PARIS – In less than two years, France has carried out three decisive foreign military interventions. In March 2011, its airstrikes in Libya (alongside those of Great Britain) thwarted Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s troops as they prepared to retake the city of Benghazi. A month later, French forces in Côte d’Ivoire arrested President Laurent Gbagbo, who had refused to recognize his rival’s election victory, putting the country at risk of civil war. Now France has intervened in Mali.
The latest intervention was initially planned as part of a European mission to support African forces, but France abruptly decided to act unilaterally to blunt the advance of Islamists who threatened to overrun Mopti, the last barrier before reaching the capital, Bamako. Beyond that objective, France seeks to protect its many nationals in the region; maintain stability in the Sahel, where states are very weak; and prevent Mali’s transformation into a base of Islamist terrorism directed at Europe.
A lot is at stake – all the more so because French intervention is likely to be extensive. While the Islamists have been temporarily defeated, they are well armed and receive supplies from Libya via Algeria, which has suppressed Islamists at home but seems to turn a blind eye to their transit through its territory. Moreover, the capabilities of the Malian army and those of other West African countries that are supposed to join the operation are too weak to turn the tide. The United States tried to train the Malian army, but failed miserably.
So, with the security of Europe as a whole at stake, why is France the only country involved?
One explanation is to view the intervention as a neo-colonial bid to protect a French preserve. This is a profound error. France has no interest in protecting a Malian regime that it knows to be corrupt and incompetent; indeed, France recently refused to support a request from President François Bozizé’s regime in the neighboring Central African Republic for aid in dealing with rebels.
France’s motivations are broader. In particular, France has always considered Sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world to be natural spheres of political and strategic influence that are necessary to maintaining its position as a global power.
The second explanation is more credible: France, aside from Great Britain, is Europe’s only true military power. It believes that operational military capability is a condition of power – a view that is not shared by the overwhelming majority of European states, which continue to display a collective aversion to war.
To be sure, Europe has the means for joint action. In 2003, following the start of the Iraq war, Europe embraced a strategy prepared by Javier Solana, then the European Union’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy. But, while a large number of Europeans naively believed that this was the prelude to a joint European strategy, the proposal was drafted in terms that were so vague as to allow any outcome – or none.
The EU’s Lisbon Treaty mentions “permanent structured cooperation” in security and defense policy, and an entire institutional apparatus of political and military committees exists to anticipate, prepare for, and implement military operations at the European level. But this mechanism lacks the common political will needed to activate it; the less it is used, the less usable it will become.
During the Libyan crisis, Solana’s successor, Catherine Ashton, deliberately sought to limit the EU’s role to that of a super-NGO focused on humanitarian aid and economic development. Recently, during the vote on Palestinian representation at the United Nations, the EU called for its members to abstain – an odd way to affirm Europe’s commitment to global leadership.
For Great Britain, Europe-wide defense is a nonstarter. Britain has deviated from this principle only once, when it agreed to participate in the Atalanta anti-piracy operation off the Horn of Africa – probably because it was placed in command. As a result, those who want a common European defense capability lack the means to create it, while those who have the means to create it do not want it (with the possible exception of France).
Britain’s bilateral cooperation with France – highlighted during the Libyan crisis – is sometimes very strong. But, despite the two countries’ 2010 treaty on defense and security cooperation, the British have decided, for budgetary reasons, to acquire aircraft that will not be compatible with French aircraft carriers.
Even Spain and Italy, the two countries most affected by developments in the Mediterranean and the Sahel, have reduced their military expenditures significantly. Unlike Germany, both participated in the Libyan intervention, but with highly limiting rules of engagement for their forces. For example, Italian naval forces were instructed to avoid the waters off the coast of Tripoli, and Spanish tanker aircraft were forbidden to refuel fighter jets.
Europe as a whole currently devotes only 1.6% of its GDP to defense, compared to 4.8% for the US. It is the only world region where military expenditures are decreasing. Its deployed forces are extremely small, accounting for 4% of all military personnel worldwide, versus 14% for the US. Industrial cooperation, which could constitute an economic and military asset, is also weakening, as demonstrated by Germany’s successful opposition to the proposed EADS/BAE merger, which was officially canceled in October.
Germany had seemed to embark on a more robust policy since its participation in military operations in Afghanistan. Now, however, it recoils at any prospect of military intervention, even as it remains the world’s third-largest arms exporter.
Europe is reluctant to develop a substantial military force, because the European project was created in opposition to the idea of power. Yet this stance has become untenable. Europe faces real threats, which France alone cannot contain. Moreover, the international system is increasingly coalescing around national powers that consider military force to be an essential prerequisite of influence. Europe does not face a choice between soft and hard power. It must combine both if it is to survive.