On the surface, the NATO summit meeting in Lisbon, the North Korean artillery barrage against Yeonpyeong island, and the unmasking of the "fake" Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour in Afghanistan would appear to be separate and unconnected events. But there is a common theme that ties these three news stories together.
In his WPR column column on Monday, Thomas P.M. Barnett summed up the problem: The United States cannot "close the gaps" in the global security system. The end of the Cold War and the rise of new power centers around the world have not led to any appreciable shift in who takes on the burdens of that system. In fact, as Alan Dowd's WPR Briefing earlier this week pointed out, America's share of the defense expenditures in NATO has risen over the past decade. Europe today has the larger economy, but Washington accounts for 73 percent of NATO's spending, up from roughly half of the alliance's total in 2000.
Despite years of rhetoric, this is not about to change. As John Cloud, the former U.S. ambassador to Lithuania, made clear, "Most European countries don't see any major threat to their security that requires ramping up the funding for NATO's hard-power capabilities." If there are gaps in trans-Atlantic security, or in the power and ability of the alliance to project power beyond Europe to address threats to the Euro-Atlantic region, they will not be filled by European contributions. But will the United States be able to continue footing the bill?
With America's own economic house now in some disarray -- and with the message of the midterm elections (it's still the economy, stupid!) ringing loud and clear in the White House's ears -- the United States itself is trying to clear the non-performing assets from its security balance sheet. Despite the renewed troubles in Iraq, the administration remains on course with a gradual termination of U.S. military involvement there. In Afghanistan, the less-than-spectacular results from the operations launched earlier this year -- especially the realization that the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai cannot deliver the famed "government in a box" to territory cleared of the Taliban by superior U.S. and NATO firepower -- rekindled the search for a political settlement that would allow the U.S. to claim some sort of success. Our eagerness to find a Taliban figure to negotiate with created the opening for the Mansour impersonator: We were so desperate for an interlocutor that fit the bill that, lo and behold, one conveniently appeared.
But despite the ensuing embarrassment, nothing has really changed: Washington is still looking for a combination of military and diplomatic power that will produce enough stability in Afghanistan to permit an American disengagement from the Hindu Kush. The artillery barrage in Korea this week serves as an unwelcome reminder that the United States does not have the luxury of focusing on the Afghan theater of operations at the expense of the rest of its security commitments. More at: