Europe Needs a Strong and United Military

Last month I had the honor of chairing a superb conference in Amsterdam on behalf of the Commander of the Royal Netherlands Army Lieutenant-General Mart de Kruif. Two key messages came out of this conference. First, if we Europeans want to keep Americans engaged in NATO and, by extension, engaged in Europe’s security European armed forces will need to achieve a much deeper degree of cooperation and even integration. Second, in talking about the future force Europeans must stop talking so much about the past.

One of the nonsenses that one so often hears bandied around European militaries these days is that the absence of threat means there is nothing to plan for and, more importantly, nothing to plan together for. Rubbish! It was sobering to hear a Japanese colleague provide an assessment of insecurity in Asia-Pacific. One could add that to the collapse of the Middle East state, energy insecurity, and a whole host of other frictions. In fact, the problem is not the lack of things to plan together for but too many.

And therein rests the real problem. European military leaders and their political masters spend too much time looking in and down rather than up and out. Europe’s armed forces have become another political pawn in the interminable story of Europe’s flawed integration and thus Europe’s interminable and much of it self-inflicted strategic shrinkage.

That said, whether the European Union existed or not one would still need to see bigger European states cooperating more closely on matters defense and many smaller Europeans integrating their armed forces. Indeed, that is the only way Europeans are going to generate the credible military mass and maneuver, capability, and capacity to underpin political and other forms of power and influence.

What struck me at the conference is the extent to which there is no longer a transatlantic divide but rather a trans-Channel divide. The Netherlands seems to be shifting from membership of the Anglo-American strategic community to become instead part of the German-led “European” community. That is both a shame and a contradiction because the one big country that is not thinking defence-strategically is Germany…and for good reason.

The essential take-away from this conference was that European armed forces will need to do more as one, more together, and more with others. More as “one” means real “jointness,” i.e., all a state’s military forces thinking, experimenting, and acting as a single military organic entity on land, at sea, in the air, and within cyber and space. More together means Europeans across the Channel divide generating and deploying force far beyond Europe’s borders. And, as the Dutch contemplate sending a force to Mali at French request, it will mean acting more with others. That also means acting with other nontraditional allies and partners and, critically, the civilian agencies vital to mission success.

If we Europeans can together retain focus on the strategic by looking at the world together and having the courage to face up to its many challenges honestly then there is a chance that the vision implicit in this conference will be realized. If, on the other hand, strategy continues to be polluted by the politics of a Europe that not only sees “strategy” as alien,  Europe’s collective strategic voice will decline into nothing more than the murmurings of the strategically deranged.

Europeans are part of world security however much many seem to wish to deny it and it is no good Europeans playing tactical chess whilst the rest of the world plays strategic poker. Of course, a European strategic culture can be fashioned of a sort from the more cuddly parts of international engagement, but it would be utterly without balance. Europe’s armed forces must not become lightly-armed fig leaves for European neo-pacifism. Europe must have teeth and those teeth must be sharp. 

We British may not be flavor of the month in Europe (and we really do not care), but it is worth quoting the motto of the Royal Navy which within the next decade will again become Europe’s only truly strategic navy: “Si vis pacem, para bellum” (if you wish for peace, prepare for war). Europeans thankfully are not facing war at home but many around the world are. Europeans must at least be thinking about that.

Faced with an ever-expanding military task list and yet ever-shrinking military forces and resources for Europeans strategic unity of effort and purpose will be the critical politico-military “commodity.”  That in turn will demand European politicians and military leaders stop confusing politics with strategy. In other words, the future European force must be a real force. 

Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group.