Anyone trying to sound weighty about European defence has to recite a set of traditional mantras. The speaker ritually mocks Europeans as naive vegetarians who need to understand that they live in a carnivorous world where the US won’t defend them any more.
These mantras are being aired again after Europe’s latest military humiliations. First the US withdrew from Afghanistan without bothering to forewarn its allies. Then Australia cancelled an order of French submarines and struck the Aukus defence pact with its anglophone chums. “The need for more European defence has never been as much evident,” says Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs representative. “Europe has a unique opportunity to affirm itself as a power on the strategic plane,” says France’s defence minister Florence Parly. The EU’s Strategic Compass document next year will formalise this pugnacious language into a sort of military rosary.
Happily, most of this is just talk: Europe won’t become a military power. What’s more, it shouldn’t. A stronger military would do us more harm than good.
Only one of the EU’s 27 member states, France, has much military ambition, though it has considerably more national pride plus a defence industry. Europe’s other semi-serious military power, the UK, has a theological aversion to allying with the EU over anything. Meanwhile, Germany remains practically a bystander. If it spent 2 per cent of its national income on defence, which it wouldn’t, it would soon have Europe’s strongest army, which nobody wants. The bigger question, though, is what would a big European military be for?
The main point of a military should be to deter attacks. Even after the global decline in interstate wars, Europe still faces one credible military threat: a Russian invasion of the Baltics. In recent years, ignored by most Europeans, Russia and Nato have turned the region into the continent’s new militarised frontline, the equivalent of Germany in the cold war. If Russia invaded, its troops would reach the outskirts of Tallinn and Riga within 60 hours, predicted the Rand Corporation in 2016. That’s nothing new: Moscow has been able to invade eastern European countries unopposed by western nations since 1944. In a long war, Nato’s superior forces should prevail, unless they spark nuclear apocalypse first.
But would the US, UK, France and Germany really fight a nuclear-armed adversary in a region where they have no existential interests? Vladimir Putin didn’t invade the Baltics even when his sidekick Donald Trump enabled him, but if he did, he might well like the idea of western forces getting bogged down there for years.
Robert Kagan famously wrote that Europe doesn’t have a hammer so it doesn’t want anything to look like a nail. In fact, though, Europe’s weakness has helped defuse tensions. Imagine how the world looks from Moscow or Beijing, says Dan Plesch of London’s Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy: they see an almighty US military abetted by hostile little neighbours snapping at their heels. When Russia scans Europe and sees (at the risk of overdoing the phallic metaphor) a rusty hammer hanging in the cobwebbed shed, that’s relaxing. The cliché goes that the cold war ended with barely a shot being fired. More precisely, it ended because barely a shot was fired. A western attack could have entrenched Soviet military power. Today, the hawk dream of deterring Russia by sending many more western troops to the Baltics could prompt terrifying escalation.
Europe’s other big risk is from terrorism. But the west has just run a 20-year experiment in two ways of fighting terrorists, and policing and cybersurveillance have outperformed forever wars.
Max Bergmann of the Center for American Progress writes about Afghanistan: “If European leaders had the ability to act autonomously and had offered to take over the support mission, the US would have been thrilled.” It’s a sentence you want to read twice: why would Europe take over America’s policy of disastrous foreign interventions? Neither Europe’s attempt in Libya in 2011 nor France’s eight-year mission in the Sahel has gone well. Now France is eyeing the Indo-Pacific, pointing out that it has more than 1.6 million people in its overseas possessions there. But other Indo-Pacific countries have billions.
Instead of acquiring a hammer, Europe should use its more sophisticated toolbox of sanctions, diplomacy, aid and arms negotiations. Admittedly, soft power doesn’t work very well. But judging by the US’s military record since 1950, it works better than hammers and kills fewer people.
Ana Palacio, Spain’s former foreign minister, says Europe can only become a “foreign-policy heavyweight” by “diverting resources away from its cherished welfare state”. Yet if our aim is to save lives, Covid-19 reminds us that we’re better off expanding our cherished welfare state. Americans have worked this out, too. Most of them now seem to want to emulate Europe and become a quiet suburb of geopolitics.
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