George Washington wrote, “A slender acquaintance with the world must convince every man that actions, not words, are the true criterion of the attachment of friends”.

As Leon Panetta takes over at the Pentagon the US military faces cuts unknown for a generation. A defence budget of $700 billion is unsustainable given the intensive care nature of America’s economy. But here’s the strategic crunch; America like Europe must balance strategy with austerity at what is arguably the biggest moment in global strategy since 1945. The world is no longer Euro-centric, it is world-centric, but only now as the mist that is Al Qaeda begins to dissipate can strategic futures begin to be glimpsed with any clarity.


Balances of power and spheres of influence are slowly re-forming and with them the progressive marginalisation of the grand institutions that were the stamped hallmarks of the Western liberal age. Beijing sees power and strategy in essentially and traditionally classical terms. So to a degree does Washington. Neither have as yet ‘benefitted’ from Europe’s post-modern view of itself and the world beyond. Europeans are too busy seeking the world they would like to deal effectively with the world that exists. And, like it or not it is America and China who will establish the rules of the twenty-first century power game, not Europe.

Thus, as Panetta takes high office China’s 2010 White Paper on China’s National Defence (CND10), published earlier this year, offers essentially more essential reading than the increasingly irrelevant and misnomered European Security Strategy and, dare I say it, the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept. Whilst China is unabashedly nationalist and strategic, both the European Onion and the Atlantic Alliance have become unashamedly astrategic. A gap between words and deeds now yawns. In that context how one organises the transatlantic relationship or indeed the Onion is beside the point – the re-organisation of the irrelevant by the incapable in pursuit of the unattainable.

The China Paper pulls no punches. The US is bracketed alongside terrorists and extremists as a ‘destabilising force’ in Asia. Particular concern is expressed about the reinforcement by the US of its military alliances in the Asia-Pacific region. China’s aim: an Asian strategic order that is China-led.

The crux of the strategic matters is thus; the nature and pace of China’s relative rise and America’s relative decline, allied to the political-strategic philosophies of both, means that on current trajectories a clash at some point in this century is probably almost inevitable. Europeans thus face the most profound of big choices – seek the continued protection of the United States and the price that will go with it, or cut free from America and thus re-define its relationship with the coming China.

If European leaders want to understand the relevance of the transatlantic relationship to Americans they too might read CND10. Indeed, the relationship between America and China will shape not only Europe’s place in the world, but the shape and the nature of its defence. And, the strategic choices Europeans will make over the coming decade and the structures that emerge from such choices will tip those very emergent balances now apparent. Let us at the very least hope said choices are indeed strategic in both scope and reach, for they will need to be.

The facts of strategic power are indeed stark. China’s White Paper under-estimates its defence spending by a factor of at least two, China claims a defence budget of $81.8 billion, which is probably closer to $200 billion and growing at around 4% per annum. At present US defence expenditure represents some 4.7% of gross domestic product, China’s defence expenditure some 2.2%, but is more likely nearer 3.5%. US defence expenditure is politically unsustainable, whilst China’s defence expenditure is sustainable and from Beijing’s perspective desirable.

The nature of the strategic choice open to Europeans is thus simple – balance China with America or balance China and America. Certainly, Europeans will not be afforded a strategic bolt-hole in which to hide. But there is a glimmer of an opportunity if European leaders are big enough to see it. Europeans can and must work tirelessly with America, China and others to mitigate the dangers of said balances of power, not least because of the damage done to Europe’s own history. And Europeans could clearly be in a position to play such a role if it has the strategic vision and leadership so to do.

However, such a role is dependent on a European grand strategy worthy of the name, either through a concert of European powers, or rather more implausibly through the increasingly unworldly European Onion. However, such a vision would also require big leaders, not least to overcome the self-defeating tension that exists between the Onion and the leading member-states on issues of strategy, the most fundamental of issues. Indeed, what the current crop of Euro-leaders clearly do not as yet realise is that the next decade is as big in strategic terms as that faced by Europe’s greats in the 1940s – Churchill, Monnet, Schuman, Spaak et al.

Thus, the strategic challenge for Americans and Europeans alike will not simply be to do more with less, but again to meet the challenge of greatness that is thrust upon us at a time when all the austerity–driven, post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan instincts are to retreat behind walls of rhetoric. To obsess over petty issues that divide and which providence will soon prove dangerously irrelevant.

The sad fact of our age is that neither the European Onion, nor NATO nor indeed the United Nations and its many diaspora are fit for the coming age. It is strategic middle-aged spread shared by many of America’s great institutions of state which are still too focused, too often on fighting each other. The failure of the West is thus a very real prospect.

The ancient Chinese military writer Sun Tzu once said that the quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon. There is little in the uncertain way that Europe’s leaders have dealt with the debt crisis that suggests they are capable of either decision or timing, let alone strategy. It is not much more encouraging on the other side of the Atlantic.

Can Europe’s small leaders make big strategy?

Professor Julian Lindley-French, a member of the Atlantic Council Strategic Advisor’s Group, is Special Professor of Strategic Studies, University of Leiden, Netherlands and Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.