Can Europe shoulder its military burden on its own?

As the US turns to Asia, pressure is rising on the EU to police itself, North Africa, and the Mideast.

Kay Nietfeld/dpa/AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (third from l.) visits German troops operating missile batteries in Turkey that help protect Turkey from the civil war in Syria.
Research: Leigh Montgomery, Graphic: Rich Clabaugh

When in March 2011 the United Nations Security Council created a "no fly" zone in Libya, it was British and French armed forces that launched the intervention against the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.

Not two years later, as a European Union training mission stalled while radical Islamic rebels gained a foothold in northern Mali, France acted unilaterally, sending 2,500 troops last January to its former colony in the Sahel.

These are the exact scenarios the United States has said it envisions for the 21st century.

If after World War II and into the cold war the US once jealously guarded its dominance in transatlantic affairs, today it wants Europe to take care of Europe and its neighborhood. With the US "pivoting" toward Asia and facing budget cuts at home, Washington has increasingly called on Europe to safeguard itself – and, more important, the nearby territory of the Sahel, North Africa, and parts of the Middle East.

But the interventions in Libya and Mali have shown the limits of Europeans at the military helm. In Libya, the US ultimately provided 80 percent of aerial tankers, because of limited ally capabilities. Instead of instilling confidence that Europe can act without the US in the lead, military experts are increasingly worried about the holes and gaps that shrinking defense budgets and ambitions are creating.

Now Europe is scrambling to define its military capabilities and strategy at a December European Council summit focused on defense for the 28 heads of state. Though the task will test the will of the EU to overcome deeply entrenched cultural differences and deficits in military might – especially among the "big three" of France, Britain, and Germany – if it succeeds, a capable European corps could give the US greater freedom to concentrate on its direct strategic interests elsewhere in the world.

Defense in the age of austerity

The US has allied with European partners primarily through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since the bloc's founding in 1949. At the height of the cold war, transatlantic security was central to American foreign policy: The US maintained 277,000 troops in Europe in 1962. Since the end of the cold war in 1989, US presence is down by 85 percent, according to US Army Europe.

But the US still funds the majority of NATO, a situation that it has said is untenable as China rises and the US looks to Asia as the focal point of future strategy. Upon retiring in 2011, then-US Defense Secretary Robert Gates rebuked Europe for not fulfilling its commitments to security.

"If current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future US political leaders – those for whom the cold war was not the formative experience that it was for me – may not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost," he said.

It was the clearest message yet to Europe that the US has shifted its priorities. "Before America wanted control; now it wants Europe to get its act together," says Daniel Keohane, head of strategic affairs in the Brussels office of the Spanish think tank FRIDE.

And it served as a wake-up call, Mr. Keohane says, both as an opportunity for Europe after decades of America's big footprint in foreign policy and as a spur for a continent unprepared to "go it alone."

In the context of austerity that has directly affected defense budgets, as well as a less engaged America, Europe will gather its heads of state in a meeting in December intended to spell out the defense commitment of the EU. The focal point is "pooling and sharing": not a single European army but shared cooperation among member states, and perhaps clusters of capabilities among various countries.

Pooling and sharing has already been happening, both in NATO and the EU, since 2010. One of the best examples is the European Air Transport Command, into which the Dutch, Belgians, French, and Germans have put major parts of their air transport and air-to-air refueling fleets under the same operational control.

But its limits are clear.

"No one is coordinating this from top down, says Sven Biscop, head of the Europe in the World program at the Egmont Institute in Brussels, a think tank funded by Belgium. And yet, he says, pooling of resources is "the only way to remain relevant."

Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the December summit is an opportunity to clarify EU ambitions on defense policy. And while there is broad disagreement about the summit's potential impact, Mr. Techau believes the stakes are high.

"If the wording [of the summit's conclusions] is evasive," he says, "it's a hugely devastating political signal to the Americans and the larger world."

French and British old guard

Because no country can lead Europe alone, all agree that little can be accomplished if the big three don't get on the same page.

It is Britain and France that are the natural leaders on defense in Europe. They both have permanent seats on the Security Council, nuclear-weapon capabilities, and colonial legacies that shape their visions of their roles in the world. Germany is part of the trio simply because of its economic might.

Together, the three represent 60 percent of the EU's military expenditures, but they don't align easily. "The Brits are immensely serious about defense, but are not particularly interested in Europe," says Francois Heisbourg, a defense analyst in Paris. "Conversely, Germans see themselves to be good Europeans but are rather not interested in defense. The French are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum."

France would be best poised to bridge those two sides. While Britain has the biggest military in Europe, it is undergoing massive budget cuts and increasingly questioning whether it even wants to be part of the EU project. It aligns more readily with the US on defense than with its European counterparts.

France, on the other hand, has long been a leading proponent of deeper European defense integration, which comes in part from historical distrust of American-dominated NATO but also the confluence of its commitment both to Europe and defense.

"For the French, defense was always proof of sovereignty and power," says Vivien Pertusot, head of the Brussels office for the French Institute of International Relations. While many European nations, especially smaller countries from the East, looked to NATO – and by default the US – as the safeguard of European defense, France defended greater European integration.

France's much awaited defense white paper – the first statement of its military policy since 2008 – came out in April, emphasizing that France must be able to partner with European allies in the absence of the US. "It does break new ground acknowledging the US has shifted its priorities and shifted its posture," says Mr. Heisbourg, who sat on the white paper committee.

Looking to Germany

Questions over defense come as France's role as a leader in Europe has been eclipsed by Germany – though whether Germany can rise as the new power broker on defense is unclear.

It is the only country of the big three not facing serious defense cuts, and if trends continue, it could emerge as the biggest military in Europe. But it would have to overcome decades of aversion to military intervention and leadership on foreign policy, a legacy of the shadow of Nazi Germany.

At the end of 2011, Poland's foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, startled Germany when he said in a speech in Berlin: "I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity."

Markus Kaim, a defense expert at the independent government-funded German Institute for International and Security Affairs, was sitting in the room and says the feeling of discomfort was palpable. "We are not used to expectations of 'please lead us now,' " he says.

Mr. Sikorski was referring to the eurozone crisis, but it is in the military realm that Germany is most reluctant to lead. Germany angered its allies when it abstained on the Security Council vote on Libya. Dr. Biscop says European countries are hesitant to "pool and share" with Germany because of the country's general reluctance to intervene.

This "culture of military restraint," says Mr. Kaim, has been part of the German mind-set since the end of World War II. But with Germany's economic rise, he says, the country is now in the uncomfortable position of "punching under its weight," he says.

The economic crisis has bolstered the argument that Germany needs to start shouldering more of the burden, he says. "I do believe the German public could be convinced to support German military engagement."

Diplomacy through alliance

When including the varying attitudes among all 28 members of the EU, the landscape becomes even more complex. Different attitudes were underscored recently when the EU let an arms embargo to Syria lapse. France and Britain, which have recently claimed evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, had pushed for the freedom to arm rebels in Syria, while other countries widely oppose that move.

"We are a peace movement and not a war movement," Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said.

At the heart of the issue is the question of sovereignty – which has been an ongoing theme as Europe struggles to save the euro and steer itself out of crisis. "This issue has the most meaning when it comes to international security policy," Kaim says. "To be sovereign as the EU, member states have to surrender their sovereignty to the EU," he says.

These divisions directly affect the US military enterprise. The American message that Europe needs to uphold its end of the bargain is not simply about sharing the burden, says Clara O'Donnell, a senior fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London who is currently at the Brookings Institution in Washington. It's also about ensuring a peaceful Europe that won't demand American military attention.

"NATO has meant that countries, historically, that had been at war have put those animosities aside and committed to mutual security," she says, "It means that at least there is one part of the world that the US had to worry about before that it now doesn't have to worry about."

Having Europe as a military ally also affects cooperation in other areas that are key to the changing world landscape, says Elvire Fabry, a senior research fellow at Notre Europe – Jacques Delors Institute in Paris. That includes free trade, energy, and the development of new technologies. "All of the initiatives that are taken between the EU and US are creating a global, level playing field in the building of a new global order that is being quite challenged by the emerging economies," she says.

The foreign service wing of the EU, called the European External Action Service, was established by the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 to make Europe more of a global player. If NATO is a military "service provider," then the EU is the soft power machine.

But many say Europe needs much more than that to remain relevant. In May, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen made headlines when he said that there cannot be credible EU foreign policy without the military means to back it up. "We Europeans must understand that soft power alone is really no power at all," he said.

For Techau, the statement speaks to shortcomings in the EU's role in foreign-policy strategy. "We pride ourselves on strong diplomacy, but it depends on having the muscle to back it up," he says. Despite all of the donor support Europe has provided in the Middle East, he says, it is only the US that ultimately has political pull. "It's because [Europe] can't put its fist on the table. If you don't have a hard power security guarantee, you can't move people."

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