What NATO looks like in the age of European austerity

Amid budget cutbacks and a 'diminishing appetite' for war, Europe has turned increasingly to the 'soft power' assignments like training and institution-building.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP/file
Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, center, addresses the troops on board the Royal Navy’s HMS Ark Royal aircraft carrier. Reductions in deployment and military spending raise new questions about Europe’s role in NAT O.

When Portugal's Prime Minister José Sócrates welcomed President Obama on Nov. 19 to the NATO summit in Lisbon by announcing 150 additional Portuguese soldiers for Atlantic Alliance's deployment in Afghanistan, it was a surprise to the Portuguese people, who are coping with a growing economic crisis.

It was also a small exception to a larger trend across Europe of severe cutbacks, including military deployments and defense budgets, even as the European Union solidifies its place as one of the world's top providers of international humanitarian and development aid.

What that trend portends, say a growing number of experts on US-European relations, is a scenario under which the United States is more and more the provider of hard power – or military force – for the North Atlantic Alliance, while Europe turns increasingly to the soft power assignments like training and institution-building that it appears to prefer.

Some European military officials insist the trend is overplayed, adding that it will be Europe that will show the way to a more effective and efficient Atlantic military alliance by stepping up duplication-reducing cooperative ventures and hardware procurement.

'Paper tiger'?

But one statistic nevertheless stands out as a kind of caution light for NATO: Whereas a decade ago the US accounted for just under half of NATO members' defense spending, today the US share is closer to 75 percent – and growing.

Of NATO's European members, only France, Britain, and Greece reach the alliance's goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. And with Britain – along with France, one of Europe's last real military powers – set to reduce defense spending by 8 percent by 2015, the US-Europe divide is only expected to widen.

The trend risks leaving Europe a "paper tiger" that is not taken seriously on the world stage, NATO's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said during the Lisbon summit. Another danger, he warns, is that the US will turn away from Europe and look elsewhere for reliable defense partners.

"We cannot end up in a situation where Europe cannot pull its weight when it comes to security," Mr. Rasmussen said in October. "The United States would look elsewhere for its security partner."

For some US-Europe analysts, however, the day has already arrived.

"It's amazing to think that the argument used to be over when the EU would supplant NATO" as Europe's preeminent common security and defense institution, says John Hulsman, an international relations expert and consultant in Berlin. "Now the de facto division is one where the US is the military power and we look to Europe to help with the soft power, and there is no more argument about it."

Europeans 'tired' of war

A "diminishing appetite" in Europe for the kinds of jobs implicit in a mission like NATO's in Afghanistan is one explanation for the growing US-Europe "division of labor" in international interventions, says Charles Kupchan, a transatlantic expert at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington. But another, he adds, is that Europe found itself at the end of the cold war with forces that were "primarily structured for a land conflict in Europe, with little capacity to project power beyond NATO's borders."

Recognizing that, some NATO officials and experts alike say it will be a restructuring of those European forces and better coordination among them that will keep Europe from retreating completely as a defense and security partner.

"If one were to say that Europe is going only in the direction of soft power, I would not agree," says Gen. Stéphane Abrial, NATO's supreme allied commander for transformation. Pointing to a recent French-British defense accord on pooling certain resources and coordinating more military activities, he says, "That's not about soft power, it's an agreement to make the best use of resources to be able to use hard power more effectively ... for the benefit of the EU and the benefit of NATO."

General Abrial, who prior to his NATO assignment was France's Air Force chief of staff, says Europe's take on the exercise of hard power is rooted in its millenniums of warfare.

"If you look at Europe in history, for centuries Europe was very good at hard power, maybe too good. That period is over, fortunately," he adds, but it means that "most Europeans are tired" of war.

EU's new role in NATO

Europe has developed a "strong institution for the exercise of soft power," Abrial says, "and that is the European Union." And that is no small thing, he adds, at a time when the "concepts" of power are expanding.

NATO's job, as a defense alliance, will be to face the challenges of declining defense budgets "head on" with a comprehensive effort to "eliminate unwanted duplications" and "coordinate for more efficiencies."

That European effort to make the best of declining defense budgets by more "aggregating and coordinating among European countries" makes sense for the short term, says CFR's Mr. Kupchan. But more long term, he adds, Europe will have to do more than simply manage its decline as a military power if it wants to remain a player on the world stage.

Mr. Hulsman says the days of American "hand-wringing" about Europe's retreat as a military power are "pretty much over," replaced by an acceptance and even appreciation of what it is Europe can do.

"Yes there's disappointment, but I think the thinking now is that some help is better than no help," he says. "They can help on counter-terrorism, that's something they're good at, they can help and even lead on training and institution-building, and we always need their dollars for Palestine," he says, referring to EU assistance to the Palestinian Authority. "But the reality is the US will be looking more to the Indian Ocean and other regions" as it addresses global security challenges.

US looks East for new partners

Mr. Obama's November trip through Asia, which included stops in India, South Korea, and Indonesia, was certainly seen as bolstering defense ties in that region, possibly as a bulwark against an increasingly strong China. What's more, as part of a recent tour through the Asia-Pacific region, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to bolster defense ties with Australia.

While the US is increasingly looking to the East to build new military partnerships, it's up to Europe to decide if it wants to accept the new "division of labor," says Kupchan, or if it intends to remain the kind of consequential player on the world stage that requires maintaining an ability to project military power.

"Right now Europe remains America's go-to partner, in part because there are no other options," says Kupchan. "But with the US fighting two wars and running deep deficits, it is increasingly asking, 'What do our allies bring to the table?'"

The "smart power" that is Europe's strength is a definite plus, he adds, "but the Europeans have to realize that the more they bring to the table, the stronger the transatlantic bond will be."

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Why It Matters: The United States now accounts for 75 percent of NATO members' defense spending, up from just under half a decade ago. Europe increasingly supports humanitarian and development aid instead. Some experts say the trend risks leaving Europe a 'paper tiger' and the US looking elsewhere for partners.

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