Defense Matters 2024: Why Europe Can’t Afford Reducing Military Budgets
"At the 60th Munich Security Conference in 2024, what will be the most important security challenge on the agenda, and why?", we asked the applicants for our 2014 "MSC Junior Ambassadors" program. In the third essay published, Leyla Mutiu argues that "[a] security provision void will emerge over the course of the next decade, which will require the full attention of all the decision-makers participating in the 60th Munich Security Conference."
"If you want peace, prepare for war" dixit a Latin saying. However, Europeans have a short memory. After 60 years in which no major war ravaged the Western side of their continent, they are currently slashing their defense budgets, cutting down on public military research and development, and generally crippling their own military establishment with the firm conviction that Kant’s perpetual peace might have finally settled in. However, in spite of how peaceful these times may feel like, the European governments should adopt a more balanced approach towards their defense budgets. A military that is "just enough" to exclusively protect its own state or region represents a handicap in terms of a country’s power projection as well as a de facto withdrawal from the commitment of providing assistance to those in need. A security provision void will emerge over the course of the next decade, which will require the full attention of all the decision-makers participating in the 60th Munich Security Conference.
Today’s governmental cost reduction programs will have deep and negative effects on the European military structures of 2024. The Europeans, and by extension NATO, too, will be capable of defending the Old Continent from an unlikely Russian invasion, but will have a remarkably restricted ability to deploy their forces abroad in the medium to long run. This, in turn, will affect UN-mandated peacemaking and peacekeeping operations under Chapter VII. If current trends continue, Europe will be much less capable of conducting military missions such as those in Mali or the Central African Republic in a decade’s time.
By 2024, key European countries will likely have a significantly diminished capacity to intervene abroad, for reasons ranging from a weak economy to political ideology, a lack of public support, and a lack of willingness to meaningfully pool and share military capabilities. This may leave Europe with two antagonistic options: one, having to convince (or to simply allow) the US to behave as the global policeman, and two, having to stick to the non-intervention policy sustained by Russia and China and hope that whenever a conflict erupts, it can be solved by other means.
NATO, as an American and European product, is already facing structural issues that weaken it from within: Reaching consensus among its member states regarding their missions’ objectives is as hard as ever (as proved by the Libya operation). The inequitable distribution of the financial burden between the United States and its European members is unsustainable (as of 2012, the US accounted for 75% of the budget, while only four European countries met the budget target of spending at least 2% of their GDP on defense). Furthermore, issues of interoperability between different militaries continue to hamper their performance. In the context of an American "pivot" to Asia, the US administration will also find it tougher to sell to Congress that the American contribution to the Alliance is worth the cost. After the 2014 troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, "the most successful alliance in history," as NATO Secretary General Rasmussen once called it, will no longer have the political and financial capital to engage in any other out-of-area mission in the short to medium term and will try to maintain its acquired know-how through a vague "connected forces initiative." In simpler terms, this means that NATO will struggle to keep its forces well trained and combat-ready, while staying clear of any unnecessary hot or high-intensity conflict. As a result, the Alliance will rediscover its Cold War strategic posture: a largely static structure, settled in Europe and waiting to be attacked.
If NATO were to become such a static institution, the alliance would also run the risk of losing its exclusive transatlantic consultation apparatus, global network of partnerships, and policymaking expertise comprising the full range of security challenges.
It is unlikely that any other country or any other regional alliance will fill this void left by a lack of European security provision. Thus, if the military weakening of Europe is not to become the most important security challenge on the agenda of the 60th Munich Security Conference, the great European powers need to stop trimming their defense budgets and slashing vital capabilities. They will also have to find better ways to work together more closely in maintaining and expanding current capabilities. Moreover, they need to develop a long-term vision that includes the needs of both Europeans and of the potential victims of gross human rights violations happening in distant operational theaters. In addition, the European governments should take their time and explain to their constituencies that peace should not always be taken for granted, and that for this status quo to be maintained, a certain amount of public spending has to be allocated accordingly. Finally, the European countries should also accept that they are the first among equals when it comes to underpinning the "responsibility to protect," as there is no one else out there who will miraculously do the job for them. Defense does matter.
Leyla Mutiu (23) is a graduate student in International Security at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris. She is one of three Junior Ambassadors at the 50th Munich Security Conference and recipient of the Ulrich Weisser Scholarship.
About the Ulrich Weisser Scholarship
The Munich Security Conference awards three annual Ulrich Weisser Scholarships. These scholarships allow three promising students or young professionals, who have qualified through an essay contest, to participate in the Munich Security Conference. The scholarships are awarded to honour the memory of Vice Admiral Ulrich Weisser, who passed away in 2013. Vice Admiral Weisser was Head of the Policy Planning Staff at the German Ministry of Defense from 1992 to 1998, author of books and many articles on security and defense issues, and one of Germany’s leading strategic thinkers of the past decades.