Friday, 3 April 2009

Arabian NATO

With the G20 gathering having come to an end, its transatlantic participants now move to Strasbourg to join their NATO partners at the alliance's 60th anniversary summit. The largely symbolic moments will be France's reintegration into the central command and the addition of two new Balkan members: Croatia and Albania. The substance will be the discussion over Afghanistan. President Obama did his best today to scare European audiences into backing a greater commitment from their governments. But NATO's Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has already made clear that the alliance doesn't expect Europe to suddenly produce significant numbers of troops. Indeed, it doesn't even expect Europe to put forward much more cash to pay for the operation - with an estimated $2bn a year needed to pay and train the Afghan army.

As Mr de Hoop Scheffer said, "it is difficult to see how Nato allies – given the enormous amounts they are spending keeping forces there – can bring in $2bn a year. It’s impossible for them.” Instead, the alliance is turning to countries beyond. A 'big-tent' meeting in the Hague on Tuesday was attended by “the potential major donor states – Japan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states", as Mr de Hoop Scheffer described them. With their economies in turmoil, it is easy to understand why European governments do not want the added burden of stumping up yet more cash for a seemingly distant war. Yet with oil prices below the break-even point for many Gulf State budgets, and Japanese GDP set to plunge 6.6% this year according to OECD estimates, the 'potential major donors' are hurting just as much as the Europeans, and are just as distant from the action.

That they are nevertheless willing to pay up, suggests that they feel they need to help the Americans, because one day they might need the Americans to help them - a calculation which is no longer valid for European states. Europe doesn't face an assertive Iran, Israel or China - Russia is as yet too weak to seriously threaten the old West. As the world stands, Europe doesn't seem to think it worth taking American requests seriously. How long that attitude lasts may well determine how low Europe's power sinks in the world.

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