory, and occurred in Europe's backyard. But Europeans have failed to rise to the challenge in the past and one can doubt that they will do so now. Though an international alliance, NATO is funded from national governments, and so domestic politics play a crucial role in defence spending. Europe's NATO members have passed austerity measures and are cutting the size and budget of their armed forces, decreasing future capabilities.
European and US leaders recognise that they need to cooperate more effectively on global economic issues to deal with China's rise and promote fair competition and market access. Western companies often encounter unfair practices in Asian countries, such as favoritism toward state-owned enterprises, covert barriers to trade, restrictions on investment, and violations of their intellectual property. The leaders must now extend this partnership on economics to the international security domain as well.
Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute