NYT Editorial Published: June 10, 2011 Americaâ€™s key strategic alliance throughout the cold war is in far deeper trouble than most members admit. The Atlantic allies face a host of new and old dangers. Without more and wiser European military spending â€” on equipment, training, surveillance and reconnaissance â€” NATO faces, as Mr. Gates rightly warned, â€œa dim if not dismal futureâ€ and even â€œirrelevance.â€ The secretary is retiring at the end of this month, which is likely one of the reasons he jettisoned the diplomatic niceties. But not the only one. As he made clear, this country can no longer afford to do a disproportionate share of NATOâ€™s fighting and pay a disproportionate share of its bills while Europe slashes its defense budgets and free-rides on the collective security benefits. NATOâ€™s shockingly wobbly performance over Libya, after the Pentagon handed off leadership, should leave no doubt about the Europeansâ€™ weaknesses. And while Americaâ€™s NATO partners now have 40,000 troops in Afghanistan (compared with about 99,000 from the United States), many have been hemmed in by restrictive rules of engagement and shortages of critical equipment. Too many are scheduled for imminent departure. The free-rider problem is an old one but has gotten even worse over the last two decades. During most of the cold war, the United States accounted for 50 percent of total NATO military spending; today it accounts for 75 percent. Mr. Gates was right when he warned of Americaâ€™s dwindling patience with allies â€œunwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.â€ Decades of underinvestment, poor spending choices and complacent denial about new challenges have created what Mr. Gates called a â€œtwo-tiered alliance.â€ He is right that too many of its members limit themselves to â€œhumanitarian, development, peacekeeping and talking tasks,â€ and too few are available for the combat missions the alliance as a whole has agreed to assume. Libya, a mission much more directly linked to the security of Europe than of the United States, strikingly illustrates the consequences. Fewer than half of NATOâ€™s 28 members are taking part in the military mission. Fewer than a third are participating in the all-important airstrikes. British and French aircraft carry the main burden. Canada, Belgium, Norway and Denmark, despite limited resources, have made outsized contributions. Turkey, with the allianceâ€™s second-largest military, has remained largely on the sidelines. Germany, NATOâ€™s biggest historic beneficiary, has done nothing at all. Even fully participating members have failed to train enough targeting specialists to keep all of their planes flying sorties or to buy enough munitions to sustain a bombing campaign much beyond the present 11 weeks. That should frighten every defense ministry in Europe. What if they had to fight a more formidable enemy than Col. Muammar el-Qaddafiâ€™s fractured dictatorship? Combat is not always the best or only solution. NATO needs those European development and peacekeeping capabilities. All alliance members must also have at least the basic military capacities to meet common threats. Without that, the alliance will grow increasingly hollow â€” a fact that enemies will not miss. Mr. Gates was right to speak out. We hope his likely successor, Leon Panetta, will keep pushing hard. A two-tiered military alliance is really no alliance at all.