Image credit: Official White House Photo / Pete Souza.
23rd March 2014 by Jo Coelmont - europeangeostrategy.org
François Hollande’s recent state visit to Washington featured in-depth discussions on international security and on military cooperation in particular. Is this signalling the emergence of yet another ad hoc framework for initiating future military crisis management operations? Does it suggest a European trend to re-nationalise defence through a series of bilateral ‘special relationships’? Or on the contrary, is it still about ‘Europe as a global actor’, acting in tandem with a strong transatlantic partnership?
From a United States (US) point of view, the answers to these questions are rather straightforward. Washington’s objective is to ensure that Europe (its ‘principal partner’) rapidly evolves from a security consumer into a security provider. This would entail the ability to assume full responsibility for military crisis management without overly depending on US support. In this context, both NATO and the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) do matter to the Americans. And in light of the recent French interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR) and ongoing diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, Paris still matters as well. This in itself explains the pomp and circumstance displayed in February.
From the French point of view, those same military operations in Africa inspired Paris to refer to the US as an ‘indispensable partner’. But Paris also drew some less enchanting lessons from these operations, in particular about the lack of support from most European Union (EU) member states. Is President Hollande’s initiative to put structured military cooperation on the agenda of his meeting with President Obama to be seen as Paris losing faith in the CSDP and henceforth favouring bilateral relations? Or is it still about finding ways to provide extra credibility to the CSDP in the short run and, in so doing, keeping NATO relevant in the long run? In any case, the future shape of this newfound entente will to a large extent depend on the positions taken by France’s partners in Europe rather than across the pond.
In itself, bilateral military cooperation – even in a transatlantic context – does not harm the CSDP. Quite the opposite is true, for at present European defence writ large is nothing more than a patchwork of military cooperation efforts, some of which are institutionalised, others not. In the EU all of this is deemed to be in line with the praised ‘bottom-up approach’. While this does offer significant potential, it has also become clear that the present patchwork is insufficient. The prerequisite for Europe to solve its most fundamental military problems, notably its ability to address longstanding capability shortfalls and successfully conduct operations, is to have a shared vision on defence in general and on burden sharing in particular.
Fortunately, European leaders have not yet exhausted all their options. At the European Council in December 2013, the traditional bottom-up approach has been complemented with top-down steering by the Heads of State and Government. Common programmes on capability development have been initiated. The Commission is on board. Several processes have been launched on pooling of procurement and convergence of defence planning, even on developing strategies. Crisis management has thus been brought to the political level that is consistent with the magnitude of the problems that need to be resolved. Lessons learned during recent operations have made it clear that durable solutions are only feasible when a clear strategic outcome is identified and underpinned by an even clearer political roadmap. Naturally this assumes the availability of the appropriate civil and military capabilities, and of economic assistance programmes over the longer term. In short, we are entering the early days of a new era in the development of the CSDP. But addressing even the most critical capability shortfalls cannot be done overnight. Given that the next crisis may well pop up tomorrow, an ‘indispensable partner’ across the Atlantic may need to provide interim solutions. That is why Hollande’s state visit to Washington deserves special attention: a potential win-win situation for France, the US, NATO and the CSDP is within reach.
The prerequisites, however, remain the same. As important as it is to seek swift solutions to remedy urgent shortfalls, a common European vision on crisis management operations remains a necessary condition for success. The CSDP is but an instrument. If in practice it boils down to ‘so few will have to do so much in the name of so many’, it is doomed to vanish. Ultimately, the spectre of military irrelevance haunts NATO as well, as Robert Gates already warned in his farewell speech in Brussels. In the direst scenarios, ad hoc coalitions and bilateral special relationships will be the only options, even for France. For Europe as a whole, this also means saying farewell to the much-vaunted comprehensive approach.
Military fragmentation was of course not the object of Franco-American deliberations. But such a future may well materialise malgré Paris et Washington. Up until quite recently, voices in Berlin and other European capitals spoke of responsibility and sharing the burden more equitably. But real life offers a gloomy picture. European countries are once more stumbling from one force generation conference to another to scrape together the resources required for a distinctly unambitious operation in the CAR. In the immediate run-up to the EU-Africa Summit, this cannot help but severely damage the credibility of the CSDP and the Union as such.
We find ourselves halfway between the past European Council on defence and the upcoming NATO ‘Wales Summit’. The Americans display an open-mind about the CSDP-NATO relationship and President Obama is coming to Brussels. In turn, recent events in Ukraine remind all Europeans about the importance of credibility – to have it or not. Europeans may well agree that there is indeed no military solution to Russian tactics in the Eastern neighbourhood. But the hour is getting late and a sense of urgency is justified. Hoping for the best is not a strategy. Arithmetically, international influence gets calculated as a multiplication between different instruments of power. If one variable equals zero, then the result equals zero. In strategic affairs there is therefore no room for part-time credibility.
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Jo Coelmont is an Associate Editor of European Geostrategy. He is also a Senior Associate Fellow for the ‘Europe in the World Programme’ at Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels. Formerly, he was the Belgian Military Representative to the Military Committee of the European Union. He writes here in a personal capacity.