Barack Obama arrived in Strasbourg on Friday for this weekend's NATO summit enthusing about the military organization, which he described at a joint press conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy as "the most successful alliance in modern history." That it may have been. But Obama's praise contrasts starkly with the scathing assessment of the state of NATO, now 60 years old, by European military analysts, who say that the gap in military capability between the United States and Europe has grown so big that in some places battlefield communication between NATO forces and their US allies has become difficult. "It is such a deep divide that there is a risk that NATO will become an irritant for the Americans, rather than a partner of choice," says James Arbuthnot, a British Conservative Party politician who chairs the Parliament's select defense committee. The apparent problem-free warmth between Obama and other NATO leaders over the state of the alliance, he believes, "is an illusion."
This weekend's meeting of NATO's 28 leaders 21 of whom are from Europe is dominated by the issue of Afghanistan, where NATO commands the international military coalition, or ISAF. The war has injected a sense of immediacy and unity into the summit. Leaders are weighing whether to increase their commitments to the fight, in the wake of Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which includes deploying 17,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year. While some E.U. countries have said they will send more troops to the theater, several of them have stipulated that the soldiers will be used in non-combat roles, such as training Afghan police officers. (See pictures of British troops fighting in Afghanistan)
Under so-called caveats, each government sets restrictions on how and where their soldiers operate. Britain, France and the Netherlands are willing to send troops into combat, but many other European nations including Germany, which has Europe's biggest military force restricts them to non-combat roles. The Italian government recently said it would like to allow its troops in Afghanistan to engage in more fighting. A Pentagon official told TIME on Friday that although the U.S. would not reject any offers of more combat troops from Europe, they are instead pushing harder for "money to grow the Afghan national army, trainers for the police, and civilian support all of which we believe are more politically palatable to the Europeans."
Obama may be personally popular among Europeans, but that does not mean that he, and his Administration, will always get what they want. Military analysts say that the vast majority of Europe's soldiers who are not yet in Afghanistan are not capable of fighting alongside the U.S., in part because they lack the training and equipment vital to fighting in Afghanistan's tough terrain. Former NATO Secretary General George Robertson wrote in Friday's Financial Times that Europe's militaries were "pathetically ill-equipped for the world we foresee," and that the Continent's "usable deployable troops amount to just 2% of the 2.5 million who are in uniform" a figure which Abuthnot says is "generous." In an interview in Strasbourg, NATO's military committee chairman Giamcampo Di Paolo, an Italian Admiral, told TIME that he is pushing European leaders to allow their troops to engage in combat. Di Paolo says he nonetheless thinks that some of NATO's critics are exaggerating the problem of Europe's military abilities "to try to wake up the Europeans."
As Obama arrived in Strasbourg there was little discussion about divisions between the U.S. and Europe. After his packed schedule at London's G20 summit, his day in Strasbourg seemed almost relaxed, and included an hour at a youth town-hall meeting, where he answered questions about issues such as climate change and African poverty, before meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel; the NATO summit itself is scheduled as a three-hour meeting on Saturday morning. At the press conference with Sarkozy, Obama limited himself to saying that "the more capability we see here in Europe the happier the United States will be, the more effective we will be in coordinating our activities."
Such coordination is not easy. The abilities and equipment of the U.S. military are on a different level from armies in the rest of NATO. The Pentagon spends about 15% of its huge defense budget on researching new weapons systems, while the next-biggest research spender Britain spends just 9%, and many other NATO members spend "nil that's zero [on military research], according to Jonathan Eyal, Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Although the EU's economy is slightly bigger than that of the U.S., Europe "remains an absolute dwarf when it comes to any military activity," says Eyal.
This is not just because of the well-known aversion by European electorates to large defense budgets. Europe has for years concentrated its military spending on the continent's own defense. Instead of helicopters which are suited for Afghanistan's landscape, or more basic items like protective armor, European spending has favored big-ticket items like nuclear submarines and the Eurofighter. "Maybe these things are very important against some enemy perhaps China," says Sascha Lange, military researcher for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. "But we have this very strong need for simply boots on the ground." Right now, there are not enough of them.
With reporting by Mark Thompson/Washington