The Three Elephants of European Security


On the face of it, European security is taken seriously these days. Everything from Russian aggression, to migratory pressures, to terrorist attacks has jolted Western European leaders out of their post-Cold War complacency. The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, as well as Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House, further concentrated European minds. As a result, political leaders have reconfirmed NATO as prime provider and guarantor of security in Europe, underpinned by reinforced U.S. engagement and allied commitment to live up to promises of defense investment given in the recent past. The European Union, after merely dabbling in it for years, has leaned into the area of defense with a flurry of activities and new formats meant to encourage European production of defense and security goods complementary to those provided by NATO, also with the aim of strengthening Europe’s defense industry. NATO-E.U. cooperation, for a long time a bugbear, is flourishing.



So, can the “all clear” be sounded in Europe? Unfortunately not. To understand why, Europeans and Americans  need to address three elephants crowding the room of European security — some familiar, some less so. As so often with indoor pachyderms, they irritate, as they confront us with our inability to address them and our tendency to tiptoe around them. The three European security elephants will resonate differently depending on which side of the Atlantic you reside. But they need to be seen, and tackled, together.

The First: A Creaking European Security Architecture

In a speech at Panthéon-Assas University in Paris in September 2018, Nicolas Roche, a senior diplomat at the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, described the sovereignty of European states as resting on six pillars underpinning a security and defense architecture unique in the world: the U.S. external security guarantee in the framework of NATO, both nuclear and conventional; the arms control regime covering Europe; confidence-building multilateral agreements, such as the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and Open Skies treaties; the 1975 “Helsinki Principles,” enshrining among others sovereign equality and territorial integrity of states; the construction of a European defense identity within the European Union and NATO; and lastly, bi- or “minilateral” relations, such as the Lancaster House Treaties between France and the United Kingdom or the European Intervention Initiative. Worryingly, some of those pillars have questionable structural integrity, to say the least. (While there is no recording or text of the speech, I confirmed Roche’s remarks with him recently via email.)

Take the most important pillar of European security, NATO, which just turned 70. The current occupant of the White House is doing his best to sow doubts regarding American engagement, instead exhorting allies to pay up or lose American support. As a consequence, recent NATO summits have transformed into contortionist circus acts around Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (which frames an armed attack against one member state, in Europe or North America, to be an armed attack against all), with the collective political and diplomatic personnel of Europe (and Canada) losing much sleep and dignity. Yes, actions speak louder than words, and the American military presence has been reinforced in Europe. But the budget lines for the European Deterrence Initiative are not perennial, and funds are being slashed to finance the building of walls. There are also plans to make American allies pay more for troops stationed on their territory.

Conventional wisdom dictates that America will be there in the event of armed confrontation involving its NATO partners, and that in any case, attacks on Europe will most likely be non-military in nature. But such analysis is not entirely comforting, especially in the light of American efforts to balance China, which will inevitably call for a prioritization of East Asia over Europe.

How about confidence-building measures and arms control? Both Russia and the United States accuse each other of violating the Open Skies Treaty, and the American president has signaled his intention of withdrawal. In October 2018, the United States declared that it was leaving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, pointing to blatant violations by Russia (in the line of sight: Russian SSC-8 missiles). Russia responded by pulling out too. The United States tested a new ground-launched cruise missile in August 2019.

The intermediate-range Russian missiles in question, part of Russian defense/offense strategic operations, dampen the enthusiasm to intervene in the north, east, and southeast of the NATO alliance’s territory in Europe in case of a crisis, which might or might not fall under Art. 5. They mark a crisis of NATO’s two-pronged approach toward Russia, consisting of combining effective deterrence with readiness for dialogue. To re-up NATO’s deterrence game, billions of dollars will need to be invested in modern equipment, infrastructure, and rapid deployment capacity of sizable troop contingents in Europe, and painful dossiers pertaining to nuclear strategy will need to be reopened, including the thorny question of stationing U.S. intermediate-range missiles on European soil. Nothing has been done so far to alert European publics to these dramatic changes in their security environment and the need to significantly increase defense spending and posture.

The European default response, to propagate multilateral solutions, such as Germany’s most recent attempts to kick-start global arms control and disarmament talks, might be logically correct given that Russian and U.S. willingness to walk away from the INF Treaty seems to be (also) tangled up with Chinese developments in the missile development department. But such approaches struggle to gain traction in the current geopolitical environment, where old-style power politics seem to be once again back in fashion, and military power, and the willingness to use it, is a currency again. Europeans seem to be rather unwilling and unable to come to terms with such an unpleasant reality.

The Second: European Militaries Under Pressure

As unwilling as Europeans may be to contemplate such a possibility, there are credible signs that they could be approaching the end of the shelf life of their military model, which is based on publicly (read: deficit-/ debt-) financed troops and equipment, with soldiering both a unique profession and a unique social tie to the nation-state. This disruptive development, which confronts the United States as well, is driven by economic, financial, technological, and social factors.

Having a military is expensive. European governments have to justify military spending as it competes with other expenditures, a hard sell in societies comfortably used to peacetime, with a budget “cake” that seems to be getting ever smaller. While letting your finance ministry dictate military strategy might be suboptimal, this is what is happening in most European capitals. And even if there were more money to spend, this would most likely not be sufficient, because of two phenomena: spiraling costs and defense inflation.

Another sign that something is afoot is the apparent inability to successfully design, produce, or even just purchase (complex) weapons systems in Europe. For decades, politicians and civil servants have not exercised related specific skills, such as writing detailed industry briefs informed by strategic thinking, or controlling and managing spending on procurement — a recipe for wasteful spending (the desperate state of German procurement being an albeit glaring example). Behind this phenomenon looms massive ongoing technological change, and the ever complex question as to how civilian and military organizations handle innovation.

Or perhaps even more telling, take the state of permanent reform spanning the last 30 years: Since the end of the Cold War, European armed forces have resembled a never-finished construction site. After having to stomach a massive reduction in numbers and conventional armaments (and for those with a socialist past, having to become part of a democratic system), European armies were transformed into agents of peacekeeping and peace enforcement, only to be assigned to expeditionary warfare thereafter. Along the way, many switched from a system of conscription to a professional force. Currently, at least some European countries are once again pondering how to spar with a peer adversary. Some are reintroducing conscription, experimenting with home defense forces, or both.

It seems that instead of taking the time to learn from past military engagements (the most recent failure to grapple with the adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan being a case in point), Europeans simply move on, trying time and again to build a military to meet a certain strategic challenge or to match a specific threat, neglecting specific capacities and capabilities in the process. This is simply unsustainable, as it proves to be too costly and too disruptive.

What about the prevailing mood in European armed forces? Few soldiers, apart from the lone retiring general here and there, publicly air grievances, given that they hail from institutions that attach premium value to discipline and service. But the pressure on military personnel — paid only modestly, often not equipped properly, constantly asked to do more with less, resenting societal indifference as well as lack of political leadership — is substantial. One cannot assume that people are and will be willing to serve under such circumstances.

But the most important factor hastening the demise of the European military model is European failure to think strategically. A clear understanding of what military power can actually achieve in today’s world, however, is lacking. Such an understanding would allow European countries to triangulate their military power with political goals they hope to advance. When it comes to concepts of military power, Europeans have been purely reactive — to American expectations, and to institutional frameworks in which military cooperation takes place in Europe.

The Third: The Shackles of Institutions

It is rather startling that a group of advanced industrialized countries should not be able to muster enough resources, including political will, to advance toward strategic autonomy, whether such a term might mean taking over more responsibility for their own security, prudently hedging against unforeseen developments, or advancing toward real emancipation from their American protectors. But there is no denying that both in terms of money and will, the defense of Europe continues to be thought under a star-spangled banner — the one with 50, not the one with 12 stars. What should give pause is that defense investment is resisted even in the NATO framework.

Why is this the case? Defense and security cooperation is a child of necessity, animated by deeper geopolitical trends and driven by efficiency and legitimacy considerations. Some ongoing collaborations are pragmatic and results-oriented, but cooperation remains driven by the institutional logics of different cooperation formats, rather than by what role the military should play as part of a European security strategy. Behind this phenomenon lie differing and diverging interests and concepts of military power among Europe’s most powerful countries, which have shaped the existing and emerging institutional frameworks in which European defense cooperation takes place.

Three countries — France, the United Kingdom, and Germany — are able, by their political and diplomatic weight, their national doctrines, as well as their economic resources, to significantly influence the question of future European security and defense capabilities. Of course, others, such as the Netherlands, Poland, Italy, and Spain, are important partners in the military field. While each of the “big three” tries to impose its own preferences and visions in the field of security and defense cooperation, none is able to prevail.

At a Franco-British-German study day/scenario exercise on defense cooperation in Europe organized last year at Panthéon-Assas University in Paris with the support of NATO, representatives of national ministries and think tanks were kind enough to play their respective countries. A few things stood out: first, the perception of time, and, second, in a related manner, a certain complacency of European countries regarding U.S. commitment guaranteeing permanent and sustainable security in Europe. The discussions on European strategic autonomy were very much in line with a conversation that has already lasted for three decades, with the expressed certainty of being able to move at a pace comfortable for the most hesitant. This appeared in contrast to a disruptive geopolitical reality and a faltering European security architecture. Lastly, the study day confirmed how much institutions define the thinking and action regarding European security, as well as the very different place they occupy in the strategies of France, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

Judging from past experience, there is the danger that current European defense cooperation efforts do not so much contribute to the creation or the reinforcement of autonomous European military capacities as to the production of symbolic political capital: proof of reactivity and sign of European unity for some, skillful staging of activity to cover up for the lack of credible investment to others. Perhaps most damningly, these defense cooperation efforts  could allow Germany, France, and the United Kingdom to avoid their present rendezvous with history: Germany remains fixated on past horrors, unwilling to think in terms of military power, while France and the United Kingdom cling to visions of past grandeur. In that sense, all three fail their European partners who depend on them to decisively engage.

You Can’t Ignore the Elephants in the Room

When it comes to the first elephant, Europe’s security architecture, Europeans can and should do their best to be useful allies in the framework of NATO, and to continue to work on its fifth and sixth pillars, namely the construction of a European defense identity, as well as on bi- or “minilateral” relations. This includes taking very hard looks at European-only defense and operational capabilities, and thinking about the unthinkable: European security without the certainty of an automatic American security guarantee. Continuously educating especially Western European electorates on the investments needed for the provision of security in Europe is crucial. Freedom is not free.

The second elephant, the approaching end-of-shelf-life of a deficit-/debt-financed professional military force, requires debate over public services states provide, and over civic engagement in the provision of security. As the military component of a European security strategy, armed forces need to fulfill roughly three tasks: deterrence, conventional and nuclear; joint policing/stabilizing of Europe’s rims; and lastly, a maritime element to secure global trade routes. Not least because of the blurring between external and internal security, and nonviolent ways to engage in conflict, more and more security-related tasks implicate the civilian sector and depend on society’s engagement and participation. A modular approach based on core military capacities, to be assembled with add-ons and scaled up or down into needed capabilities, might represent a suitable alternative. It could also comprise a form of national service. The challenge would be to keep “kinetic” capacities and military spirit alive, all the while opening up to harness society’s resources. Such a modular model would bring together a varied community of people, military and civilian, all invested in defending what they hold dear.

Lastly, riding the defense cooperation elephant, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have a special responsibility as they perform the job of anchor nations for specific cooperation efforts, be it within NATO, the European Union, or outside those institutions. Each of them will have to move out of their comfort zone when it comes to their cooperation style: France will be tested on the art of learning together with others, rather than trying to dominate, which will be a significant factor in determining the success of its European Intervention Initiative. Germany needs to grasp the responsibility that comes with interlocking defense cooperation, as neighboring countries that have abandoned key military capabilities now rely on it. The United Kingdom will have to move beyond its instinctive preference for ad hoc or bilateral cooperation to more durably engage with its partners.

Scrutinizing the three elephants in the room of European security — a security architecture underpinning the sovereignty of European countries that is faltering, a fundamentally challenged military, and defense cooperation at pains to keep up with the pace of geopolitical change e — is an uncomfortable exercise. With the trans-Atlantic relationship remaining at the heart of European defense, and cornerstone of the European project, Americans and Europeans have no choice but to think and act together as the three pachyderms relentlessly question the future of European security.



Johanna Möhring is Senior Fellow at The Institute for Statecraft in London, and Chercheure associée at the Centre Thucydide, Université Paris II Panthéon-Assas. Her research interests cover the nature of power in the 21st century, and security and defense cooperation in Europe.

Image: President of Russia