BRUSSELS – The Haitian earthquake has made two things horrifically clear: security challenges are not only man-made, and military forces are often a vital part of humanitarian aid. This is a timely reminder, because security and defense are now the focus of a major debate within both NATO and the European Union.
Generals, it is said, always prepare to fight the last war – an old jibe, but one that contains an element of truth. Indeed, flexibility does not come naturally to armed forces, with the result that the two decades since the end of the Cold War have seen only slow adaptation to the military’s evolving roles.
But NATO’s priorities this year include a sweeping review of its own strategic purpose, something the alliance has not questioned since 1999, while the EU continues to struggle towards its goal of forging a European defense policy worthy of the name. In both cases, there are more questions than answers.
To begin with, what is meant by security? Does it refer to the geopolitics of international relations, or to protecting society against terrorist attacks? It is both, of course, but the sort of policies that will achieve these two very different objectives is far from clear.
How America and Europe should engage with governments around the world will be crucially important in the coming years. In addition to issues like climate change, there is also a sense that other players are flexing their muscles. Is the comparatively new Shanghai Cooperation Organization a flimsy grouping of China, Russia, and the Central Asian countries, or is it shaping up to be a new global defense and security player whose existence will have serious implications for the West?
Does the birth of the G-20 strengthen the Atlantic security relationship, or does it contain the seeds of NATO’s eventual demise? Indeed, does the West’s security thinking reflect the realities of a world which within two generations will number some nine billion people?
Right now, the future of Western security is being shaped by tensions within the Atlantic relationship. There is really no consensus on whether Afghanistan is a “winnable” war, and whether the Bush administration’s “war on terror” set the West on a long-term course that may prove comparable in scale to the Cold War.
Indeed, many Europeans wonder whether American leadership in Afghanistan and elsewhere is the solution or the problem. There is probably even less agreement in both the United States and the EU on whether the security of citizens is genuinely at stake in Afghanistan, and whether the Iranian nuclear program really poses a threat to the West.
It is not that easy for Europeans to set the future security agenda when their credibility on defense matters leaves so much to be desired. Of the two million men and women in EU countries’ armed forces, only 2% are combat ready. The jury is still out on whether the European Security and Defense Policy has significantly improved the EU’s military capabilities and outreach.
Some argue that Europe needs to follow the example of its agricultural policy and introduce a CAP-style defense budget so that free-rider EU countries start to pay their way. There is also criticism that Brussels still has not done enough to persuade or even force EU governments to open up their military procurement to one another. European governments have resisted genuine opening of their national defense markets for a host of reasons, including an obsession with meeting national defense requirements, concerns over sovereignty, and a desire to protect jobs and local high-technology capabilities.
So where do we go from here? A dozen international think tanks are organizing a worldwide on-line debate, to be held from February 4-9, in association with NATO, the European Commission, and several governments. The debate will be open not just to defense experts, but also to non-governmental organizations, development specialists, and anyone with views on where global security thinking should be headed.
The five-day Internet debate will include 10 topics, ranging from human rights to piracy, from crisis preparedness to climate change, and from development to conflict prevention. Discussion will be sparked by on-line appearances by top military, political, and civil-society leaders, who will debate with participants. Anyone interested in taking part can log on from anywhere in the world to pose questions or comment on what is being said, but they need first to sign up at www.securityjam.org .
It is encouraging to see that many thousands are indeed getting involved, because without popular engagement, security will remain undefined, and the important reforms that are needed will lack political legitimacy.