Hard truths about Europe's soft power

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Nick Witney
Nick Witney

Senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Former chief executive of the European Defence Agency

In the run-up to last December’s EU summit on defence, Britain’s top general publicly warned that the UK risks being left with “hollowed out” armed forces. He said too little of the much-reduced British defence budget is being spent on personnel, too much on “exquisite” equipment bought for the wrong reasons. “We must be careful” he commented “that the defence budget is not disproportionately used to support the British defence industry.”

We in Britain have of course heard of that sort of thing happening on the Continent. Spanish and Italian defence programmes, for example, have long been significantly funded, and therefore shaped, by industry and technology ministries. But in the UK we have always prided ourselves on being rather more serious about defence, believing that every pound of our national defence budget is spent simply and solely to achieve maximum ‘bang for the buck’. So General Sir Nick Houghton’s ruminations were unsettling.

The U.S. ‘pivots to Asia’, but Europeans refuse to view the other side of the globe as more than an enormous market

We Britons are also keen to dissociate ourselves from the prevalent European cast of mind that a U.S. Defense Secretary identified in 2010 as one of “demilitarisation”. But here again, General Houghton’s remarks were disquieting, as he mused about risk-aversion in wider society and how this could affect the British armed forces’ “courageous instinct”. It was certainly a shock when last summer the British Parliament voted against a government plan to bomb Syria. And though the UK cannot, given its euroscepticism, be expected to throw its troops into EU operations, it still felt a bit odd to watch the French sending military units first to Mali, and then the Central African Republic, whilst British soldiers sat at home. Can it be that the spores of German pacifism are floating across the North Sea, like so much Dutch Elm disease?

So Britain, it seems, is not that different from almost everyone else in Europe in having rather lost its way on defence. The transition from ‘keeping the Soviet Union at bay’ to ‘contributing to global security and tackling new threats at source’, as set out in the EU’s 2003 European Security Strategy, was easy enough. But after Iraq and Afghanistan, the ‘liberal interventionism’ rationale for our armed forces no longer works. Russian re-armament (and Vladimir Putin’s belligerence) hardly provide a satisfying alternative narrative, given the continuing one-to-three disparity between Russian defence spending and that of the EU states taken together, and the derelict state into which Russia’s military has fallen over two decades of neglect. So just what, the question nags with increasing insistence, are European armed forces actually for?

Not that EU national leaders, tackling defence for the first time in five years at last December’s European Council meeting, betrayed much uncertainty. “Defence matters” they insisted in the opening lines of their Conclusions. But beyond pro forma references to the “security of European citizens” and the need for the EU and member states to “exercise greater responsibilities… if they want to contribute to maintaining peace and security”, no clues were offered as to why it matters.

This is not a trivial point, in light of all the evidence (unused battlegroups, under-staffed training missions, unaddressed capability gaps) that most of the EU’s member states really don’t much want to contribute to maintaining peace and security – or even to maintaining effective armed forces. Using the defence budget to support industrial or regional jobs, or straightforwardly political rather than military objectives seems increasingly to be the European norm.

We in Europe may be post-modern, but the rest of the world is not – including all those ‘swing voters’ whose preferences will determine which of the new contenders for global leadership carries most weight

The temptation to misapply defence budgets in these ways is understandable, especially in the midst of recession. But it cannot be healthy in democracies to assert one thing and practice another; and such oblique methods of funding economic objectives are unlikely to be the most efficient. Implicit in this behaviour, moreover, is a set of assumptions about the world around us, and our position in it, which when unpacked should give us pause. This general European lack of seriousness about defence pre-supposes that we can rest easy in the apparent absence of military threat for the foreseeable future. It further pre-supposes either that the notions of European ‘power and influence’ on the global stage are irrelevant/distasteful/outdated, or that in the modern age effective armed forces have no part to play in maintaining such power.

None of this looks safe. Time and again, as when we have found ourselves astonished by invasions of the Falkland Islands or Kuwait, or by the Arab Spring, we discover that the ‘foreseeable future’ can amount to as little as a few days. Worse, an attitude of ‘no threats, so no defence needed’ overlooks the vital deterrent purpose of armed forces. Threats are not like weather events – they are backed by human calculation (something we almost wilfully obscure by broadening our concept of ‘security’ to include pandemics and climate change). And human calculation is crucially affected by perceptions of the other party’s will to resist, or at any rate stand up to bullying. In short, an evident lack of seriousness about defence risks turning the potential threat into actuality.

As for European aspirations to be a ‘global player’, proactively promoting our interests and distinctive values, the economic crisis has inevitably done great damage. Witness the mercantilisation of our diplomacy, with Europe’s national leaders jostling in Beijing and the Gulf for investment and export orders. The U.S. ‘pivots to Asia’, but Europeans refuse to view the other side of the globe as more than an enormous market. Germany sells arms as though they were nothing but expensive machine tools; British Conservatives evoke Singapore as the model of their national ambition. Yet even ‘realists’ should reflect that simply ceding global leadership to hungrier and more determined new powers is no way, ultimately, to achieve even the most basic aim of enabling our children to make a living – that Europe’s continuing prosperity depends on a continuing ability to demand that trade be fair as well as free, to maintain access to raw materials, and to insist on minimum environmental and social standards in global economic activity.

European leaders have had their heads in the sand about this for too long, too ready to hide behind the 2003 Strategy – a triumph in its day, but now the product of a bygone era

So power and influence in the wider world are vital if we are adequately to protect our interests, never mind promoting our values, at a time when most of the rest of the world seems more interested in the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism than in any Western norms. The democracies amongst the new powers may be somewhat more concerned for human rights: but Brazil and India as much as China evince a ‘neo-Westphalian’ view of international affairs, focussing on national sovereignty and non-interference rather than on any ‘rules-based world’.

Which of course is a big part of why military power has an essential part to play if Europe is not to find itself shunted to the margins of global affairs. We in Europe may be post-modern, but the rest of the world is not – including all those ‘swing voters’ whose preferences will determine which of the new contenders for global leadership carries most weight. Across the Middle East, through Africa, to East and South-East Asia, national leaders are either military men, or at least preoccupied on a day-to-day basis with military issues which may well be matters of government or even state survival. They want arms, and they also want training, and advice, and intelligence, and the reassurance that can come from working with partners who understand military affairs, and who will from time to time demonstrate their military reach and presence.

This is not a matter of sending gun-boats, or subscribing to Frederick the Great’s dictum that ‘diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments’. It is a matter of understanding that effective armed forces can and should have a role to play, not just in ‘countering threats’ but as instruments of state-craft. European leaders have had their heads in the sand about this for too long, too ready to hide behind the 2003 Strategy – a triumph in its day, but now the product of a bygone era. It is high time for a first-principles European re-evaluation of how the world has changed, and will continue to change (demographic projections, for example, are both dependable and worrying for Europeans), and to flush out those old assumptions guiding Europe’s foreign policy which no longer hold true. A glance at Europe’s own neighbourhood is enough to explode the notion that ‘soft power’ is all it takes. And what policy should we now substitute for the happy but evaporated hope that new powers could be house-trained to become ‘responsible stakeholders’ in an international system designed by the West?

To the credit of the European Council’s president, Herman Van Rompuy, last December’s defence discussion opened the door to this sort of debate when national leaders agreed to ‘assess the impact of changes in the global environment’ and to consider ‘the challenges and opportunities arising for the Union’. It is to be hoped that later this year the successor to Catherine Ashton will choose to exploit this opening to the full. Without a fundamental rethink of Europe’s external strategy it will not just be Europe’s armed forces that can expect to be hollowed out, but Europe’s interests and values too.

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