A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Daydream Believers

Assertive rhetoric about European security autonomy rings hollow.

Since the US election, some European policy-makers have been talking about going it alone when it comes to ensuring their own security and deterring Russia, particularly if President-elect Donald Trump follows through with military disengagement. Who are they kidding?


© REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

“When a man knows he is to be hanged … it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Samuel Johnson’s famous quip seems to apply very well to Europe at the moment. The continent is still grappling with the shock waves from the US election. President-elect Donald Trump may have toned down his campaign trail rhetoric, but many Europeans are worried about the US disengaging from world affairs, including from Europe. Such a prospect would indeed be ample reason for Europeans to concentrate their minds.

Alas, such concentration is nowhere in sight. Quite the contrary. Instead of reflection, some have chosen to panic: The vision of a Europe unified on security and defense has suddenly re-emerged. European nations – some of which aren’t even close to the NATO-agreed goal of spending two percent of GDP on defense – are suddenly embracing bold defense schemes that would involve spending far more than they would ever be willing or even able to deliver. But what a scheme it is: A new, defense-minded Europe would finally be able to look after its own backyard. Some observers have even suggested that a stronger Europe could keep an assertive Russia in check. Take that, Donald!

Sadly, the old continent is merely shooting from the hip replacement. The reflex of pushing military initiatives in order to jump-start a stagnating European integration process has never worked in the past, and it’s not likely to do so now. If the EU cannot make progress on far simpler issues, it is even less likely to do so in the area of security and defense, where considerations of national sovereignty and status (as well as defense-industrial protectionism) run deep. For decades, most EU aficionados have agreed that security and defense can only ever be among the very final steps of the European integration process. Trying to reverse that sequence in the face of US disengagement will fail, for a variety of reasons.

No “Strategic Culture”

First, there is no European “strategic culture,” and the prospects of it emerging now remain as dim as ever. Europe remains a conglomerate of nation states of different sizes, cultures, historical experiences and geographic outlooks. “Brexit” and the return of populism are only the most visible signs of the bloc’s limitations: it has never forged a unified vision of the continent’s ultimate shape and future. US leadership in NATO ensured that these differences didn’t matter much when it came to security and defense. Exit the US, however, and these differences will quickly come to the fore. The fear of being left defenseless will not force the Europeans towards more unity on security and defense, but rather to make separate deals with the United States.

Second, military realities are conveniently ignored. Europe is capable of smaller-scale military interventions along the continent’s periphery, but even the intervention in Libya in 2011 would not have been possible without the US suppressing Libyan air defenses and supplying the Europeans with ammunition (which they had run out of after just a few days). In theory, Europe could buy everything it needs for such operations. In practice, however, it won’t. The bill for a genuine satellite network, a fleet of transport aircraft, advanced cruise missiles and more would force European nations to at least double their defense budgets. Given the risks and costs of intervening without the US, Europeans will be more hesitant than when they had Uncle Sam on their team.

Third, the nuclear dimension remains conspicuously absent in the debate. Many proponents of a stronger European effort in security and defense are making the case for a conventional force strong enough to deter Russia. But they seem to overlook that Russia is a nuclear power and can therefore trump whatever conventional improvements the Europeans might be able to muster. With the United Kingdom “Brexiting”, the EU (unlike NATO) cannot count on London’s nuclear support. France would never let an EU body decide over the “force de frappe.” And EU members Austria and Ireland have championed a global ban on nuclear weapons that is fiercely opposed by the nuclear powers and other NATO members. In short, a European nuclear deterrent is a myth; Europe’s only credible nuclear umbrella remains the one “made in the USA.”

Fourth, the debate also ignores the political and legal obstacles that stand in the way of a more unified security and defense. For example, the oft-repeated argument that harmonizing armaments planning and procurement could avoid wasteful duplication is as correct as it is irrelevant. The larger European nations do not plan their defense in such a way; when it comes to key military areas, they don’t want to be dependent upon the agreement of their smaller neighbors. On closer inspection, even seemingly successful examples of “streamlining” are the result of budgetary constraints, not of deliberate planning. And in several EU member states, the national parliaments have a crucial say in the decision to employ military force – a privilege they are not likely to surrender to a collective EU body.

Rendezvous with Reality

Finally, the US will not relinquish its global role. Like all US administrations before it, the new Trump administration will soon have its own rendezvous with reality, be it regarding Russia, China, or the Middle East. The challenges emanating from there will not allow the US to slash ties with its European and Asian allies. Clearly, US concerns about unfair transatlantic burden-sharing are legitimate, and a new Trump administration will not mince its words when it comes to criticizing Europe for its “burden-shedding.” It is here where Europe must demonstrate that it is serious, both by visibly increasing defense budgets as well as acting side-by-side with the US in risky military contingencies, such as the fight against the so-called Islamic State. Self-assertive rhetoric about a European defense “autonomy” that Europe can neither sustain politically, militarily or financially, rings hollow. A troubled European project needs realism, not delusions.

N.B. The author writes in a personal capacity.