Their Own Army? Making European Defense Work

Philip H Gordon. Foreign Affairs. Volume 79, Issue 4. July/August 2000.

At the end of this year, Europe is scheduled to take its first serious steps toward creating a credible unified military force. The clock began ticking at a December 1999 summit in Helsinki, Finland, where the leaders of the European Union (EU) announced their intention to create a rapid reaction force able to act autonomously, send up to 60,000 troops abroad within two months, and sustain them for at least a year. They also announced plans to create a new Political and Security Committee, a Military Staff able to advise EU leaders, and a Military Committee of defense chiefs modeled on NATO’s. Coming after decades of failed attempts to build a meaningful European military capability, the Helsinki declaration was widely heralded as a sign of Europe’s new willingness to take more responsibility for its own defense and perhaps even project power independently. The new structures are scheduled to be in place by the end of this year.

Apart from the hoopla surrounding it, this latest initiative seems more serious than its many predecessors, for three reasons. First, the United Kingdom, whose forces are necessary to any credible European military, is engaged whole—heartedly for the first time. Second, the Kosovo conflict brought home to Europeans just how militarily dependent on Washington they are and will remain unless big changes are made. And third, the Helsinki declaration is not a call to revive the eternally moribund Western European Union (WEU)-Europe’s ostensible defense arm but a plan to transfer responsibility for defense and security to the EU, an organization backed by real political will and momentum.

If done right, the development of a serious EU defense force could be a good thing for all concerned-reducing American burdens in Europe, making Europe a better and more capable partner, and providing a way for Europeans to tackle security problems where and when the United States cannot or will not get involved. If done badly, however, the EU project risks irrelevance as an empty institutional distraction-or even worse, a step back toward the situation in the Balkans in the early 1990s, when separate European and American strategies and institutions led to impotence and recrimination. The advantages of an EU better able to act forcefully and independently must therefore be weighed against the danger that the new initiative could exacerbate differences between Europe and America, duplicate costly NATO structures and assets, alienate NATO’s non-EU members such as Turkey, Norway, and Poland, and create prematurely the illusion of European military self reliance.

This is not to say that a case cannot be made for Europeans’ taking over full responsibility for their own security sometime in the future. One good reason for the EU initiative is to lay the groundwork for such a contingency should it ever become necessary. As deeply engaged as the United States is today, it cannot guarantee that it will remain so forever. If America ever needs to pull its troops out of Europe to deal with a major crisis elsewhere, it will be glad to have in place a European pillar able to ensure regional stability.

Preparing for such a contingency in the distant future, however, is quite different from precipitating it now or even soon. For all their new enthusiasm about an EU defense role, Europeans are not ready, willing, or able to replace the United States. The Balkan operations conducted in the i99os stretched Europe’s military forces to their limits, even with the United States providing most of the military muscle. Building serious military capabilities will take vast amounts of money and at least a decade of preparation. So even if that is what Europeans want, it makes sense for now to preserve the advantages of a transatlantic security partnership while strengthening Europe’s contribution to it.

Most of those involved with the Helsinki initiative understand this basic point. But with European leaders newly determined to carve out a prominent foreign policy and defense role for the EU, with Washington tempted by unilateralism and pursuing a national missile defense program opposed by most Europeans, and with lingering resentments over Bosnia and Kosovo heightening tensions on both sides, the EU defense initiative could easily cause a range of unintended— and unwelcome-consequences. Americans and Europeans need to work closely together to make sure the new project strengthens the transatlantic partnership and does not pull it apart.

Why Now?

If the new project manages to live up to the high expectations created in Helsinki, historians will likely locate the origins of its success in a place not normally known for its Eu initiatives: London. It was there in 1998-only a year after vetoing a Franco— German proposal to bring defense into the EU-that U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair underwent a conversion. Publicly castigating Europeans for their glaring defense deficiencies, he suggested that the way to overcome them was for the EU to play a defense role after all. Blair’s new line, a sharp break from the anti-European rhetoric and policies of his Conservative predecessors Margaret Thatcher and John Major, was music to the ears of the French, who had long called for the EU to get serious about defense and foreign policy. By December, after several months of close coordination, Britain and France had agreed on a new call for the EU to develop credible, autonomous military forces. They announced the plan with fanfare at a bilateral summit in Saint-Malo, France.

Blair’s new thinking stemmed from two main factors. The first, left unstated, was that the prime minister and his Labor government genuinely supported European union and wanted Britain to be a part of it. Because public hostility to monetary integration prevented them from joining the most important European project, however, they had to find another way to signal their support. Defense cooperation was a logical choice, given Britain’s strength in this area.

The second factor, stated publicly and often, was the realization that Europeans were not pulling their weight in a NATO alliance dominated by the United States— and that Europe was paying for this with a loss of political influence and military effectiveness. According to senior British officials, the prime minister was appalled when briefed during the spring of 1998 at how little the Europeans could bring to the table should a NATO campaign in Kosovo ever be required. Blair’s aides pointed out— using figures that turned out to be remarkably accurate during Operation Allied Force a year later-that Europeans would have to rely on the Americans to fly 80 percent of the combat missions and to provide key logistics, intelligence, and communications. Blair was equally appalled at the briefings he got on how Europe might manage the operation if the United States chose not to get engaged. The endless, complex series of meetings, committees, and untested arrangements that such a scenario would entail made the idea of a solo operation seem fantastic. This, the prime minister concluded, was no way to run a war.

Blair’s subsequent initiative was warmly welcomed not only by the French but by other EU partners, for a mix of reasons ranging from the desire for more influence on Washington to the concern that Europe might have to fend for itself if the U.S. Congress took an isolationist turn. Many EU members also supported the initiative simply to promote further integration, which they felt would never be complete without a defense dimension. Then came Kosovo, which illustrated Europe’s military deficiencies in ways that could never be conveyed by Blair’s speeches alone.

That Kosovo provided such an impetus was surprising, because if anything should have spurred the Europeans forward, it was their experience in Bosnia years earlier: initial U.S. disengagement, followed by unilateral initiatives, and eventually, a dominant American negotiator sidelining the Europeans and dictating the peace. Curiously, however, the Europeans reacted to Bosnia not with an initiative to strengthen the EU as an alternative to NATO, but rather with a renewed commitment to strengthen NATO itself. Even Paris began a rapprochement, which almost culminated in France’s rejoining NATO’s integrated military command structure in 1996.

So why was the impact of Kosovo different? One reason was the 1997 change of government in London. Another was the realization of just how close the Americans were this time to staying out. And still another was the military strategy employed in Kosovo-to use airpower almost exclusively-dictated by Washington because of its greater military contribution. Europe’s feeling of marginalization, indeed humiliation, for its military dependence was far greater in Kosovo than it had been in Bosnia, where its militaries played a more significant role.

For all their complaints about having ceded strategy to Washington during the crisis, it is unclear just what Europeans would have done differently if left in charge. It was less the realistic availability of other, more effective strategies for the war that fueled European discontent— certainly there was little enthusiasm for a ground invasion-than something closer to pique. Just as many Americans concluded that they should never again fight a war by committee, with French leaders vetoing target sets and British generals refusing to implement NATO’s orders, many Europeans concluded that they should never again cede authority to American generals and the White House. The result was the agreement at Helsinki to create a rapid-reaction capability and build the institutions to manage it.

Six Steps to Success

The Helsinki initiative will force the United States to put up or shut up. In the past, Washington’s public support for greater European defense efforts has always masked a certain ambivalence. Europeans were welcome to contribute more, it was understood, but only to causes defined by the United States. Moreover, it was always easier for Washington to support Brussels’ defense initiatives when they were unlikely to add up to much-as has reliably been the case in the past. Now that Europeans might actually do something, however, the United States needs to consider whether it really wants them to. The question of the day is thus whether a European security policy can be constructed that allows Europeans to contribute more and exercise more influence without dividing NATO and driving the Americans out. The answer is maybe-but only if leaders on both sides of the ocean keep six guiding principles in mind.

First, Europeans need to give far greater priority to modernizing, streamlining—and sometimes using-their military capabilities than to creating new institutional structures. In the Balkans, for example, political will, police forces, firepower, and troops are all in far greater demand than are the committees and institutions to manage them. EU members, however, often seem more interested in building security institutions than in using them. It makes sense to bring defense policy into the European integration process, but the EU must recognize that institution-building is not an end in itself. If all the latest initiative achieves is another layer of bureaucracy-but no greater willingness or ability to act militarily-Europe as a whole will not be better off.

The greatest obstacle to an effective European security policy, in any case, has been not an inability to decide, but rather a lack of means to act. Although highly experienced and adept at peacekeeping, most European forces lack the means to conduct truly demanding, modern military operations: airlift, sealift, satellite intelligence, precision-guided munitions (PGMS), and all-weather and night-strike capabilities. Kosovo demonstrated not only how much Europeans must rely on the United States for these, but also that the Europeans could not maximize the effectiveness of the one resource-manpower-that they actually had in relative abundance. As NATO Secretary-General George Robertson has pointed out, European members of NATO have nearly 2 million men and women in uniform, yet had great difficulty mustering 40,000 troops just 2 percent of their forces-for Kosovo. Unless and until this capabilities gap with the United States can be closed, the European defense initiative will remain a largely paper exercise, and the prospect of significant autonomous EU actions a mirage.

The good news here is that Europeans now seem to understand better than before how great the capabilities gap is. The bad news is that neither their publics nor their leaders seem prepared to make the financial sacrifices necessary to procure such capabilities any time soon. U.S. defense spending has fallen significantly since the end of the Cold War but has now leveled off at around $285 billion per year, about 3.2 percent of gross domestic product. Members of the EU, on the other hand, together spend around $165 billion annually-less than 60 percent of the U.S. amount and only 2.1 percent of GDP—and their defense budgets are still falling. Germany, the EU’S largest and richest country, now spends less than 1.5 percent of its GDP on defense. With lo percent unemployment and a widespread recognition of the need for tax cuts, there is little prospect that this amount will rise any time soon. These may well be legitimate choices reflecting different national priorities. But Europe’s lack of influence within NATO and its inability to conduct autonomous operations is bound to endure until this situation changes.

Second, Europeans should make clear that NATO remains their first choice when it comes to military force, and that EU military operations are not intended for areas where NATO is already engaged. NATO is the most inclusive military organization in Europe, provides the institutional mechanism for military cooperation with the United States, has elaborate structures and standards already in place, and happens to be the organization deployed in Europe’s war zones. Europeans understandably reject any formalization of what they consider to be the subordination of the Eu to another organization, but they should recognize their own interest in using NATO where possible.

Third, NATO’s assets must be made available for use by the EU. NATO has thousands of military planners and staff (most of whom are European) as well as an extensive network of command posts and headquarters throughout Europe. Duplicating these structures on anything approaching a similar scale would allow the EU to stop relying on NATO, but at considerable cost. Some Europeans will argue that they need separate EU structures because the United States can veto the use of NATO assets. But this concern is exaggerated, and Washington should work to make it even less so. It is highly unlikely that the United States would both decline to participate in a mission and use its veto to prevent Europeans from carrying that mission out. After all, nothing would be so certain to drive the Europeans to create the separate defense structures Americans hope to avoid. The more relevant point is that some of the most essential assets that Europeans lack-such as airlift, cruise missiles, and PGMs-are not “NATO assets” at all, but American ones. The solution to this problem is for Europe to get more military equipment, not the structures and institutions that surround it.

Fourth, links must be created between the EU and NATO. Although they share the city of Brussels, the two institutions have heretofore had no contact other than the occasional meal between the NATO secretary-general and the president of the European Commission. Such an arrangement was fine when the EU was uninvolved in defense matters, but it is unacceptable now. Regular informal contacts between the two bureaucracies— and not just at the top level-should begin right away, even if more formal links have to wait until the EU has finalized its new structures. The creation of separate EU and NATO bureaucracies that do not talk to each other can only contribute to divergent transatlantic perspectives, when the goal should be to harmonize them.

Fifth, transatlantic institutional and military cooperation must be underpinned by increased industrial cooperation. So far, the post-Cold War trend has been consolidation within the U.S. and European defense industries rather than between them. But a continuation of this trend over the long run would be unhealthy It would deny both sides the opportunity to exploit the most advanced technologies available, limit competition (as overseas firms are excluded from major procurement deals), and contribute to the development of a technology and compatibility gap. American concerns over the transfer of sensitive technology are legitimate but need to be balanced against the equally great danger of a bifurcated alliance.

Finally, the EU must involve non-EU European allies as closely as possible in their new initiative. With NATO’s recent enlargement, 8 of the 19 NATO members— Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Norway, Turkey, Iceland, the United States, and Canada-are not in the EU. The non-EU European allies understand that they cannot have a permanent seat at the EU’s decision-making table. But there is much the EU can do to include them in its plans-such as regular discussions of matters affecting common security, the opportunity to be involved militarily if the EU decides to undertake an operation, and the creation of structures (modeled on NATO’s Partnership for Peace) that allow non-EU members to be involved in decision-making for any mission in which they are taking part.

The Helsinki initiative could wind up in one of three ways. It may help bring about a stronger and more flexible transatlantic alliance. It may amount to nothing, like its predecessors. Or it may create bitterness and dissension among many of the world’s leading democratic powers, leaving the Europeans to fend for themselves before they are able to do so. The first outcome is obviously the most desirable but will require a great deal of effort, resources, and goodwill to pull off. If such will is lacking, however, we should hope-for both Europe’s and America’s sakes-that we end up with the second option, not the third.