The failure of the EU as a military actor

A few weeks ago I wrote about the friction between Europe’s desire to play an important role in world affairs and its lack of investment in power, as represented by its low levels of defense spending as % of GDP since the end of the Cold War.  At the end of that piece I mentioned that no amount of cooperation on the EU-level, in its current form, can make up the difference.  I want to explain that statement a bit here in this post.  To do so requires diving into a bit of the history, structure, and ideology of the EU.  Bear with me.

Since the end of the Cold War, Europe’s role as a singular strategic actor has been increasingly evaluated.  In particular, two concepts of European power have competed for attention.  The first stresses Europe’s ability to pool and project its traditional hard power.  For many, the historic unification that occurred at Maastricht in 1992 was seen as the beginning of a “new” Europe that would “recapture its old greatness in a new political form.”[1]  According to scholar Robert Kagan, popular opinion at the time was that Europe “would be the next superpower, not only economically and politically but also militarily.  It would handle crises on the European continent, such as the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, and it would reemerge as a global player of the first rank.”  Moreover, it was proclaimed “the powerw of a unified Europe would restore, finally, the global ‘multipolarity’ that had been destroyed by the Cold War and its aftermath.”[2]  In other words, the European Union would become the equal of the United States in its ability to project traditional power abroad. The second conceptualization of European power has focused on Europe’s role as an exemplar of alternative governance structures, norms, and ideologies.  In this role,

Europe serves not as a counterweight but as a counterpoint.  What is being projected here is not power – at least, not power in its traditional, hard, form.  Instead, Europe’s influence rests on its provision of a model: a model of social order and of a particular brand of advanced capitalism, but above all a model of governance beyond the state.[3]

Whereas the first vision sees Europe as a traditional power adventuring abroad to apply its economic and military power in the name of regional interests, the latter vision sees Europe as a passive power, wielding its influence through the power of example.  Unfortunately, despite the desirability of both these visions, European leaders have seen them as mutually exclusive.  In their eyes, Europe cannot be a passive example of alternative governance norms and ideologies if it is venturing abroad, swinging its economic and military might in the name of self-interest.  Thus, Europe forced itself to choose between traditional power and the power of example.  It chose the latter.[4]

This should not come as a surprise.  After all, as Kagan notes, “Who knows better than Europeans the dangers that arise from unbridled power politics, from an excessive reliance on military force, from policies produced by national egoism and ambition, even from balance of power and raison d’etat?”[5]  Thus the long-standing aim of the European project has been to “Make wars unthinkable and materially impossible.”[6]  Inherent in this proclamation is the devaluation of military force and traditional calculations about power.  This worldview was reinforced by the specific nature of world affairs immediately following the collapse of the USSR.  The end of the Cold War and growing success of the Union lulled European leaders into a false sense of security.  With the United States unquestionably dominant and large-scale conflict on the continent seemingly impossible, the utility of military power declined precipitously.  Whereas in the Cold War Western Europe was tasked with helping fend off the Russian menace, in the post-Cold War world, Europe faced no comparable threat.  Furthermore, this situation was seen as more than temporary; the likelihood that a new threat comparable to the old Soviet challenge would emerge was seen as practically zero.  This optimism was based, in large part, on scholar Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of “the end of history.” According to Fukuyama,

The United States and other liberal democracies will have to come to grips with the fact that, with the collapse of the communist world, the world in which they live is less and less the old one of geopolitics, and that the rules and methods of the historical world are not appropriate to life in the post-historical one.  For the latter, the major issues will be economic ones like promoting competitiveness and innovation, managing internal and external deficits, maintaining full employment, dealing cooperatively with grave environmental problems, and the like…The post-historical world is one in which the desire for comfortable self-preservation has been elevated over the desire to risk one’s life in a battle for pure prestige, and in which universal and rational recognition has replaced the struggle for domination.[7]

It is this worldview that Europe so heartily embraced following the end of the Cold War.  In fact, Fukuyama saw the then-European Community as the “institutional embodiment of the end of history.”[8]  As a result, traditional forms of power and ways of thinking about power were shunned.  The “new” superpower Europe, a full rival or partner of the United States, never emerged.  In its place was an economic giant that, in the words of Robert Kagan, had “stepped out of the Hobbesian world of anarchy into the Kantian world of perpetual peace.”[9]

Yet Fukuyama’s argument was more nuanced than the Europeans realized.  According to scholar Richard Betts, Fukuyama

Did not claim that history had fully ended; rather, he argued that it was in the process of ending, with the main obstacles overcome but loose ends still to be tied up.  His main point was that “liberal democracy remains the only coherent political aspiration that spans different regions and cultures across the globe,” but he recognized that illiberal politics and conflict would persist for some time in the developing world, which remains “stuck in history.”[10]

Hence, it is clear that when Fukuyama spoke of the “end of history” he was referring solely to the developed world at the time.  Conflict between the developed nations of the world was a thing of the past but conflict within the undeveloped world, or between the developed and undeveloped world would persist until the undeveloped world reached the final, inalterable destination of liberal democracy.  Thus, Europe’s Kantian paradise of perpetual peace was a farce – calm, peaceful Europe was surrounded by the continuing anarchy and insecurity of “history.”[11]

Two events illustrated the farcical nature of Europe’s position.  The first was the crisis in the Balkans throughout the 1990s but especially its culmination in the Kosovo War in 1998-99.  While Yugoslavia represents the periphery of Europe, the conflict still occurred on European soil, shattering the notion that Europe as a whole had moved past armed struggle.  More troublesome was the EU’s inability to deal with the conflict.  Initially, according to Kagan, “ Europeans declared they would act – it was, they insisted ‘the hour of Europe’ – but the declaration proved hollow when it became clear that Europe could not act even in Bosnia without the United States.”[12]  Thus it wasn’t until 1995 when NATO, led by the U.S., intervened in Bosnia and 1998 until NATO acted in Kosovo.  Unable to act alone, even within its own continent, Europe had to defer to U.S. policymakers and generals to lead the action. It was, in short, humiliating. [13]

The second event was the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the United States and the subsequent attacks on European cities.  These atrocities brought reality crashing down upon Europe.  The EU’s internal calm was shattered; “history” had returned to Europe. Commendably, in the wake of Kosovo and 9/11, the EU began reevaluating its power position.  Senior British diplomat and EU official Robert Cooper offered a particularly noteworthy way forward.  He argued,

The challenge to the postmodern world is to get used to the idea of double standards.  Among ourselves, we operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security.  But when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of states outside the postmodern continent of Europe, we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era – force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the nineteenth century world of every state for itself.  Among ourselves, we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle.  In the prolonged period of peace in Europe, there has been a temptation to neglect our defences, both physical and psychological.  This represents one of the greatest dangers of the postmodern state.[14]

Thus Cooper offered a solution to the seemingly impossible problem of the mutually exclusive options of being either a global governance model or a global strategic power.  Acting in line with Cooper’s thinking, European leaders began searching for ways to increase the EU’s ability to engage in armed conflict.  In late 1998, British Prime Minister Tony Blair (whom Cooper advised) reached out to French President Jacques Chirac “with an unprecedented offer to add Britain’s weight to hitherto stalled efforts to create a common European Union defense capability.”[15] While Blair and Chirac won EU approval for building a rapid reaction force of 60,000 troops that could be deployed abroad within 60 days for up to a year, the project never got off the ground due to bureaucratic red tape and widespread buckpassing on the question of who would staff and fund such a venture.  A few years later, in 2003, the “battlegroups” initiative was proposed.   A less ambitious version of the rapid reaction force, battlegroups are small, well-rounded forces of around 1,500 troops that are deployable abroad within 15 days and sustainable for a minimum of 30 days.  Unlike the larger rapid reaction force, the battlegroups initiative actually took form.  Today, there are 18 operational battlegroups with two on standby at any given time.

To complement the new movement on military cooperation, the EU released a European Security Strategy in 2003 where it outlined the foundation for its newly muscular foreign policy.  Focusing on five key threats (terrorism, proliferation of WMD, regional conflicts, state failure, and organized crime) the EU declared its intentions to be more active, more capable of acting, and more united – “As a Union of 25 members, spending more than 160 billion Euros on defence, we should be able to sustain several operations simultaneously.”[16]  Yet, despite the standing up of the battlegroups and the crafting of a strategic vision, the EU’s ability to engage in armed conflict is still minimal for a number of reasons.  First and most importantly, control of the much-touted battlegroups (and the rest of the Common Security and Defense Policy) requires the unanimous decision of the European Council, which makes their usability highly suspect.  As a result, member states find it easier to act on their own in the realm of security policy than through the CSDP.  In fact, Finland has become so frustrated with the futility of the battlegroup project (they have never been deployed) that it is thinking of dropping out of the Nordic Battlegroup altogether.[17]  In this sense, the failure of the EU to use its new capabilities means it will lose them over time, as country after country becomes disenchanted with paying hundreds of millions of Euros a year to fund a defunct project.  In short, the EU lacks an effective command and control system that could put to use any military capability it builds.[18]

Second, as I highlighted in my previous post, European defense spending is remarkably low.  From 1990-2010, only three countries – Britain, France, and Greece – met NATO’s requirement to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense.[19]  As a result, Europe has been unable to close the capability gap that made it so dependent upon the U.S. in the Balkans. Third, concerns over the “German problem” remain an impediment to even more serious military cooperation.  As the wealthiest nation within the EU and one of the most capable militarily, Germany would naturally have a robust role to play in any truly serious form of cooperation.  Yet, as Kagan notes, to this day “the French are still not confident they can trust the Germans, and the Germans are still not confident they can trust themselves.”[20]  This prevailing distrust clouds serious attempts at building a robust EU military capability.[21]

Finally, differences in opinion between EU member states on key issues such as how to treat Russia, NATO, and the United States complicate efforts to build a common strategic vision beyond the generalizations put forth in the ESS.[22]  The result of all these problems is the lack of a true EU military capability despite years of effort.  As scholars Paul Cornish and Geoffrey Edwards see it, the EU has not backed up its talk with meaningful actions.  They state,

Having declared their will to act, in the European Security Strategy and elsewhere, EU governments appear so far to have been reluctant to provide themselves with all the means they themselves have argued are necessary.  The pace and quality of its capability acquisition process have two main implications for the EU in its ambition to become a strategic actor.  First, the transatlantic technology gap is plainly not being closed by the EU’s military capability programme.  Second, another credibility gap is emerging between the EU’s strategic expectations, on the one hand, and its actual crisis management capability, on the other.  Viewed from the narrow, albeit indispensible, perspective of capabilities, the EU’s pursuit of a strategic identity is comprehensible in declaratory terms, but its inadequate implementation appears to risk strategic isolation from the US as well as operational inadequacy.[23]

Ultimately, the European Union has the economic resources and the strategic need to develop a powerful military force.[24]  However, despite its ability to act as a pole of power in other areas, it has so far been incapable of doing so in the military realm due to a decision-making process that amplifies disagreements, the prolonged lack of investment in military power, and a history of mistrust.  That is why today, the European Union remains an “economic giant, but political dwarf.”[25]

[1] Kagan, Robert. Of Paradise and Power. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. Page 20.
[2] Kagan, Of Paradise and Power. Page 20.
[3] Hurrell, Andrew. “One World? Many Worlds? The Place of Regions in the Study of International Society.” International Affairs 83.1 (2007): 127-146. Page 139.
[4] And it has been very successful in this position.  According to scholar Mikhail Molchanov, “The European example of transnational governance – and governability – has set a standard that defies the conventional view of international relations as essentially an anarchical arena of hegemonic struggles, strategic self-interest, and zero-sum games…In those terms Europe is a success story and a proven and promising model.” Molchanov, Mikhail A. “Regionalism and Globalization: The Case of the European Union.” Perspectives on Global Development and Technology 4.3 (2005): 431-446. Page 444.
[5] Kagan, Of Paradise and Power. Pages 55-56.
[6] Schuman, Robert. “Declaration of 9 May 1950.” Accessed April 10th, 2011. Found at:
[7] Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Avon Books, 1992. Page 283.
[8] Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man. Page 67.
[9] Kagan, Of Paradise and Power. Page 57.
[10] Betts, Richard K. “Conflict or Cooperation?” Foreign Affairs (November/December 2010). Accessed March 30th, 2011. Found at:
[11] As Kagan notes in his other book The Return of History and the End of Dreams “The modern democratic world wanted to believe that the end of the Cold War did not just end one strategic and ideological conflict but all strategic and ideological conflict.  People and their leaders longed for ‘a world transformed.’  But that was a mirage.  The world has not been transformed.  In most places, the nation-state remains as strong as ever, and so, too, the nationalist ambitions, the passions, and the competition among nations that have shaped history.  The United States remains the sole superpower.  But international competition among great powers has returned, with Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India, Iran, the United States, and others vying for regional predominance.  Struggles for status and influence in the world have returned as central features of the international scene.  The old competition between liberalism and autocracy has also reemerged, with the world’s great powers increasingly lining up according to the nature of their regimes.  And an even older struggle has erupted between radical Islamists and the modern secular cultures and powers that they believe have dominated, penetrated, and polluted their Islamic world.  As these three struggles combine and collide, the promise of a new era of international convergence fades.  We have entered an age of divergence.” Kagan, Robert. The Return of History and the End of Dreams. New York: Vintage Books, 2008. Pages 3-4.
[12] Kagan, Of Paradise and Power. Page 42.
[13] As Kagan notes, “For Europe the depressing fact remained that because the Kosovo war was fought with ‘American equipment,’ it was fought largely according to ‘American doctrine.’  For all Europe’s great economic power and for all its success at achieving political union, Europe’s military weakness had produced diplomatic weakness and sharply diminished its political influence compared to that of the United States, even in a crisis in Europe.” Kagan, Of Paradise and Power. Pages 47-48.
[14] Cooper, Robert. “The new liberal imperialism.” The Guardian, April 7th, 2002. Accessed March 30th, 2011. Found at:
[15] Kagan, Of Paradise and Power. Page 52.
[16] European Union. “European Security Strategy.” Page 11.
[17] O’ Dwyer, Gerard. “Nordic Council Urges Better Defense Cooperation.” Defense News, January 10th, 2011.
[18] In his article “The EU – A Capable Security Actor” scholar Pernille Rieker goes into great detail on the organizational chaos that is the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy.
[19] NATO. “Financial and Economic Data Relating to NATO Defence.” March 2011.  Found at:
[20] Kagan, page 63.
[21] This distrust is also apparent within NATO, although far less severely due to the mollifying presence of the United States at the table.  In the famous words of Lord Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, the purpose of the organization was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
[22] Examples of strategic discord include the divisions over the Iraq War, the 2008 Russia-Georgian War, and the current conflict in Libya, where Germany is refusing to participate.
[23] Cornish, Paul and Geoffrey Edwards. “The Strategic Culture of the European Union.” International Affairs 81.4 (2005): 801-820. Page 806.
[24] With over 500 million people and a collective GDP of $16.5 trillion, the EU could establish a military force capable of matching or exceeding the United States’.
[25] Belgian Foreign Minister. New York Times, 25 January 1991, cited by J. McCormick in Understanding the European Union. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Page 197.