Stephen M. Walt

European defense policy needs recalibration

European defense policy needs recalibration

By Jolyon Howorth

The European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CSDP) is currently approaching its Rubicon. For twenty years, Europeans dallied with cooperation in security and defense policy. But when the Libyan crisis broke in 2011, their willingness and their ability to handle a regional operation of medium intensity evaporated. It is difficult to overstate the extent to which Libya was precisely the type of mission for which the EU, via CSDP, had been preparing. Yet, in the most serious crisis on Europe’s borders since the birth of CSDP, the EU went AWOL. Are the EU member states serious about being in the security and defense business at all?

Free-riding is a deeply engrained European habit. For forty years, West Europeans depended on the United States for their very survival. Debates over burden-sharing were constant. In 1990, the U.S. covered 60 percent of NATO’s overall expenditure. By 2011, that figure was 75 percent. There is little wonder that, in his valedictory speech in June 2011, Robert Gates warned that the pattern’s continuation could force the new generation of U.S. politicians to question U.S. investment in NATO.

Some say that Europe faces no real threats in 2012. Why, therefore, should it devote large sums to defense? Europe may be internally at peace with itself, but can it count on continuing to live so? A glance at the map is sufficient to answer in the negative. From the Arctic Circle to the Baltic Sea and down to the Black Sea, from the Bosphorus to the Straits of Gibraltar, destabilization hovers around the EU’s entire periphery. To imagine that the Union can rely on its own internal Kantian pact to avoid engagement with a turbulent world is not simply naïve. It is irresponsible.

CSDP faces three main sets of problems. First, there is the growing reality of U.S. military disengagement. The January 2012 U.S. Strategic Guidance shifts the United State’s focus to the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. Washington expects Europe to assume responsibility for its own neighborhood. The Libyan mission introduced the concept of the United States "leading from behind." This was a misnomer. Without massive U.S. military inputs, that mission could not have been carried through. But the Obama administration’s insistence that Europeans should at least be perceived to be "taking the lead" in Libya represented a paradigm shift. Uncle Sam believes it is time Europeans come of strategic age. In order for this to happen, leadership in the European area must change hands. As long as the United States monopolizes leadership in Europe, the Europeans will continue to free-ride — and to fail to deliver.

The second main problem has to do with military capacity for the mounting of overseas missions under CSDP. In December 2010, European defense ministers agreed to recalibrate defense assets under three heads: those that, for reasons of strategic imperative, would remain under national control; those that could offer potential for pooling; and those appropriate for task-sharing. In November 2011, the European Defence Agency (EDA) identified 11 priority areas for cooperative development. Much is happening. The problem is that it is essentially a handful of the same EU member states which are actively engaged in European initiatives, while the majority nod their agreement. For pooling and sharing to be effective, significant transfers of sovereignty will have to be agreed. 

This introduces the third — and most serious — problem: The sheer poverty of political will and the absence of any strategic vision within the EU. Without a clear sense of strategic objectives, issues of capacity and responsibility are meaningless. There is an urgent need for a trans-European debate about the real ambitions and objectives of CSDP. What sort of role do the Europeans wish to play in the world — particularly in their own backyard? What role should military capacity play in their projects? How do they understand power — their own and that of others?

To date, those responsible for delivering CSDP have insisted on "autonomy" as a motivating dynamic. In order not to be stifled at birth by their robust transatlantic cousins, the Europeans-as-international-actors needed to "do it their way." In the initial stages of CSDP, this made perfect sense. Alas, the quest for autonomy has not delivered the necessary political will or the appropriate material capacity. For the past twenty years, I supported the principle of autonomy. I now believe this is the wrong approach going forward. It is time to re-think the relationship between CSDP and NATO, which, in practice, has led to sub-optimal performance on both parts, to dysfunctional practices and to massive waste of resources. As long as this continues, neither NATO nor CSDP will achieve their true potential.

The Libyan operation raised important questions about NATO: the nature of the alliance; the type and scale of cooperation; and form of leadership. During the Cold War, tight solidarity between all alliance members rendered NATO a genuine alliance. Yet in a multi-polar world and absent an existential threat post-1989, interests diverged. The "alliance" has become a mechanism for generating coalitions of the willing. Although NATO’s 2002 Prague summit saw the alliance "going global," the results have been poor. The U.S. push for a "League of Democracies" never found favor with Europeans and has probably administered the coup de grâce in Afghanistan. Despite the spin surrounding the Chicago summit in May 2012, on-going questions about the real nature and purpose of NATO persist. The "Alliance" needs a radical re-think.

As for CSDP, assuming it continues to move towards the Rubicon, cooperation with NATO remains more crucial than ever. It is only through the NATO framework that CSDP can actually achieve operational effectiveness and, eventually, autonomy. That suggests three things. First, the Alliance should come back to Europe and be explicitly re-designated as a mechanism for guaranteeing regional stability in the European neighborhood. Second, it means that NATO and CSDP must stop seeing one another as rivals in a beauty contest. The sterile quarrels over duplication in general and Headquarters in particular must be transcended. At the level of procurement, the dynamics of pooling and sharing European capacity should be concentrated in the EU. It makes no sense to have two separate processes, one operating within NATO ("smart defense") and another within the EU. Obviously, this European procurement process should be conducted in tight liaison with NATO, but the EU framework is indispensable. The role of the EDA should be central. Third, there must eventually be an institutional and political merger between CSDP and NATO. This post is not the place to go into the details. The key issue is the direction to take.

Operational leadership must increasingly be assumed by the Europeans. This will require serious restraint on the part of Washington and seriousness of purpose on the part of the Europeans. Progressively the balance within NATO must shift to one in which the Europeans are doing most of the heavy-lifting in their own backyard, and the Americans are acting largely as force enablers. However, this depends critically on American willingness to accept (and European willingness to assume) regional leadership by the Europeans. If that willingness is absent, then the entire experiment with European security and defense, whether CSDP or a recalibrated NATO, will fail.

This recalibration of the CSDP-NATO relationship recalls the experiment with the European Security and Defence Identity (ESDI) of the mid-1990s. This was the initial attempt to square the circles of European military incapacity, American political disengagement and actual regional turbulence during the Balkan crises. But there is one huge difference. ESDI was predicated on American leadership of an alliance in which Europeans would play a more functional role. It was informed by Washington-imposed conditionality (Albright’s "3 Ds"). The U.S. would retain a "right of first refusal." In the present proposal, the Europeans will be encouraged to take over leadership in order to allow the Americans to disengage properly. It is the direct opposite of ESDI. 

This is not an exercise in institutional tinkering. It is the most effective way in which Europe as a consequential security actor can actually emerge. The alternative, for Europeans, is to give up and simply submit to whatever a rapidly changing world delivers. That is no alternative, either for Europe or for the U.S.

Jolyon Howorth is Jean Monnet professor of European politics and emeritus professor of European studies at the University of Bath (UK).