Bilateralism and Minilateralism Are Europe’s Secret Strengths

british and estonian troops

As a result of the war in Ukraine, policymakers in Europe and North America have scrambled to strengthen defense cooperation in Europe. The headlines inevitably focus on NATO and the European Union. Yet this ignores the reality of how European defense cooperation is actually established, fostered, and solidified. Indeed, the essence of defense cooperation in Europe is a web of hundreds of bilateral and minilateral collaborations. Often, NATO and the European Union work merely as a framework into which European countries upload their existing bi- and minilateral efforts.

To better enhance European defense, policymakers should appreciate the dynamics of these many collaborations. Taking advantage of the current circumstances to build more mini and bilateral ties, particularly where leadership and financial circumstances are most conducive, will strengthen Europe and make its multilateral institutions that much more formidable.



A History of Bilateralism and Minilateralism

In a few months, NATO countries have deployed thousands of troops and significant capabilities to enhance the defense of members on its eastern flank. In a stunning transition, two traditionally militarily non-aligned E.U. states, Sweden and Finland, re-evaluated their geostrategic position and submitted applications to join NATO. The debate about boosting the European Union’s “strategic autonomy” has become even more intense, and once again, member states are discussing coordinating their defense spending via joint procurements.

These vital initiatives could not work without existing, critical lower-level collaborations. For example, Russian military actions over the last several years in Ukraine prompted NATO’s eastern-flank allies to work swiftly together with their bi- and minilateral partners. The United Kingdom took on a leading role in Estonia, building on the close relations the two countries developed carrying out dangerous operations over a decade in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Lithuania is a relevant defense market for Germany, and not surprisingly, the Bundeswehr leads NATO efforts there. Thanks to cultural similarity and extensive previous military cooperation, the Czech Republic has sent the most troops to Slovakia and oversees the international forces located there. For similar reasons, France deployed 500 troops to Romania. Such comparatively low-key actions were crucial in developing the necessary bottom-up relations, norms, and experiences upon which more recent grandiose announcements build.

Although Finland and Sweden intend to join NATO, they also found it essential to sign bilateral mutual security deals with the United Kingdom. This could happen quickly, mainly because Helsinki and Stockholm have built trust with London working together in the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force. The dynamics in the European Union are the same as in NATO. For example, in 2017, the European Union established the Permanent Structured Cooperation to strengthen defense cooperation among its member states after the Russian occupation in Crimea. However, most of its projects were based on existing bi- and minilateral defense initiatives, and the participating states often just rebranded them according to the new E.U. vocabulary.

The fact that existing bi- and minilateral relationships are the foundation of defense cooperation in Europe is not a new phenomenon. A survey of 70 examples of European defense collaboration highlighted that most have five or fewer participating states, and many are purely bilateral. These collaborations range from creating multinational units to cooperating on armaments, training, logistics, surveillance, operations, and/or command and control. More often than not, these collaborations are not part of NATO or the European Union, but they can be rebranded as E.U. and NATO projects quickly if it is necessary.

States can also use these collaborations to shape NATO and E.U. policies. For instance, the NATO operation in Libya in 2011 was basically an Anglo-French war, as France and Britain pushed for the intervention and took the brunt of the fight. They used NATO’s command structure to coordinate their war effort and the limited military support they gained from some NATO members helped fill their capability gaps. The background of this was a historical and overarching British-French bilateral defense agreement, the Lancaster House Treaties, which the leaders of the two European military powers signed a year earlier. The launch of the European Union’s European Security and Defence Policy in 1999 also stemmed from a British-French bilateral agreement in St. Malo in 1998 as well.

Strengthening the Network

Improving NATO and E.U. defense cooperation requires looking under the hood to appreciate the role of these efforts. Scholars have already pointed out that Europeans must recognize the minilateral foundations of Europe’s security architecture. This corresponds with my experience as a former defense official. European ministries of defense do not always think in terms of institutions like the European Union and NATO. They have their own considerations, and they are using the framework that fits their goals the best, which can be NATO, the European Union, or smaller formats. Starting an initiative at this level is often more effective and can provide results more quickly.

As I argue in my newly published book, while these forms of cooperation are not new, their recent proliferation is unprecedented in Europe’s history. Furthermore, they provide the substance of practical military cooperation in Europe, which NATO and the European Union can build on. Thus, comprehending the dynamics behind them is crucial to foster effective defense cooperation moving forward. The research in my book indicates that when European nations start new defense collaborations, five structural and situational factors are important to achieve success.

First, NATO and the European Union continue to provide the crucial structural context in which bi- and minilateral cooperation can happen. The countries that are members of these two institutions are part of the European security community. Members of these alliances understand the concept of security similarly, their core interests are generally aligned, and most importantly, they no longer envision solving their misunderstandings with each other through military force. This deeply rooted trust among E.U. and NATO members is a crucial precondition which enables the proliferation of multinational defense collaboration. This means that if Sweden and Finland join NATO, it will undoubtedly influence cooperation, especially in Northern Europe and the Baltic region.

Second, cooperation is driven by the fact that European armed forces believe they do not have the financial resources to meet their goals by themselves. Thus, they turn to each other in the hope of mitigating their shortfalls. (Not that this always works. If budgets are cut, the cooperation can still fail.) The third structural factor is existing defense collaborations. New cooperative initiatives are usually based on previous ones. If countries pursue ongoing military projects together, there is a higher chance that they will launch new ones with each other rather than with a totally new partner. This is why those NATO members who had a relevant bilateral relationship with certain allies on the eastern flank led the international efforts there.

Structural factors create the conditions for cooperation, but situational factors trigger collaboration. The first situational factor is personal relationships. Cooperation usually starts when at least two leaders — politicians, civil servants, or military officers — invest extra effort to make things work. Such leaders tend to have good chemistry, a necessary ingredient when creating something new that needs a huge amount of extra commitment. For instance, David Cameron, the former British prime minister, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president at that time, had good chemistry and could agree on the Lancaster House Treaties in 2010. Even though all other factors may be aligned, something similar is unimaginable with Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron because of their different characters and strained relationship.

Finally, situationally speaking, a supportive political environment is also needed. This can come either from the public or domestic actors or from international developments. Without it, the leaders who are the engines of the collaboration would work in a vacuum and would not be able to realize their ambitions. At the moment, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has clearly created a political climate in Europe that is quite conducive to defense collaborations.


If policymakers want to strengthen European defense through more bi- and minilateral collaborations, they should build off these five factors. This starts with appreciating how the potential NATO memberships of Finland and Sweden would create new opportunities for small scale collaboration. Policymakers should also look to their current minilateral efforts with an awareness that these provide the best source of potential partners for new efforts, while also choosing new partners with an eye toward the potential for future cooperation they bring. Furthermore, they should assess the economic viability of new commitments and defense collaborations not only from their vantage point but also from their partners’ side.

Policymakers should also be aware of the situational factors in launching new collaborative efforts. For instance, if the personalities in crucial positions do not match, collaboration should not be forced, and policymakers should wait for more favorable circumstances. However, if there is strong chemistry between leaders, they should exploit this opportunity quickly. Finally, the war in Ukraine has created an extremely supportive political environment. This situation is extraordinarily rare and can serve as the starting point for minilateral and bilateral initiatives that will pay dividends over decades.



Dr. Bence Nemeth is a lecturer (assistant professor) at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, where he primarily teaches military officers at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. Prior to moving to King’s, he worked in various defense policy and planning positions at the Hungarian Ministry of Defence for eight years. His book, How to Achieve Defence Cooperation in Europe? – The Subregional Approach, was published by Bristol University Press in 2022.

Image: Estonian Defense Ministry

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