"The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense," he said.
Without naming names, he blasted allies who are "willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.
For many Americans, NATO is a vague concept tied to a bygone era, a time when the world feared a Soviet land invasion of Europe that could have escalated to nuclear war. But with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO's reason for being came into question. It has remained intact – and even expanded from 16 members at the conclusion of the Cold War to 28 today.
But reluctance of some European nations to expand defense budgets and take on direct combat has created what amounts to a two-tier alliance: the U.S. military at one level and the rest of NATO on a lower, almost irrelevant plane.
It's long past the point where the U.S. should take a step back and force the other countries to do something instead of sitting on the sidelines. Libya was a good example of this and I think they need to do this more often. At the same time they need to stop creating situations like Iraq, clusterfucks like that achieve nothing.
Given the financial situation of the US, it just seems like it's time to look after it's own people.
What has added to his worry is what Gates sees as an emerging new view among younger Americans of the proper priorities for American foreign and defense policy.
"People like me who have an emotional stake in Europe and NATO are aging out," he said in the interview. "For a lot of these younger people," including newer members of Congress bent on cutting government budget deficits and trimming U.S. commitments overseas, "they don't have these kinds of attachments."
Gates said he had no regrets about the blunt message he delivered in Brussels, which included an explicit warning that the European members of NATO face the very real possibility of "collective military irrelevance."
"I don't feel I went too far," he said. "I'll tell you one place I got pretty unanimous positive reaction, and that was in the United States of America – across the entire political spectrum."