In his swan song on Friday, the departing Secretary of Defence of the United States, Robert Gates, very properly lamented the disproportionate burden that his country carries in NATO. As a result, "a dim, if not dismal, future" for the North Atlantic alliance is a real possibility, he warned.
When American officials have made similar points in the past, they may well have been implicitly asserting their claim to the leadership of the alliance. Now, the indebted U.S. might indeed be tempted to drift away from a "two-tiered" alliance, in which a majority help with "soft" humanitarian services and only a few take on "hard" combat missions.
The 28 members of NATO have agreed to spend 2 per cent of their GDPs on defence, at least as benchmarks. Mr. Gates pointed out that only five comply - in alphabetical order, Albania, Britain, France, Greece and of course the U.S.
Nonetheless, he praised Belgium and Canada for their contributions to the air strike missions over Libya. That was the only direct reference to Canada in his speech, although he emphasized that, in Afghanistan, more than 850 personnel from NATO countries other than the U.S. have lost their lives - of whom about one-fifth have been Canadians.
During the Cold War, the U.S. covered about half of all NATO military spending; remarkably, that proportion has risen to 75 per cent since the Berlin Wall came down.
Mr. Gates did not take on the central question of the purpose of NATO in the post-Soviet era. But it is clear enough that Europe and North America have much in common, in principles and ways of life, and in most cases are quite likely to agree on what is or is not a threat that ought to be opposed - even though the criteria are difficult to formulate in the abstract.
Though Mr. Gates concluded on a hopeful note, Canada and other NATO members should not take the Atlantic alliance for granted. Canadian defence spending is hardly likely to rise until after fiscal balance returns, but Robert Gates' valedictory is a salutary reminder that Canada should do its full part to keep transatlantic military connections vital.