Europe’s Empty Promises

Europe has long dreamed of exerting international influence by sending state-building specialists to conflict zones. Unfortunately, most of these guarantees have come to naught.


American frustration with Europe’s dwindling military capabilities is reaching new heights, as was clear in a speech by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the National Defense University on Tuesday. Gates charged that Europe’s aversion to military action constituted "an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st [century]."

Frustration with Europe’s aversion to the use of force, combined with European leaders’ arguments for civilian solutions to today’s security challenges, has generated hope that these allies might compensate for military weakness by contributing civilian experts to the war effort. In previous remarks, Gates called for precisely this, noting that an increase in specialists focused on issues of governance, police training, and counternarcotics, "may be easier for our allies … than significant troop increases."

Encouraging allied civilian contributions to nation-building in Afghanistan and elsewhere is a good idea. But, if the past is precedent, Gates shouldn’t hold his breath waiting for those civilians to arrive.

Civilian work is now widely recognized as an essential ingredient in addressing security challenges around the world. Weak states need people who know how to investigate a murder, run a prison system, collect customs and other taxes, and generally keep a state bureaucracy up and running. There is little point in pacifying a country militarily if its infrastructure, courts, fiscal controls, and health systems are so feeble that chaos returns the moment the troops leave.

Europe seems particularly well-suited for this kind of work. Not only is the European Union the gravitational center of Europe’s foreign economic power, Europe is home to some of the most skilled legal, administrative, and law enforcement experts in the world.

Unfortunately, the European Union is failing to live up to its potential. Unless it expands its efforts by taking on more ambitious projects, with larger staff and bigger budgets, the age-old dream of transforming the EU into a civilian power will falter, just as its military prowess continues to decline. NATO — and the mission in Afghanistan — will suffer along with it. In its first five years of existence, the EU sent civilian experts to 13 war-torn countries. This sounds impressive, but the vast majority of these missions had fewer than 80 staff members, and most lasted less than a year. Some had little or no impact on the ground.

Police forces are one of the most critical components of these civilian operations. In theory, European states have committed close to 6,000 police to joint EU missions in conflict zones. In reality, however, fewer than 1,800 are now deployed, and the EU has struggled to come up with even half of the 400 staff authorized to conduct police training in Afghanistan, a widely recognized failure.

Europe’s dismal record makes one hesitate at Germany’s current offer to increase its number of police trainers in Afghanistan from 280 to 1,400. If true, it would represent a surprising, if welcome, break from the past. But Europe has given the United States ample reason to be skeptical that promised increases in civilian experts will ever materialize.

To be sure, deploying civilians is tougher than many realize, and the U.S. record is also far from perfect, as European officials will naturally point out when criticized on their own staffing shortfalls.   Still, the EU needs to undertake more ambitious tasks and be more scrupulous about living up to its own commitments.

It should begin by establishing a standing body of civilian experts who would be stationed and train together on a permanent basis. This corps could be similar to that planned by the United States, which will include 250 staff ready for deployment on 72 hours’ notice and 4,000 staff ready to deploy within 30 to 60 days. In the short term, Europe should make more widespread use of contractors to alleviate its staffing problems in Afghanistan.

The success of the European civilian mission in Kosovo provides a glimpse into the potential of Europe’s civilian capabilities and gives some glimmer of hope for the future of its effort in Afghanistan and elsewhere. With 1,700 staff, the Kosovo mission is not only much larger by far than any other EU mission, but it has also managed to effectively combine law enforcement and administrative functions in a single coordinated approach, despite Europe’s divisions over Kosovo’s independence.

Developing the European Union’s civilian power should not become a substitute for bolstering allied military capabilities. But the European Union can play a vital role in international affairs by nurturing the institutional structures, know-how, and cultural attitudes that underpin stable regimes and helping millions of people around the world recover from the chaos of war. Only then will the old dream of Europe as a civilian power come true.

Christopher S. Chivvis is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of the forthcoming Toppling Qaddafi, a book on last year's NATO intervention in Libya.