WITH luck, Belgian ears were burning on July 15th, when Barack Obama set out his transatlantic vision. Speaking just before a foreign jaunt that was to take in Berlin, Paris and London as well as the Middle East, Europe’s favourite for the White House said it was “time to strengthen NATO, by asking more of our allies.” The Democratic candidate added that he would send American reinforcements to Afghanistan, but use them as leverage to demand extra help from allies, with fewer restrictions.
Mr Obama’s message was aimed precisely at countries like Belgium, a small but rich place with almost 40,000 men and women in its armed forces. Only 1,103 Belgian troops are deployed overseas. The largest contingent is with NATO in Afghanistan, guarding Kabul airport. But fearing casualties, the Belgian government has ruled that its troops may not leave the airfield. Another group serves with the United Nations in Lebanon, clearing mines and running a field hospital. Its deployment in 2006 sparked a squabble among Belgium’s military trade unions over how dangerous the Lebanese mission might be. A few Belgians also serve in the EU mission in Chad: some 75 soldiers are busily building and repairing EU camps there.
Belgium may be an extreme example of Euro-timidity. But Germany also keeps its soldiers well away from Afghan regions with heavy fighting. Spain has some 150,000 men and women in its armed forces. Yet its Socialist government has ruled that no more than 3,000 Spanish troops may serve overseas at any one time (to avoid overstretch, it says). And so it goes on.
Both Mr Obama and his Republican rival, John McCain, say that they will pay more heed to allies who have felt snubbed these past seven years by George Bush. That sounds like an answer to European demands to be given a bigger role around the world. Unless, of course, those demands are not serious—in which case, the next American president may just be about to call Europe’s bluff.
A decade has passed since the launch of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), which was meant to combine Europe’s civilian and political “soft power” with the cold steel of military “hard power”. Endless targets have been set over those years, missed, and duly forgotten or rewritten. It is, for example, bad form to ask about the 60,000-strong EU “rapid reaction force”, promised by 2003 but not seen since. A new, rather brutal report for the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, out next week, assesses the first ten years of ESDP. Its author, Nick Witney, recently retired as head of the European Defence Agency. He comes to two big conclusions.
The first is that money is not the main problem for European defence. In 2006 EU countries accounted for almost a quarter of world defence spending. Yet too many, says Mr Witney, spend “massive sums on irrelevance”. Several devote more than three-quarters of their defence budgets to personnel costs: maintaining armies of greying, pot-bellied dentists, cooks and clerks in khaki, rather than investing in expeditionary troops. An astonishing 70% of Europe’s land forces are deemed unable to operate outside their national territory (it is a “mystery” how they fill their days, says Mr Witney). And though some EU countries are willing to shoulder burdens (Estonia, the Netherlands, Sweden and Poland are among the toughies), most have the wrong weapons for global operations. Drones and helicopters are in short supply. Finland, with its memory of war with the Soviet Union, has the largest artillery force in Europe. With its eye on its Turkish neighbour, Greece boasts more tanks than any other EU country.
Second, Mr Witney concludes that for much of the past decade, George Bush has provided a marvellous excuse for Europeans reluctant to change the status quo. The excuse has worked equally for Bush-haters and for pro-Atlanticists. It has been easier for many EU countries to drag their feet over the NATO effort in Afghanistan, for example, because so many voters see the fight against the Taliban as just another misguided episode in Mr Bush’s war on terror.
In support of NATO
It has also seemed logical for staunch Atlantic allies such as Britain to resist calls for EU-flagged defence projects if they seem to be aimed at undermining NATO as the preferred forum for international military action. (This was the case in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, when European opponents pushed for a more visible ESDP.) But America has changed its view. Senior American officials have been signalling greater willingness to embrace EU-flagged defence—seeing it as a price worth paying to get Europeans to take a bigger share of the West’s defence burden.
France wants European defence to be a centrepiece of its current EU presidency, and has even promised to rejoin NATO’s military structure to reconcile America (and Britain) to the idea of more European military co-operation. Yet French defence types are “despondent” about the British reaction, says Mr Witney. Britain’s defence establishment is busy in other wars and also fretful that the EU is planning wasteful duplication of things NATO now does (though the foreign secretary, David Miliband, recently said that Europe cannot always wait for NATO or America when military action is needed). British scepticism is a serious problem. Only two-and-a-half EU countries are serious expeditionary powers, which could make an independent ESDP really work: France, Britain and (the half) Germany.
Yet nobody should imagine that the European status quo on defence can last forever. Whoever wins the White House in November, the “George Bush” excuse for inaction is about to vanish. Europe will be asked to take its proper place in the new global order—whether it does it under a NATO or an EU flag. And when that happens, Europe’s present feeble military capability is going to look not just embarrassing, but indefensible.