European defence policy in an era of renewed great-power competition
What does the future of European defence look like? To think systematically about the challenge of providing capabilities that can meet Europe’s emerging military requirements, The International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Hanns Seidel Foundation convened a group of thinkers and practitioners from Germany and the United Kingdom. This research paper draws on the group’s deliberations.
In 2019, European governments’ combined defence spending, when measured in constant 2015 US dollar terms, surpassed the level reached in 2009, before the financial and economic crisis led to a series of significant defence-spending cuts. However, a different strategic paradigm – one that Europe is struggling to adjust to and which is once more a concern for European governments – has re-appeared in this past decade: great-power competition.
Russia attempted to change international borders in Europe through the use of force in 2014 by annexing Crimea and continues to support an armed insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Moscow’s challenge to Euro-Atlantic security exists in multiple dimensions: as both a conventional military and also a hybrid-warfare issue, with Russia working to dislocate existing societal alignments and disrupt political processes in Western states. The poisoning of a former Russian intelligence officer (and of his daughter) in the United Kingdom, attributed by the British government to Russia, underlines further how much the character of conflict has changed. How to manage the challenge Russia poses without simply reverting to Cold War logic remains a worrying problem for governments in NATO and the European Union member states.
Meanwhile, European security establishments are beginning to recognise the growing political, economic and military influence of a rising China. Although less of an immediate challenge, China’s growth in these areas has possible profound consequences in the long run. Indeed, in December 2019, NATO declared: ‘We recognise that China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.’2 For the United States, China has already become the pacing military threat. The US Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, released in June 2019, opens with the assertion that ‘the Indo-Pacific is the Department of Defense’s priority theater’. In other words, the European theatre is not.
European analysts and officials have begun to wonder whether the US might begin to see Europe through an Asian lens, seeking to generate European commitments to the Indo-Pacific region, or at the very least getting Europeans to take on greater responsibility for their own security and thereby freeing up US resources. Although there will be some elements of the US military presence in Europe that are indispensable to US military action in other regions of the world, that might not be enough to sustain Washington’s firm commitment to European security in the future, regardless of who occupies the White House. Significantly, not even the US has the capability to fight two major wars simultaneously any more, meaning binary choices regarding focus are inevitable. As some observers have argued, Europeans need to urgently assess what Washington’s choices in this regard – and their implications for Europe – might look like.
Considering both how to deter Russia and what a European contribution to containing China might entail represents a major challenge for Western European nations, which have relegated defence to a secondary position, as almost a discretionary activity. European states partially demobilised in the 1990s and early 2000s, intellectually and in terms of their force structures, in response to the end of the Cold War. For example, according to IISS data, in 1990 West Germany alone was thought to be able to field 215 combat battalions and the UK 94. Today it is a fraction of that. However, security challenges relating to regional instability, crisis management and transnational terrorism – which all dominated the previous two decades – have not disappeared. On the contrary, all these still demand attention and the investment of European resources.
While there is a growing recognition among Europe’s analytical community, and some governments, that things cannot simply continue as before in terms of regional security and defence, coherence and resolve among core actors in the Euro-Atlantic sphere have weakened. The US administration has intensified its call for better transatlantic burden sharing, at the same time displaying a cavalier attitude to the collective-defence commitment enshrined in NATO. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has also expressed severe doubts about the viability of NATO’s collective-defence mission. In addition, the British decision to leave the European Union in 2020 implies that the EU has lost one of its most militarily experienced and one of its most capable member states.
There is a tendency among many observers and some politicians to argue that European NATO and EU member states need to clarify the political dimension of their defence ambition, via-à-vis greater strategic autonomy, before resolving the problem of how to meet this ambition militarily, at what cost and in what time frame. Indeed, at times, the debate about European strategic autonomy seems to focus more on the degree of independence from the US that its various proponents would like to achieve and less on the military requirement that autonomy is meant to respond to.
It is now widely accepted across Europe that Europeans need ‘to do more’ for their own security and defence. Most of the intellectual energy allocated to this aspiration is spent on achieving better coordination – and even a level of integration – among European armed forces. This is useful, but only if it is directed at building capability to provide for the defence of Europe.
The existing military capabilities of the European NATO member states fall short when compared to the force requirements generated by the political–military level of ambition as defined by NATO, or for that matter the EU.5 However, this should not be an excuse to lower the level of ambition, nor should the assumption that Europeans are unable to defend themselves be declared an inevitability. Defence output is the result of political, financial and military choices by governments.
To think systematically about the challenge of providing capabilities that can meet Europe’s emerging military requirements, The International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Hanns Seidel Foundation convened a group of thinkers and practitioners from Germany and the UK. The group took seriously the US assertion that Europe needs to be able to provide for its own defence. If Europeans can achieve this, they will be valuable partners to the US in upholding and strengthening the liberal international order on which Euro-Atlantic prosperity and security depend. Meeting twice in 2019, the group discussed threat assessments, debated European capability gaps and scoped potential approaches to addressing them. The following pages draw on the group’s deliberations but do not represent a consensus position.
The long-term challenge is what European states can do to build capabilities, enabling them to more effectively defend the continent, and to use these investments to demonstrate to the US the value of European defence.
Complex decisions for challenging times