After Muammar Gaddafi and his ghastly children fled Tripoli, Libyans desecrated his statues and stamped on his posters. As it turned out, the Libyans really did hate Gaddafi enough to rise up, arm themselves and overthrow him. Gaddafi’s own elite units mostly melted away when the rebels advanced into Tripoli, and even the dictator’s tatty palaces (where did all that oil money go, one wonders) were abandoned by his personal guard. Backed by western airpower and special forces, the rebels entered many of these ramshackle structures unopposed.

The Libyans have a right to be proud, and we in the West have a right to feel relieved. This wasn’t Suez, in the end, and the most dire predictions have so far failed to come true. But neither was the Libyan expedition a great triumph for the North Atlantic alliance. In fact, anyone who has spent any time in Washington lately can’t help but be disturbed by the murmurs of complacency heard around London and in the British press over the past week. ‘The Atlantic alliance… remains the only credible multilateral structure for major interventions,’ writes my friend Matt d’Ancona, this magazine’s former editor. But if that’s true, then we are in serious trouble.

In case you’d forgotten: Nato was divided and uncertain about Libya from the start. Two of the alliance’s most important members, Germany and Turkey, bitterly opposed any intervention. The expression ‘dragged kicking and screaming’ is not inappropriately applied to the attitude of the American president either. When Barack Obama finally, reluctantly, agreed to participate in the operation, it was only to assist: Europe, he declared, must lead.

The president’s reluctance can’t be chalked up to his wishy-washy liberalism either. A third war, in a third Muslim country, was unpopular in Congress and the country. At a time of galloping budget deficits, no one felt excited about another expensive air operation. The president’s lack of enthusiasm had echoes across the political spectrum. Think about this: American politics is so partisan and so divided that a squabbling Congress almost allowed the country to default on its debts in August. Yet Republicans and Democrats of all kinds united in their dislike of the Libyan venture. In fact, if President Mitt Romney or President Rick Perry had been in charge, the American commitment to the operation would probably have been even more limited.

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Now, in the wake of Gaddafi’s rapid exit from Tripoli, an equally bipartisan, equally varied, and equally united range of politicians, pundits and scholars have once again come together, this time to condemn Europe for its military failures in Libya. I cite the leftish, dovish, cappuccino-drinking New York Times: ‘It is reasonable to expect the wealthy nations of Europe to easily handle a limited mission in their own backyard that involved no commitment of ground troops. Reasonable, but, as it turned out, not realistic.’

Meanwhile, the rightish, hawkish, red-meat-eating Wall Street Journal has run a series of articles on European military weakness, including one on Britain entitled ‘Sun Setting on British Power.’ At the height of the conflict in June, the US Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, himself declared that ‘The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country — yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US once more to make up the difference.’

The statistics are grim. During the Cold War, Europe contributed a third of Nato’s military spending. Now the figure has sunk to one fifth. During the Kosovo campaign in 1999, Nato aircraft flew some 800 missions a day, using 1200 aircraft. In Libya, the alliance ‘struggled’ — Gates’s word — to launch 150 missions a day using 250 aircraft. Even that limited number was made possible only thanks to the last-minute arrival of American specialists in targeting and intelligence. Otherwise, the numbers would have been even lower.

Stories circulate about that shortage of munitions. According to one unverifiable report, the French were dropping ‘practice’ bombs — i.e. lumps of concrete — normally used only in training. Others were ‘borrowing’ ammunition, either from the Americans or from countries which weren’t involved. A good percentage of the Nato missions which flew over Libya dropped nothing at all, prompting one cynical (non-Nato) foreign minister to ask whether they contributed to anything except global warming.

Further decline of the European half of the alliance is not inevitable, but it would require a different kind of thinking all across the continent, not only about fighting but about weapons and training. Some of Europe’s armies have already begun to pool their resources, make joint purchases, and carry out joint exercises. Not every European country needs submarines, and some are happy to benefit from, say, joint ownership of the odd transport plane.  

Unfortunately, the ideological barriers to intelligent military spending and deeper cooperation in Europe are almost as high, at least in some places, as the ideological barriers to an intelligent fiscal policy in America. British Eurosceptics recoil in horror from anything which sounds like a ‘European’ defence force, even if it makes economic and strategic sense, and even if the alternative is military irrelevance. The French defence industry still lobbies hard against any agreement which allows the French government to buy non-French weapons of any kind, in any quantity.  

Not everyone is cutting back: China’s military spending is projected to grow by 142 per cent in the next five years. But Europeans — and yes, that includes the British — are planning further cuts,  just as the United States is turning inwards, having finally grown weary of foreign ventures. If Nato is the only credible Western military structure, we’re in trouble.  Because the next time we need Nato, we might discover it’s no longer really there.

Anne Applebaum is the director of political studies at the Legatum Institute.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated