Military-wise, There Is No Europe


For two decades a wide variety of plans, guidelines and roadmaps have been published and issued on European defense matters. The adoption of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), the creation of the European Union Military Committee and European Union Military Staff, the development of the European Defence Agency, the inception of the European Union Battlegroups, and the implementation of several military crisis management operations from Kosovo to Somalia and Iraq to Guinea-Bissau, are all examples of the process by which European states are trying to facilitate the creation of a new post-Cold War era military dimension to European politics. In other words, these above-mentioned projects have been attempts to form a European-wide approach to security and defense policy.

It has been argued that Europe needs to beef up its military capability and establish an army in order to be “taken entirely seriously” or to “stay relevant” in contemporary international politics. The logic behind this is related to the recent history of European integration and the many successes that European states have accomplished in the political and economic domains. Free movement of ideas, people, and capital have benefitted hundreds of millions of Europeans — as have the increased levels of interactions between Europe and the rest of the world. Applying this positive-sum integration-based perspective to security matters and ultimately to military affairs is not as easy as many have thought it to be since the late 1990s.

There are four issues that explain why this is the case.

There are no European-wide common security interests that all European Union member states share. Europe is a big tent when it comes to security, defense, and military matters. States by the Atlantic Ocean see it in their interests to please the United States and hope that their standing in the international ranking of military actors rises with good ties to the number one military superpower of the day. Northern European states look at the Arctic area — and Russia — when they assess the most significant national security issues. States in Eastern Europe also see Russia as a real and tangible security threat and, as such, also tack close to the United States. Mediterranean states are busy worrying about the influx of refugees and illegal migrants who are pouring in from Africa.

There are multiple contradictory and diverging national security interests in Europe. Different states are trying to sponsor their own views of the correct and accurate “European view to security.” The formation of this view is a political battleground where 30-ish states are trying to sell their perspectives and ideas to the rest of Europe — and in most cases without a chance of success. The sheer number of players in the European family therefore best explains why nearly all security-related decisions are meager compromises at best. The problems associated with the nonuse of the EU battlegroups since 2007 and the problems of forming a relevant and coherent policy towards Russia concerning the ongoing Ukrainian crisis are examples that illustrate the “defense policy by committee” approach in Europe.

Moreover, there are only a few states in Europe that have a culture of using their militaries actively in expeditionary fashion. Practically only France and Great-Britain have long traditions of the active management of overseas areas with military power. The post-Cold War era has been all about executing multinational military operations “out-of-area” — not in Europe. In almost all of these military operations, European states have had only scant national security interests at stake. This is why the willingness to commit any significant military capabilities to these operations has been really low in Europe. Pressure created by the 24/7 media to do humanitarian military operations as well as expectations from the Unites States that allies contribute to its military operations have been key factors for many European states — NATO member-states in particular — to facilitate decisions in regards to participating in multinational expeditionary military operations. For many European states it has been enough just to participate, regardless of the end result of the operation.

Next, with the demise of the existential threat posed by the Soviet Union, European states have been in a position to cash in the post-Cold War era “peace dividend.” Financial resources have been allocated to other — seemingly more pressing — needs. European states have cut their defense spending for the last 25 years — year after year. Simultaneously, as most European states have not been able to define real military threats or potential state enemies, the majority of them have drastically cut the end-strength of their armed forces. And in doing so, they have abolished conscription and moved to all-volunteer forces. This double move has meant that in Europe, most states have small military forces that today cannot project the heavy military muscle needed to engage in more traditional operations — at least not alone. Small professional militaries of most European states are made for the low end of the spectrum of operations. With the ongoing war in Ukraine — raging for its second year — many European statesmen have been truly befuddled. It was not supposed to be like this.

Finally, European states are on average small, and allocate little resources to the military. The average defense spending of a European state is about 6 billion euros per year (many spend less than 1 billion per year). This is 1% (yes, you read it right, 1/100) of the amount that the United States spends on its military each year. As an example, the combined defense spending of the European Defence Agency’s 27 member-states fell by about 20% in between 2006 and 2013 — from 218 billion euros to 186 billion in constant 2013 prices. The combined European-wide defense spending of the almost 30 states on the eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean is about 30% of the amount that the United States allocates to its armed forces.

The differences between the 30-ish European states, and their conflicting depictions of threats and military priorities, are so staggering when compared to the military capability of the United States that Washington should not expect a militarily capable Europe as an ally anytime soon. Even if statesman in Europe did what they promise at NATO summits (such as the constant unfulfilled commitments to commit 2% of GDP to defense) the lack of cohesion and the almost 30 different security and defense priorities of European states mean that the United States can only really hope for political support and rhetorical solidarity. European-wide military capabilities, interests and the expeditionary tradition just are not there. And very likely it will not develop anytime soon. Military-wise there is no Europe!


Lt. Col. (GS), Dr.Pol.Sc. Jyri Raitasalo is a Docent of Strategy and Security Policy at the Finnish National Defence University. Previously he has served as research officer, lecturer and head lecturer at the Department of Strategic and Defence Studies at the Finnish National Defence University.


Photo credit: Thijs ter Haar