Last June, the then US defence secretary and former head of the CIA under George W. Bush, Robert Gates, launched a rhetorical missile at America's NATO allies. In a speech in Brussels, he warned the allies that American exasperation with European military weakness might one day spell the effective end of NATO itself.

Gates pointed out that while all NATO countries had voted to intervene in Libya, most had chosen not to participate in the actual fighting. Even those European countries that were taking part had begun to run short of munitions, just 11 weeks into the fighting, forcing an exasperated America to step into the breach. A situation in which the US accounted for 75 per cent of the military spending in NATO was "unacceptable" and unsustainable. If it was not rectified, Gates predicted, NATO faced a "dismal" future.

Both the message and the messenger were significant. When Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush's defence secretary, spoke dismissively of "old Europe", in the run-up to the Iraq war, many Europeans were inclined to dismiss his words as a deliberate provocation from a man who had little patience or sympathy with continental Europe. But Robert Gates is known as a friend of Europe and a man who weighs his words and actions carefully.

The Gates speech is likely to go down as a turning point. It effectively marks the end of the American ambition to turn NATO into the global, military arm of a unified Western world. The Americans have flirted with this idea, ever since the onset of the "war on terror". The way in which NATO allies rallied to America's side in Afghanistan was seen as a potential template for the future of the alliance. But, as the Afghan war has worn on, so the military effort has become more and more heavily dependent on the US. Some 70 per cent of the troops in Afghanistan are now American and the US has had to take over some of the most difficult sectors of the war from European allies, such as the British and the Dutch.

The fact that—despite their perceived under-performance in Afghanistan—Europeans led the way in calling for a campaign in Libya has merely re-enforced the American view that the European arm of NATO is, to varying degrees, feckless and unreliable. European inability to wage the Libyan campaign properly has re-enforced this American impression. Disarray and recriminations within NATO effectively hobble the single most effective potential tool for liberal interventionism led by the West.

Even more significant in the long run is the American anxiety that the budgetary constraints that are leading to defence cuts in Europe will soon be replicated in America. Michael Mullen, the head of America's Joint Chiefs, has called the budget deficit the single biggest threat to American national security. It is also the single biggest constraint on future bouts of "liberal interventionism".

But money is not the only problem. During the last 20 years, it has become apparent that swiftly agreed-upon military actions can lead to entanglements that last for many years. There is still a NATO mission in Kosovo and an EU military mission in Bosnia, more than a decade after the fighting ended in both places. As for Afghanistan, that conflict has now lasted almost twice as long as World War II. Western governments are only beginning to come to terms with what may soon be required in Libya. Against this background, there are very few takers for further joint NATO missions.

As Gates himself noted in his Brussels speech, he is also part of the last generation of American statesmen who came to intellectual maturity during the Cold War. For the Gates generation, it is still second nature to regard Europe as at the centre of global politics—as it was when the Soviet Union and the US faced off against each other.

For a new generation of American policymakers, however, Europe looks increasingly like a strategic backwater. Viewed from Washington, the major strategic and economic challenges of the next century look increasingly as if they will come from the Pacific. China and Japan are now the world's second and third largest economies. India should enter the top five fairly soon.

China is also the only plausible rival to America's title as the sole superpower. Its military build-up is being watched carefully in Washington. The Pentagon's military planners are openly concerned that new Chinese missile capabilities could knock out the satellites and aircraft carriers that form the basis of America's strategic reach in the Pacific. Meanwhile, China is developing its own naval capacities, as it builds new aircraft-carrier and submarine capabilities.

The European powers, even those that pride themselves on their military capability, play no strategic role in East Asia. Instead it is America's Pacific allies, in particular Japan, South Korea, Australia and—increasingly importantly—India, that might be crucial in helping the US to balance rising Chinese power. These nations are highly unlikely ever to be yoked together in a formal alliance system like NATO, with its buildings, treaty-structure and ambassadors. But it is the informal network of American allies in the Pacific—rather than the formal alliance structure in Europe—that will increasingly form the basis of US grand strategy.