Robert Gates will leave his post as Secretary of Defense at the end of this month, but on the way out, he has decided to take a truth-telling lap.  Earlier today, Gates addressed NATO in blunt terms, telling European partners that American patience with their lack of military contribution has just about run out.  Future leaders in the US won’t have grown up in the Cold War/WWII paradigm, which means they won’t see a strong connection between American and European security — and that means a “dim, if not dismal” future for NATO:

America’s military alliance with Europe — the cornerstone of U.S. security policy for six decades — faces a  “dim, if not dismal” future, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday in a blunt valedictory address.

In his final policy speech as Pentagon chief, Gates questioned the viability of NATO, saying its members’ penny-pinching and lack of political will could hasten the end of U.S. support. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed in 1949 as a U.S.-led bulwark against Soviet aggression, but in the post-Cold War era it has struggled to find a purpose.

“Future U.S. political leaders — those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me — may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost,” he told a European think tank on the final day of an 11-day overseas journey.

Specifically, Gates warned NATO that US taxpayers have tired of carrying both the financial and military burdens of the alliance, and that seven decades after WWII and more than two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, it’s time for Europe to get serious about contributing on both fronts:

“The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — 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,” he said.

Without naming names, he blasted allies who are “willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.” The U.S. has tens of thousands of troops based in Europe, not to stand guard against invasion but to train with European forces and promote what for decades has been lacking: the ability of the Europeans to go to war alongside the U.S. in a coherent way.

The true blunt reality is that European nations, save the UK, have military forces primarily designed for home defense and nothing more.  Since the end of World War II, when Europe was financially devastated, the continent has relied on the US for broader defense.  The situation hadn’t changed much by the time Yugoslavia went up in flames in the 1990s, when the US military needed to conduct logistics and finally combat operations for the EU, which wanted to intervene against Slobodan Milosevic and his campaign against the Bosnians and Croats, and pretty much everyone who wasn’t Serbian.

The situation hasn’t improved much since then, either.  For the current offensive against Moammar Gaddafi, the US had to start the war while the rest of NATO — which wanted the intervention — took time to mobilize for it.  Even after Barack Obama supposedly handed over control of the mission to NATO, America continues to provide a great deal of the logistical support.  Meanwhile, the mission that was supposed to last just a short period of time may wind up dragging into the winter, thanks to the inability of NATO to dislodge Gaddafi by air, and the lack of will and capability to do it through ground forces.  Europe’s first attempt at leading a NATO mission looks hopelessly destined for stalemate and dissipation.

In truth, the US should reconsider the resources dedicated to NATO.  The post-Cold War reordering of Europe has mainly been completed, and war on the continent looks about as remote as it has ever been.  European nations should provide for their own defense, which the US should have demanded after they formed the EU as an economic competitor to the US.  We should have strong diplomatic ties, of course, but the US does not need to provide garrison forces in Europe any longer, now that the USSR has been tossed into the dustbin of history.  We need to focus our resources on the Pacific and Asia, where China may become a problem for our security and where radical Islamists still threaten terrorism and war, and we need to reduce our defense spending so that China isn’t funding it and our entitlement programs any longer.