This question would seemed absurd in the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, or 20th centuries, all of which had their different versions of European military power. Granted, there was not a single “Europe” then, but individual European states had powerful military means that they used to fight each other often.
If the question was limited to these disputes, we would be content with congratulating ourselves. Or, recalling Europe’s situation during the Cold War, we could note that Europe is no longer at the center of strategic affairs, and again everyone could applaud, taking into account the huge price paid for that “centrality”: the division of Europe, the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, the constant fear of another war more terrifying than the last one.
But wondering about the future of European military power at a time of somber cuts in defense budgets is not a cause for celebrating European peace or “soft power.” Rather, it is potentially disquieting, for several reasons:
In all the important periods of its history, Europe always maintained a global perspective. Yet now, just when everything has become “global,” the Europeans resist the broader view and the new dynamics of the 21st century.
Europe’s territorial expansion has not been matched by any corresponding expansion of its strategic vision. Asia is still perceived largely as an economic partner, even as United States rightly regards it as a potential strategic headache. Much closer, the Middle East is often understood only in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict, when even beyond the Iranian nuclear puzzle there are a number of other questions that deserve consideration — Turkey’s new regional policy, or the fates of Egypt and Saudi Arabia after their current rulers are gone. In many ways, the European vision is narrower than it was during the Cold War: For example, Europe has no Russia experts as good as the former Soviet experts.
In a world that is heavily arming itself, the relatively small increases in European military spending demand an explanation. It means that European politicians no longer know how to justify military expenditures to their people. Not that justifications are lacking — politicians make constant references to an unpredictable and dangerous world — but the conviction is not there. Even in France, more than €3 billion are given to restaurant owners even as €5 billion are cut from the defense budget.
So the question arises: Does Europe still have a desire to exist on the international scene, or is it ready to retire from history?
In many European countries — and not just the so-called “neutral” one — there is a powerful resistance to any endeavor that entails the use of force. The very idea of power has become taboo — unless it is “emerging powers,” which we acclaim as if they are leading us to a radiant future. One can’t help wonder why leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-il are allowed to repeatedly threaten their neighbors without arousing any outrage in Europe.
The fact is that Europe does not have the option of a kind of post-modern, undeclared neutrality. The potential conflicts of the 21st century are too obvious for Europe to be solely an observer. Even Asia is not as remote as many would want to believe. China is present in Central Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa and in Latin America — which is to say, everywhere. If Taiwan, to our common misfortune, should become the object of a confrontation between China and America, the Europeans may have to do some work — in the Middle East, for example, helping block maritime routes. Is Europe prepared to consider this, let alone actually do it?
A military power cannot be measured only by the level of its defense budget, but expenditures are an indication of capabilities as well as an expression of will — or the lack of it. The Europeans look proudly at their military interventions in Congo or in Somalia. They do not perceive the abyss between such peripheral interventions and a decisive contribution to regional and international security.
This is the core of the problem. Having started two world wars in the 20th century, Europe should demonstrate a sense of both dignity and responsibility by becoming a more serious contributor to peace and security in the 21st. Doing so would make much more sense than arguing about the limits of military power.
Europe knows all too well that international relations, like nature, abhor a vacuum, and that candidates for the next exercise of power — and they are never in short supply — are often more formidable than they may seem to be at first.
Thérèse Delpech, senior research fellow at the Centre d’études et de recherches internationals (CERI) in Paris.