Commentary

The Continent without a Military

Europe once was a military power—many military powers, in fact. But no longer. Today Europe is turning into a continent without a military.

In January Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO secretary general, lauded France for taking “decisive action” in Mali. Of course, Paris is likely to find that it is easier to disperse jihadist rebels than reestablish a stable state.

At the same time Rasmussen noted Europe’s gradual disarmament. The other European states have offered little help, prompting Arnaud Danjean, a French member of the European Parliament, to complain that “Europe cannot always give responsibility to one member state.”

His sentiment was echoed by Nick Witney, who once headed the European Defense Agency, who argued that the European Union “is paralyzed, seemingly unable to do more than offer rhetorical support to France and the individual member states that are chipping in with logistical assistance.” So Paris, naturally, has turned to America.

The United States no longer needs to guarantee the security of prosperous and populous friends in Europe or elsewhere.”

Alas, Rasmussen’s efforts to strengthen the European alliance so far have had little effect. Over the last five years, as noted by Stars and Stripes, “Cuts by countries as large as Germany and as small as Latvia have resulted in program cancellations, changed equipment orders and, in the case of Britain, a plan to mothball a new aircraft carrier.” Clara M. O’Donnell, a European scholar with the Brookings Institution, explained that “what we’re seeing is basically cuts in capability and little thought on what to replace them with.”

Libya was the Europeans’ war, yet they punched far below their weight. As Con Coughlin observed last month in the Daily Telegraph, in Libya “shortages of fundamental equipment, such as air-to-air refueling tankers, cruise missiles and ships, meant that the European military effort found itself at a distinct disadvantage the moment American firepower was no longer available.”

Nevertheless, NATO officials like Rasmussen count Libya a success. A year ago he contended: “If we are to respond to the challenges of tomorrow just as effectively [as in Libya], more allies should make sure they obtain and maintain those kinds of critical capabilities.” But the latest report acknowledged that the gap in military capabilities is widening among the European NATO members and between Europe and America.

Last month Rasmussen declared that “There is a lower limit on how little we can spend on defense.” But NATO members don’t seem to agree. In 2006 the NATO members promised to spend two percent of GDP on the military. Yet today the Europeans collectively spend 1.6 percent of GDP on defense, an astonishing one-third of America’s 4.8 percent.

Only Britain and Greece have joined America at above 2 percent, and Greece does so more to confront fellow NATO member Turkey than to assist Europe. Italy and Spain are devoting less than 1 percent to their militaries.

The alliance members also pledged to devote a fifth of military outlays to procurement. Just five of twenty-eight members do so. Jonathan Eyal of London’s Royal United Services Institute confirms this trend: “Almost every single initiative adopted by the alliance, to put it kindly, has not met with success.”

Rasmussen has launched a “smart defense” initiative, which he recently said “is the way forward for allies to develop and acquire critical capabilities.” However, multinational cooperation can succeed only if the Europeans do something. So far, figures O’Donnell, “smart defense” initiatives have saved less than 1 percent of the spending cuts imposed since 2008.

Some European states are essentially disarming. As Rasmussen explained, “Defense spending among the allies is increasingly uneven, not just between North America and Europe, but also among European allies.” All the Europeans save Britain, France, and Germany account for just 7.5 percent of NATO’s expenditures. Danjean declared that “Europe is giving up in terms of defense.”

No amount of whining by Washington will change this reality. There is no political will to increase outlays. And despite the Europeans’ unwillingness to fulfill their alliance responsibilities, some of them have criticized the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia. Panetta claimed that “Europe should not fear our rebalance to Asia; Europe should join it.” But the likelihood of the Europeans deploying military personnel in Asia is about as likely as the Europeans conquering Mars.

The Europeans rightly fear that the “pivot” will shift U.S. military resources from Europe. Yet there is no compelling reason why Washington should continue to protect the populous and prosperous continent from largely phantom threats.

The latest example of America defending a NATO member able to secure its own interests is the deployment of Patriot missiles backed by American personnel to Turkey. The Syrian civil war has spilled over the border, but Ankara has backed the opposition and aided rebel fighters. In any case, an attack on Turkey by the beleaguered Assad regime would be military suicide.

Even more disturbing is Europe’s assumption that America should fight the continent’s wars elsewhere. Philip Stephens observed in the Financial Times that “Europeans have caught the interventionist bug just as the U.S. has shaken it off. The French and the British led the war to depose Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. They are in the vanguard of calls for intervention in Syria.” And the French charged into Mali.

Yet the Europeans want to wage war without having to purchase weapons or train personnel to wield them. Francois Hollande is posing as Napoleon Bonaparte reincarnated, receiving a hero’s welcome in newly liberated Mali. Yet France could not prosecute this war by itself. Nor have most European members of NATO done much to help.

Rather, wrote Stephens, “the war has since been sustained by the United States: alongside heavy-life and tankers,Washington is providing almost all of the ‘ISR’—intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—that the French need to track and engage Islamist militants. And, no, it is not charging. French and British claims of ‘full spectrum’ military capability are pretty threadbare.” Not only is Washington not sending an invoice for its services, but the Obama administration approved spending $50 million from the U.S. defense budget to aid France.

Nevertheless, this administration is not happy with European fecklessness. But then, no American president has been pleased by Europeans who for years wanted to constrain U.S. power while relying on it for their own defense. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates rebuked such behavior before leaving office. His successor, Leon Panetta, made similar criticisms mixed with a little more praise.

Yet his call “to invest in this alliance to ensure it remains relevant to the security challenges of the future” has gone for naught. Unfortunately, U.S. policy actively discourages European “investment.” So long as Washington is willing to underwrite not only Europe’s defense, but also its adventures elsewhere, there is little pressure on any European nation to devote serious resources to its military.

British defense minister Philip Hammond has defended America’s strategic shift as recognizing “the emergence of China as a global power” and called upon the European states “to do much more of the heavy lifting in the security of their own region.” He even spoke of the U.S. acting in Asia “on behalf of the alliance.” However, NATO is doing nothing to support America there.

Moreover, Hammond expects the U.S. to remain active in Europe, sharing responsibilities, duties, and costs. Europe will do “much more of the heavy lifting”—which, truth be told, wouldn’t be hard, given its current disappointing efforts. But Washington’s aid would still be required, even while confronting a potential peer competitor on the other side of the world.

True, Hammond pledged that “we will seek to work more closely with our neighbors in Europe, particularly France and Germany, to enhance the capabilities of our own region.” But we see no renaissance of European defense capabilities. Indeed, why should European peoples see the need for anything more than a symbolic national honor guard?

Except for the former Soviet republics bordering Russia, the Europeans face no serious conventional military threat. Claims that an Afghanistan or a Mali endanger the continent fare little better. Noted Christian Moelling with the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik: “At a time of significant financial hardship, some may raise difficult questions about the legitimacy of such militaries, and others might even begin to question the merit of having armed forces at all.”

Yet Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum recently waxed eloquent about Europe acting as a “superpower” to fill the vacuum left by a retreating America. Perhaps “the European Union could become the world’s policeman,” she mused, despite the evident obstacles which she detailed.

The only way to get the Europeans to do so is to tell them that they have no choice but to do more. The Yanks simply aren’t coming.

“A decade of war is now ending,” declared President Obama last month. The Europeans seem appalled. Libya, Mali, Syria, Iran: so many wars and potential wars, so little time. Where are the Americans when they need us?

The United States no longer needs to guarantee the security of prosperous and populous friends in Europe or elsewhere. Washington should tell the Europeans that they have graduated from America’s defense umbrella. It is time for them to formulate their own foreign policy and create the force structure necessary to back it up.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.