The Trouble with European Defense

WASHINGTON, D.C.: The Nice summit of EU leaders achieved few of its aims, but it did push the creation of a military identity for the EU, the European Defense Initiative (EDI), forward. That movement, however, is beginning to arouse worries, both in NATO and in the United States.

It has long been a bedrock principle of American foreign policy to endorse any move to further integrate the European Union. If specific US interests might be harmed by such moves, the remedy is to seek revisions in detail, without opposing the overall initiative. Unlike the British Tories, some French Gaullists, and many Danes and Swedes, Americans do not fear the prospect of a United States of Europe, a potential competitor to be sure, but also a much-needed partner on the world scene.

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When EDI first emerged, America’s response was no different. Although some outspoken French proponents of EDI made no secret of their desire to replace NATO altogether, this being seen by them as the only way of emancipating Europe from American hegemony, that is not how EDI was officially presented and discussed in the councils of the European Union. That official EDI was to be an auxiliary to NATO not a competitor, its purpose to provide European forces for less demanding peace-keeping operations that did not require the participation of American combat forces.

American diplomacy, therefore, did nothing to oppose EDI, and even welcomed the possibility that it might induce Europe’s political elites to support more military spending, reducing the burden on the US. The seemingly endless Bosnia peacekeeping force is a case in point. If EDI would supply additional troops to allow the US Army to withdraw its 4,600 soldiers, that would suit America very well because there are many other demands on US forces around the world,

Yet in the final weeks of the Clinton Administration America’s attitude to EDI changed. In his last visit to NATO, Secretary of Defense William Cohen replaced polite approval in principle with expressions of concern that stop just short of outright opposition. The reason is simple: money. Instead of adding resources to European security, it now seems that EDI will reduce them.

Measured in constant 1999 US dollars (before the distorting effect of the fall of the Euro), all the member states of the EU are now spending some $156 billion combined on defense, very much less than in the final Cold War year of 1985 when that total came to $216 billion. Having long since collected the peace dividend, the main protagonists of EDI are still reducing their defense spending: between 1998 and 1999, France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom reduced their combined defense expenditure by a further $10 billion dollars. In other words, there is no extra money to pay for EDI, but there are all sorts of extra requirements.

Most obvious is the new European General Staff now being formed in Belgium, whose work will inevitably duplicate what NATO already does, while adding yet another military bureaucracy, with its administrative support, extra pay and allowances for service abroad, mass of documents in two languages and more. That expenditure might not be very large, but it adds to the high proportion of European military spending already consumed by each country’s defense ministry, separate headquarters for each service, and plethora of supporting bureaucracies. These, indeed, remain almost as large as in 1985, when the number of people in uniform, aircraft, warships, armor and artillery was almost twice as large as today.

Far greater, however, is the invisible cost: the 60,000 troops assigned to EDI are already organized for joint action under NATO command. Now they must be re-organized to function under the new General Staff, which is already planning its own exercises with all their costs for transport, fuel, and assorted supplies. If only because very few French officers have served in NATO commands, the joint staff work learned in almost half-a-century of NATO experience will have to be re-learned.

What is urgently needed in Europe is less bureaucratic overhead and more trained troops. Except for the British and very small elite units elsewhere, most European troops are not trained well enough for combat, or even for peacekeeping in dangerous places. That became obvious in Kosovo, where the soldiers and officers sent by most countries were incapable of elementary infantry missions such as night patrols in small teams, which were essential to controlling depredations by the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army’s fighters.

But EDI will provide no additional troops and no added combat training – joint exercises are mostly ritualistic – while requiring yet more spending on bureaucracy. For America, this means that the European forces of NATO will actually be weakened by EDI, adding to the potential burden on US combat forces. That is not something even the most polite US diplomat can welcome.