December 2012 - A make or break moment for European Security and Defense Policy

"Europe’s ability to be a capable security actor is at stake. Americans won’t invest and will not be invested in European defense if Europe doesn’t start moving in the right direction. And the window for Europe to do something about this deficiency by investing more, and by Europeanizing defense – is not going to stay open indefinitely."

Conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger

Two years ago, at the Munich Security Conference, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen introduced the concept of "Smart Defense," calling on countries to "pool and share capabilities, to set the right priorities, and to better coordinate our efforts."


In principle, Europeans have accepted that closer defense cooperation is essential to maintain, and hopefully expand, existing military capabilities. In the Franco-German declaration "For a stronger European security and defense" of 6 February 2012, for instance, the two governments state: "[I]n times of strategic uncertainty and limited resources, joint defense projects are indispensable for a strong defense. We have to be willing to make the necessary decisions." These kinds of statements and declarations have, by now, become rather commonplace throughout the EU.


But, in reality, decision-makers have not been “willing to make the necessary decisions,” remain unlikely to do so, and disagree about what that means. The concepts of “Smart Defence” and “Pooling & Sharing” – important as they are – have yet to gain real traction. This is an unacceptable state of affairs, leading to massive losses in European capabilities – capabilities that are already very limited. In fact, the ability of Europe to be a reasonably capable security actor is very much at stake.


The memories of the Libyan intervention, where the two best-equipped European militaries struggled to get the job done, requiring massive U.S. support “from behind,” are all too fresh. Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, recently said that Libya exposed “worrisome trends” in Europe's ability to act without relying heavily on U.S. help. For him, the lack of necessary munitions was “a signal that there is a lack of investment in critical core capabilities by the alliance, and that the continuing cuts in defense spending raise, over time, serious questions about sustainability.” NATO would not be able to undertake a similar campaign in ten years’ time if this is not addressed, he said. And he is, sorry to say, absolutely right.


For three reasons, in particular, starting to europeanize our defense is the only reasonable way forward:


First, money.
The defense sector is feeling a tightening of financial screws, partly as a result of the Euro crisis. Capabilities affected by defense cuts since 2009 have been lost. Of course, most NATO states had already long failed to reach the self-declared goal of spending two per cent of their respective GDPs on defense. Moreover, the European taxpayers’ money is spent incredibly inefficiently: European fighting power makes up but a tiny fraction of the American military potential, although European spending amounts to almost 40 per cent of US defense expenses. We must produce “more bang for the buck” – and we can! The key is to finally introduce the idea of EU integration into the way we organize our defense arrangements.


This does not imply immediate huge steps toward an EU army – multiple synergy effects can be created in areas with fewer constitutional and political implications, such as training and procurement. And we should not hesitate to ask hard questions, such as how efficient it is for almost all 27 EU countries to maintain their own air force – sometimes composed of not more than a few dozen aircraft.


Second, as today’s security environment continues to become more complex and unpredictable, the demands placed on our armed forces have continued to expand. Dealing with these greater demands will require more and better interoperability, coordination and effectiveness of European militaries. It is undeniable that the crises that might directly or indirectly affect Europe’s security, and in which we may have to fulfill our responsibility to protect people from mass atrocities, are numerous, unpredictable, and complex.


Third, the necessity to be better prepared for complex and unpredictable crises is magnified by the United States’ ‘pivot’ towards the Pacific. No doubt: this will put greater pressure on Europe to operate on its own in its own “neighborhood”.


Whether it is Kosovo or Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, or Mali: If we want to be able to react better and more adequately, to emerging conflicts, instabilities, or mass atrocities, we must pool and share military capabilities much more. If we fail to do so, the combination of scarce financial means, more complicated tasks, an unpredictable security environment and decreasing U.S. focus on Europe will lead to a permanently weakened Europe as an actor on the global and regional security stage.


Pooling and sharing is a complex endeavor: we are talking about an area that has for centuries been part of the core of national sovereignty. And it requires dealing with tough and uncomfortable questions: How do the armed forces have to be structured – especially in the context of reforms that are under way in many countries – so that they can be completely or partly “European” in the future? Which capabilities might countries be willing to give up – and trust others to provide them? What does pooling mean for the industrial base and the procurement process, which traditionally caters to national needs? How could a military engagement with pooled forces be authorized? Who would carry the ultimate responsibility?


Clearly, these are difficult questions. But the process of European integration must not stop in front of the gates of military barracks, even if getting there will be tough and complicated, involving different and difficult stakeholders.


In order to accompany and support this process, the Munich Security Conference, joined by McKinsey & Company, has started a new initiative – a conference series on “The Future of European Defence”. A first European “summit” in April of 2013 will aim at providing fresh impulses to Pooling & Sharing. Last December, we organized a roundtable in Berlin, with representatives from the Foreign, Defense, and Economics ministries, members of the Bundestag, defense industry representatives, military leaders, and independent experts.


One of the few things most participants agreed on was this: We have to do much better, and it will be very difficult. But the degree of difficulty can never be an excuse. As former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in his farewell speech in Brussels in 2011: Getting European defense on track “will take leadership from political leaders and policy makers on this continent.”


Put simply: Europe’s ability to be a capable security actor is at stake. Americans won’t invest – and will not be invested – in European defense if Europe doesn’t start moving in the right direction. And the window for Europe to do something about this deficiency – by investing more, and by Europeanizing defense – is not going to stay open indefinitely. The time to act is now – in 2013. Hopefully, the European Council will announce meaningful new steps at its December meeting when security and defense are on its agenda.


Wolfgang Ischinger was State Secretary of the German Foreign Office and Ambassador in Washington and London. He is now Chairman of the Munich Security Conference and an advisor to Allianz SE. A version of this piece is also published in "The Security Times", which appears on the occasion of the 49th Munich Security Conference.

31 December 2012, by Wolfgang Ischinger