Born out of the ashes of World War II, the NATO alliance – for North Atlantic Treaty Organization – was a defensive pact created in 1949 by the nations that had destroyed Hitler’s Third Reich, with one major exception: the Soviet Union. Resisting its postwar expansion became the focus of NATO’s mission in Europe.

But with its founding purpose made moot two decades ago, NATO is floundering – a fact long recognized but only pointed out in irrefutable detail last week by outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

NATO’s present may be problematic, but its history is substantial. While the Western allies only acted as occupiers until the former Axis nations of Germany and Italy could set up their own democracies, the Soviets kept a hard grip on the nations they had conquered as the Red Army swept all resistance aside in its march on Berlin.

With Eastern Europe and half of Germany firmly under the Soviet boot in the Warsaw Pact alliance, leading to what Winston Churchill called the Iron Curtain descending between East and West, NATO became the multinational force that would hold the Warsaw Pact at bay for 40 years – until that alliance collapsed in 1989, followed by the fall of the USSR itself in 1991.

That left NATO without a significant mission, even as the newly independent nations of the East clamored for membership and gradually achieved it. The alliance has grown from 16 nations at its founding to 28 today.

But it is at its weakest point both in its rationale for existence (from what risk is it protecting Europe?) and in its basic military capability to conduct operations outside its borders.

As Gates noted, only the United States has the will and the power to conduct extended military operations around the world. NATO forces are hard-pressed even to maintain a full- tempo series of air operations against Libya, with only Britain able to contribute more than minimal forces to missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gates finally said something that has been obvious but substantially passed over in silence for far too many years – that NATO nations have been able to skimp on defense spending because the U.S. military has assumed responsibility for most of their defense.

America now funds 75 percent of NATO’s budget, and things have gotten so bad that Britain and France have had to agree to share one aircraft carrier between them.

The time has come, Gates correctly said, for NATO to begin to fund substantial improvements in its own forces and not rely on the United States.

Indeed, that is not just a timely goal; it is a long-overdue one.