BERLIN — When two soldiers fell in the first hours of the French military operation that began last week in the Central African Republic, President Francois Hollande declared, “Morts pour la France.”
Yes, killed for their country. But the young soldiers also lost their lives fighting for Europe, even if Europe has hardly shown a united front when it comes to foreign policy. On the military front, as much as ever, it’s each country for itself.
In 2011, Germany restricted itself to simply looking on and commenting as the situation in Libya unfolded, while its European partners looked to the United States for everything from transport planes to smart weaponry.
It is time for Europe to develop a united security and defense policy that is capable of more than words. Throughout the late 20th century, the Soviet Union dictated the West’s organizational structures. When the communist regime collapsed, it left Western defense systems unsure of themselves, with NATO expanded steadily since 1990 – but not strengthened. Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, preoccupied with its own poverty, stepped back from the world stage. But Vladimir Putin’s Russia — a raw materials giant and still a nuclear superpower — has not reconciled itself to its new status.
There has been no shortage of warning signs for Europe: The strategic landscape is changing, the U.S. is overreaching in its role as protector and center of the global economy, and wealth and danger are shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Now the message from Washington is that the American Atlas can no longer bear the weight of the world.
During his speech in Brussels two years ago, outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates bluntly criticized Europe’s culture of demilitarization, cuts to defense budgets and refusal to embrace “smart defense” — that is, joint research, development and standardization.
In a post-Cold War world, there is an even greater need for security. And Americans are now looking at their European allies who understand preventive crisis management to act when the time calls. The European dream of peace through trade and the American dream of peace through democracy are both confronted by a stubborn reality full of unpleasant surprises.
The world is still a dangerous place
Europeans need to learn that the history of conflict did not end in 1990 and that the protective power of the U.S. has its limits. New frontiers are springing up, from climate change to mass migrations and cyber space, and European “soft power” is not enough to meet these challenges. When it comes to hard power, Europe has consistently failed to deliver on its promises. From the Middle East to the East China Sea, the world is still a dangerous place.
The 28 national leaders of the EU came together for last week’s EU Summit amid difficult times, and it will not be easy to reconcile their different strategic viewpoints, capabilities, interests and traditions. France and Britain are considerable military powers with impressive nuclear weapons arsenals and military facilities across the world. The French have outposts from Dubai on the Persian Gulf and Djibouti in the Red Sea to Senegal, while Britain’s interests stretch from the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic across Germany, intelligence branches in Cyprus and fleets in the Persian Gulf to Afghanistan. But shrinking budgets and investments are faced with ever-growing, complex challenges such as cyber defense.
Europe’s leader in economic policy, Germany, prefers to exercise restraint in military matters. In Mali and Somalia, it went down the soft power route and offered only training. Afghanistan was certainly a brutal lesson about the consequences of military intervention, and it has left many Western powers reluctant to get involved in foreign conflicts.
The United States is overstretched and cannot extricate itself from the Middle East, while in the Far East there is a growing need to establish counterbalances, whether political or military. The red dragon is flexing its muscles and intimidating its neighbors in a region where global influence is shifting. China’s time has begun.
So what of Europe and its defense? It has not been top priority while the German coalition negotiations distracted Europe’s leading power. Now discussions remain tentative, but it is clear that the European External Action Service and the armaments agency are not a sufficient answer to the problem of international security. Governments are more focused on saving jobs than arming soldiers, but soon Europe will have to finally fill the gap the United States is leaving on the world stage.