Europe’s military might
Let’s begin with “hard” military power. While Europe’s ability to project coercive force to compel others to acquiesce to political demands does not match that of the United States, it is more active and capable than any other global power. The oft-repeated phrase that “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus” is a great sound bite but a misleading policy analysis.
The conventional starting point for measuring military capability is the money each country spends on defense. On this score, the United States, which accounts for more than 40 percent of global military spending, heads the list. After that, most analysts list China, with the second-highest national spending and more than 2 million active duty soldiers, followed by Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, India, Japan, France, Germany, and South Korea.
Here again the failure to aggregate Europe clouds our geopolitical vision. If we unify European military activities, it comes in second. European military spending accounts for 15 to 16 percent of the global total. China runs third, with under 10 percent, and Russia spends less than 7 percent, less than half as much as Europe.
At current growth rates, China’s annual military spending (or perhaps that of other rising powers) will not surpass that of Europe for at least a few decades, and the United States for one or two generations — even on the optimistic assumption that Chinese growth continues.
To be sure, this isn’t quite a one-to-one comparison, since Europe’s militaries make their spending decisions separately. Some inefficiencies result when, say, France and Italy separately purchase and maintain their own aircraft carriers. Yet studies suggest that efficiency losses due to decentralized production and procurement — a problem that also bedevils the United States and China, with their domestic interservice rivalries and political pork-barreling — is much smaller than one might think. The most promising area for reform (consolidation of national defense industries) generates no more than 7 percent (about 14 billion euros) savings. This is real money, but too small a number to significantly alter Europe’s relative international standing. Moreover, the “bang for the buck” of the weapons Europe procures remains competitive, as evidenced by the fact that it consistently ranks as the world’s No. 1 arms exporter, outstripping even the United States and Russia.
Yet even Europe’s advantage in annual defense spending understates the entrenched military advantages that it (like the United States) enjoys over any rising power. Usable military capability is not a simple function of defense spending in a given year, but investment in stocks of defense technology, materiel, training, and experience sustained over generations. The average age of equipment in the U.S. military varies from 10 to 25 years, and the life cycle of a fighter like the F-18, introduced just after the Vietnam War, will be nearly a century.
For China to challenge Europe or the United States on an equal basis, Beijing would need to outspend the West not for one year, but for decades — something that delays the projected point where (at current trends) it would surpass the West close to the end of the 21st century. All scenarios whereby China (or another rising power) advances more quickly require increases in military spending of at least 15 percent per year. That in turn means that China must either triple its economic growth rate (unlikely) or increase military spending tenfold as a percentage of the gross domestic product (a strategy that, Chinese leaders are well aware, bankrupted the Soviet Union).
A final reason for Euro-optimism is that Europe maintains enduring alliances. The United States and Europe are irrevocably — yes, even in the age of President Donald Trump, as recent reassuring words to NATO partners by Vice President Mike Pence and cabinet officers demonstrate — allied with one another and with 28 other NATO countries. This bloc commands almost 60 percent of global military spending. Europe, like the United States, maintains security partnerships and bases across the globe, as well as close relations with dozens of countries around the world.
By contrast, Russia and China can call on few allies. Beijing offers modest military training and some assistance to Cambodia, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Syria, and a few African countries; maintains a security partnership with Pakistan; and has only one ally: North Korea.
These advantages are not just theoretical. European militaries actually do more in the world than those of any country except the United States. Only Europe and the United States have deployed tens of thousands of combat troops outside of home countries almost continuously since the end of the Cold War. During the past decade, European deployments have averaged 107,000 soldiers per year on land, plus a considerable naval presence. By contrast, China has deployed almost no combat soldiers abroad, and India has done so only within U.N. missions. Recent Russian activities have been limited to brief forays in neighboring parts of the former Soviet Union and air and naval support for its sole remaining Middle Eastern ally.
Europeans do not just participate; they lead. They have headed military operations in Macedonia, Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Somalia, and Mali. They have led naval operations off the Horn of Africa and in the Mediterranean. They have conducted support or monitoring missions in Sudan, South Sudan, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Indonesia, Iraq, Moldova, Kosovo, Georgia, Niger, the Palestinian territories, Ukraine, and the Baltic States. They have led U.N. missions, including in Lebanon. They have participated in a vital way to U.S.-led missions, including Iraq and Afghanistan. In the latter, more than 25 percent of the fatalities suffered by Western forces were Europeans from 23 countries. The world, and the burden on the United States, would be quite different without all this European activity.
Despite their powerful military, many claim that Europeans could do more in the world if only their governments would spend more on defense — perhaps the 2 percent of the GDP that NATO leaders promised a few years ago. Yet little evidence suggests that more men and materiel — or greater centralization in EU institutions — would generate much more or better European military activity. While Europe did suffer the indignity of asking the United States to resupply it in Libya, it is difficult to see why, as many argue, the Europeans should develop more military capacity across the board. The need for resupply did not affect the outcome of Libya, and it is unlikely to do so elsewhere either, since the United States and Europe have agreed on every military intervention but one since the early 1990s. (The second Iraq War was a lonely exception.) One is hard-pressed to think of any recent case in which a significant group of European states (let alone a majority) desired to launch a strong military or diplomatic mission, but failed to do so for lack of military might.