Fighting to the Last American?: America and the End of the European Age

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The European age is finally over! Five hundred years after it began with the Spanish conquest of Latin America the Libya imbroglio marks the final end of Europe’s strategic pretence. For all the rhetoric from Paris and London and the belated ‘leadership’ of NATO Europeans clearly lack the strategic imagination, political ambition and basic military means to influence events even in their own backyard.  In the wake of the 2010 Strategic Concept the U.S. had the right to expect at the very least a Europe able and willing to act as a regional leader but the divisions that have marked the Libya crisis have once again revealed a Europe split to the core and weak at heart. Without the active leadership both political and military of the US such ventures are doomed to fail.  

The world has moved on and if Europe has one responsibility it is to keep Americans strong in East and South Asia, the epicentre of dangerous change. Americans must hold Europeans to such a commitment and make US commitment to NATO the prize. 

The implications for the US are clear; unless there is a step change in European strategic ambition Americans are effectively alone in the mission that is being imposed upon them to stabilise a dangerous world. Indeed, no NATO Strategic Concept however well drafted can mask the mismatch in causes, forces and resources that again Operation Odyssey Dawn has revealed. How did this happen and what are the implications for the United States?  

The Great European Defence Depression

On the face of it Europeans are superbly placed to exert strategic influence. The EU has 135 diplomatic missions world-wide, with EU member-states deploying some 40,000 diplomats. The EU provides 50% of all development aid with some $100 billion to be disbursed over the 2012-2014 period. However, the soft power beloved of Europeans is part of the problem for it masks a dangerous truth – weakness has become strength in Europe. Specifically, military weakness is fast becoming Europe’s defined strategic ‘culture’, permitting many Europeans to occupy a moral upland untroubled by the shadows of responsibility.

The result is the great European defence depression. The figures speak for themselves. NATO Europe nations enjoy a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of some 127% of the U.S., but spend only 37% of the U.S. expenditure on defence. Britain and France alone represent some 43% of the NATO Europe total with Britain, France and Germany representing 88% of all defence research and development. In spite of some modest modernisation 16 of the 26 NATO Europe members spend less than $5bn each year and much of it very inefficiently.  

The bottom-line is this; between 2001 and 2008 NATO Europe spending on defence fell by 14% from $360bn to $315bn (not adjusted for defence cost inflation) whereas over roughly the same period the U.S. increased its defence expenditure by 109%, China by 247%, Russia by 67% and Australia by 56%. And, even as the British and French claim ‘leadership’ of the anti-Gadhafi coalition they are both cutting their armed forces and in the British case quite savagely.

Appeasing Reality

The reasons for Europe’s rapid retreat into the new appeasement are manifold and the U.S. must take some responsibility. Post-911 American leadership has by and large been poor; at one and the same time dismissive of Europeans and yet needy of them. Given the perceived failings of American leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan there are many Europeans who today believe they would be more secure politically distant from Washington rather than politically close.

However, the main drivers of the new appeasement are decidedly European. Europe’s ‘power’ is lost in the political ether between Brussels and member-state capitals. The European Union has become a self-managing political crisis. One has only to look at the structure of Europe’s new foreign ‘ministry’, the European External Action Service – more organiscramble, than organigram – to realise this institution will never actually do anything. It is designed first and foremost to ensure all are represented. In spite of efforts to create a Common Security and Defence Policy, and the appointment of a foreign policy head Baroness Ashton, ‘war’ would be fought by the European Council, the European Commission and a European Parliament too distant from either power or people to be offer any meaningful oversight. That is why soft power remains so alluring – indefinable and immeasurable.  

Naturally, national capitals like to blame Brussels for their impotence but they are all complicit. Germany is Europe’s selfish power. Europe’s leading power, Germany, wants it all power ways. The Eurozone has done wonders for the German economy over the last twenty years helping to create a customs union that offset the high cost of German productivity. Now that zone is under pressure Germany has no interest in any other strategic issue. In any case, Berlin has Washington, London and Paris paying for Germany’s security and defence. It is one of the most profound of historical ironies that Germany has just about achieved its 1914 war aims having persuaded Americans to pay for them. Libya has merely demonstrated two realities – German influence and German selfishness. 

Britain is Europe’s lost power. There can be no doubting British sacrifice over a decade of trying to follow America on British resources. Sadly, the British sense of an ungrateful America has only reinforced public cynicism about politicians – be they British or American. However, the malaise goes far deeper. Britain is lost in a sea of political correctness and health and safety risk aversion that it is no longer sure of itself nor its identity. After fifteen years of political devolution and identity-sapping mass immigration patriotism has become a dirty word. Only through the creation of a multicultural society can the sins of Britain’s imperial past be washed away. The result is the longest strategic apology in history with foreign and security policy (such as it is) being all things to all people. Libya has revealed the hollowed-out facade that is Britain today – believing in little, offering little.

France is Europe’s lonely power. The one European power still capable of strategy France remains at times unhealthily obsessed with the idea of a united Europe constructed at the expense of America. In spite of France rejoining the military core of NATO the Alliance is still for many in Paris the metaphor for American power over and in Europe. The French reluctance to permit NATO to lead operations in Libya was at one and the same time sensible and self-serving. Sensible, in that NATO is Europe’s other self-licking lollipop and incapable of being decisive in the absence of firm American leadership. Self-serving in that eclipsing NATO reminds all (at least in French minds) that there is a European alternative. France had long hoped Germany would join it on a crusade to build a strategic Europe but Berlin is too interested in making money. The French turned to the strategically inept British last year and signed a new security and defence treaty in the hope of returning Europeans to strategic seriousness. To paraphrase Winston Churchill; some treaty, some hope.

The rest of Europe? It is made up of a bunch of by and large astrategic little powers short on strategy, and even shorter on capability for whom the financial crisis has provided the perfect alibi to retreat behind a new wall. Americans thought that last November’s new Strategic Concept would provide the foundation for a new NATO committed over time to support an over-stretched America. In fact, to many Europeans it was the first step on the road to a new fortress NATO for countries the armed forces of which are little more than armed pensions.

Should America Care?

Certainly, Americans should care. Not only has much American blood been spilled in making Europe what it is today, Europeans remain the only pool of like-minded democrats the world over. Moreover, the European people must not be punished for the short-sightedness and weakness of their leaders. 

Furthermore, America needs more Europe not less. Therefore, Americans must now be cruel to be kind…and radical with it. No longer can Europeans effectively take it for granted that Americans will defend their vital interests the world over. At the very least, Washington must use the Libya crisis as the benchmark to insist to the European allies that collectively they fashion a European military capable enough to intervene in precisely the kind of crisis that emerged in Libya. 

The measure? Implementation of all elements of the NATO Strategic Concept and a meaningful commitment from all NATO European members to modernise their deployable forces based on and held to the minimum 2% GDP defence expenditure target that so many are today flouting. Austerity can no longer be the excuse for apathy.

The alternative should also be made clear; unless Europeans properly reconsider their strategic role and reinvest in the armed forces that remain the bedrock of credibility in this world Europeans can expect no American support for issues which are clearly in the European interest. 

It is now or never and Libya, and Europe’s weak response to it, must mark the final line in the draining sand that is Europe’s appeasement of reality.

Fighting to the Last American?

The world is a safer place when the West is strong. However, for the West to be strong requires a community of values and interests that reaches far beyond the shores of the United States. There was a time when the West was a place, but it is a mark of the success of liberal democracy and free markets that the West is today as much an idea as a place. However, with Europe effectively appeasing reality one of the West’s twin towers has been weakened to the point of collapse. This in turn is gravely damaging an idea that has offered inspiration to billions the world over. 

The end of the European age must not presage the end of the American age. The danger is that having retreated into itself the mixture of grandstanding and political weakness all too evident in Europe’s response to Libya could mark a new phase of strategic pretence. Do nothing and Washington will find Europeans all too willing to fight to the last American.

Professor Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Strategic Advisor’s Group of the Atlantic Council of the US in Washington, Special Professor of Strategic Studies, University of Leiden, Netherlands and Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London

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