What’s Wrong with a European Army

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An expiring arms-control deal is a chance to address hypersonics and make China come to the table.

This article appeared in FORUM.EU on January 18, 2020. Click here to view the original article.

By John Bolton
January 18, 2020

The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, now completed at last, is the most consequential event in EU history for its aggregate military power. And it is entirely negative. At a stroke, the EU has lost its second-largest armed force, with no prospect that remaining member states, individually or collectively can fill the gaping hole left by London’s departure. The European Union has long been less than the sum of its parts, and that sum is now considerably smaller. Decades of fantasising about an independent “EU army” should have come to an end on December 31.

That won’t happen, of course, because many Europeans have long-believed, often quietly and in discrete conversations, that Europe was “a state under construction,” and, like all proper states, had to have a proper state’s accoutrements: army, central bank, currency, and more. But some aspects of national sovereignty are almost impossible even for the most fervent Europhiles to relinquish, and military power is understandably the hardest of all.

The fantasising should stop for reasons unrelated to Brexit, notably the existence of Nato. The Atlantic alliance is perfectly capable of doing anything the EU could do, has been doing it for seven decades, and is poised to become even more important in the coming years. Britain’s renewed independence will have a powerfully uplifting effect in Nato’s politico-military decision-making, and more broadly, such as in the UN Security Council, with London now entirely free from the cumbersome, puree-making EU common foreign and security policy.

Some persistent advocates of greater independent EU military capabilities are arguing that Washington is no longer a reliable partner, but that is false. Unquestionably, Donald Trump was no friend of Nato, but Europeans should not draw long-term conclusions from his attitudes toward Nato or international affairs generally. He never proceeded according to coherent philosophical or policy logic, and history will rapidly judge his administration to be an unfortunate aberration. Trump saw problems in narrowly transactional (and largely financial) terms, and through the prism of how events could be made to benefit him personally. Extrapolating future US policy from Trump’s “policies,” therefore, is not only wrong, but dangerous.

That is not to say that European Nato members can now safely ignore the 2014 Cardiff Commitments, especially the pledge to spend two per cent of their GDP’s on defence capabilities by 2024. Trump’s obsession with the need to raise Nato spending may have been expressed in his usual idiosyncratic fashion, but it reflects the consistent view, across America’s political spectrum, that its allies must better understand the array of threats facing the west, and the need for everyone to pull their weight.

In a famous 2016 interview just before leaving office, for example, Barack Obama chastised Britain and France, along with many others, as “free riders” for their inadequate 2011 performance against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Obama Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta repeatedly echoed these complaints. The cost-sharing issue is not going away under Biden, both because he likely agrees with Obama, and because Republicans won’t let it.

Even leaving Brexit and Trump aside, EU efforts on defence matters have been, and are almost certain to remain, long on rhetoric and process and very short on substance and resources. After considerable fanfare and arduous effort almost twenty years ago for example, the “Berlin Plus” agreements have resulted in only two EU peacekeeping operations, both merely taking over from prior Nato forces. While Commission President Ursula von der Leyen may urge the EU to develop “credible military capabilities,” that is far easier said than done. It would be much more persuasive to see Germany raise its defence spending to the Cardiff target, which von der Leyen knows from her tenure as FRG Defence Minister is not going to happen; Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government with the Social Democrats has struggled just to maintain defence spending, let alone increase it. The same is true across Europe. As 2020 ended, Reuters reported that the first EU defence review “found that only 60% of the national troops and weapons nominally available to Nato are in a fit state to be deployed.” Pushing for more “independence” from Washington could leave Europe bereft of America’s presence and continuing inadequate defence spending EU-wide.

Von der Leyen also said, after Brexit, that “our future is made in Europe.” But this too is fantasy. Global threats, from China in particular, but also from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism, are growing, not receding. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s vision of “Global Britain” is considerably more astute than an inwardly-focused “little Europe.” European capitals would be better advised to heed the suggestion made by former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar to expand Nato into a global organisation, including possible new members like Japan, Australia, Singapore and Israel. There is no need to create a “league of democracies,” as some have suggested, to confront increasing threats from authoritarian regimes. We already have one in Nato, which simply needs to be enlarged beyond its birthplace in the North Atlantic area.

The basic reality is that a sustained programme to create a meaningful EU military would constitute a dagger pointed at Nato’s heart. That is undoubtedly what some really hope for, and not just our adversaries, but even many in Europe and America. Let us hope they are disappointed, at least until the lions lie down with the lambs.