Exit Strategies

Empire at Sunset


Who today remembers the once-mighty Warsaw Pact? Not the punk rock group, of course, but the Soviet Bloc’s formidable answer to U.S.-led NATO. Twenty years have now passed since it was peacefully dismantled in what was a finishing touch on the collapse of Communist power and the end of the Cold War. Yet unlike the Warsaw Pact, the North Atlantic alliance did not disband; it steadily pushed east toward an exhausted Russia and then metastasized. Like any successful multinational, NATO went global.

Largely through its role in NATO, the United States had applied generations of resources and manpower in containing the Soviet threat, and its investment paid off. America’s triumph against such a dangerous peer competitor was total and unambiguous- the one state that spanned the length of Eurasia had fractured into fifteen. The End of History was at hand, and with Marxist management practices discredited only one contender for humanity’s future remained. A democratic-capitalist world system, already organized in the post-war years, could now be fully implemented under Washington’s benevolent aegis.

One Cold War veteran who can well recall the course of this vast transformation is Robert Gates. After all, he operated behind the scenes and at the highest levels of power during critical moments of the U.S.-Soviet struggle. A career CIA analyst, Gates was National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s staff aide when the Carter Administration launched a covert action program to aid the Afghan mujahideen in 1979. The White House signed off on the order six months before the Politburo in Moscow committed to an invasion of its southern neighbor, along with a disastrous occupation that would cripple the USSR.

When Lenin’s creaking inheritance did disappear in the chaos and corruption of post-Soviet Russia, Bob Gates had served George H.W. Bush ably enough to earn the top slot at Langley. Brought back to head the Department of Defense in the waning days of Bush II and staying on under Obama, Gates is known in Washington policy circles as a realist with a certain grasp on the limitations of American power. He initially opposed this year’s Libyan intervention, but has also shown himself a pragmatist and team player. Attacking Tripoli apparently wasn’t a misdeed that merited resignation.

Gates’ last major speech before retirement would seem to confirm his realism. In a valedictory address in Brussels, the Pentagon chief expressed frustration with European contributions to NATO campaigns in Afghanistan and Libya, and made clear his doubts on the future relevance of the transatlantic partnership.

The benefits of a Europe whole, prosperous and free after being twice devastated by wars requiring American intervention was [sic] self-evident. Thus, for most of the Cold War U.S. governments could justify defense investments and costly forward bases that made up roughly 50 percent of all military spending. But some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. share of NATO defense spending has now risen to more than 75 percent – at a time when politically painful budget and benefit cuts are being considered at home.

The context of Gates’ dissatisfaction is important. U.S. complaints over a lack of European defense contributions to NATO, due to the priority of welfare state expenditures, have been sounded off regularly for several decades. Yet ultimately Washington has been willing to pick up the tab as the Continent’s security guarantor, for a weak, decadent and soft Europe maximizes U.S. strategic influence. Feeble coalition efforts in Afghanistan are a small price to pay for the absence of a great-power rival that could potentially challenge the American agenda for Eurasia. Accordingly, European military budgets have continued to recede for the past 10 years while the Pentagon’s had expanded by 81 percent to $698 billion by 2010.

What has changed is the U.S. fiscal position - Gates recognizes that America’s previously unquestioned financial wherewithal to maintain the alliance will degrade considerably in the coming years. The United States likely faces a second wave of economic crisis in the near-term future, and every round of quantitative easing enacted by the Federal Reserve can only delay, rather than cancel, this date with destiny. Meanwhile, Washington’s pretenses to reign in over $14 trillion in national debt are met with growing incredulity among foreign creditors. As Gates intimated, NATO has become an unsustainable enterprise. The mailed fist of American globalism is on its way to joining the Warsaw Pact as a relic of recent history.

Aside from its use in Brave New World-style police actions, the entire point of NATO for the past two decades has been to prevent the emergence of any alternative to liberalism in Europe. Europeans have constructed a fool’s paradise of spiritual and social chaos jealously guarded by the project’s co-founder, the United States. U.S. bases in Germany, Britain and elsewhere carry out official functions of training and logistics, but their presence is also an implicit guarantee of regime stability for Continental elites. The sooner this arrangement crumbles, the better the chance to interdict and reverse the dissolution of the West.

NATO or no, the Empire continues to expand as if by the sheer power of its programming. The Pentagon isn’t just maneuvering to remain in Iraq and Afghanistan. In quick succession come announcements of a permanent U.S. Naval Station in Singapore, a detachment of F-16s for Poland to augment missile defense architecture running from the Baltic to the BlackSeas, and the presence of hunter-killer drones patrolling the skies over Yemen. And so the quest for dominance will grind on until the moment of implosion.

When Bob Gates headed CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence in the mid-1980s, he had already viewed provocative analyses speculating on Soviet collapse. But like most experts, he simply could not conceive of that event until it actually transpired. The end of the Pax Americana will prove a shock of even greater magnitude.