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After Nice: The Discreet Emergence of a Military Partner for the United States

The December 2000 European Union summit in Nice was widely presented in the press in both Europe and America as a failure of French diplomacy. Yet the field of defense and international security provides an instance where the aims pursued by the main European partners were successfully achieved. The European Union will now proceed with creating a rapid reaction force. Indeed the political and military structure for managing the force is already in place. This was accomplished without the fanfare usually associated with French diplomatic successes, and went relatively unnoticed. French diplomats had not suddenly become modest about their achievements. But too much focus on the new EU force could have undermined the detailed negotiations that had laid the groundwork for the program.

Reasons for a Quiet Reception

Diplomatic reasons required the French to be discreet about the success of European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP). First, upcoming elections in the United Kingdom made it imperative to avoid giving the British Conservatives an easy opportunity to criticize the Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair was already under attack from the opposition on the grounds that he had weakened NATO by pursuing the common security policy agreed to at the Anglo-French summit in Saint-Malo. The Labour argument that ESDP would actually strengthen the transatlantic organization is right in fact. But electoral politics by nature favors facile arguments, and it would have been unwise to allow anti-European Tories to use this as a weapon with which to criticize the British government.

Loudly claiming success on ESDP after Nice could have embarrassed the Blair administration. The French, who held the presidency of the European Union at the time, saw that this would have been detrimental to the implementation of the complex program agreed to among EU member states over the past two years. The point was made clearly to the French leadership when President Chirac said, in an aside at the November Capabilities Commitment Conference, that the objective of ESDP was to create an independent Europe. This statement led the British press to unleash a torrent of anti-European commentary. As a result, the British government felt obliged to show restraint in the preparation of the Nice summit, and in particular to resist the extension of reinforced cooperation-a procedure that would allow the project to move forward without unanimous consent-to the ESDP process.

The second reason to keep the achievements of Nice reasonably quiet had to do with possible political reactions in the United States. The new Administration was likely to be divided between a small group supporting European autonomy and a larger set of unreconstructed NATO devotees preferring to maintain the Atlantic Alliance unchanged. Moreover, any result obtained while France was holding the six-monthly presidency of the European Union was likely to be viewed with suspicion by many Americans. Trumpeting the French success with ESDP too loudly could have made it more difficult to carry out in practice. This suggests, somewhat paradoxically, that future progress on sensitive issues such as European defense and security policy may be easier to achieve under a less overtly committed presidency. Even if the need for a French political victory had outweighed the drawbacks listed above, it would have been difficult to overcome the overall impression of failure that prevailed in most assessments of the summit. The Nice success, after all, consisted mainly in incorporating into a treaty results already achieved at earlier meetings, such as the Helsinki summit of 2000. Most results pertaining to defense and security had therefore been mentioned and analyzed by the press on earlier occasions.

Nor, perhaps, should one overstate the political importance of the results achieved. The fact that fifteen European nations, blessed with a high standard of living, equipped with standing military forces numbering more than two million troops, whose military budgets represent sixty-five percent of the US military budget, can muster in two to three years a projection force of sixty thousand, may not be of such extraordinary note as to justify great celebration. It is important that the Europe is creating a Rapid Reaction Force capable of operating without American participation. But it is hardly revolutionary.

The Institutional Structure of the ESDP

It would nonetheless also be wrong to underestimate the progress made by the Europeans on ESDP. The progress should be viewed as much in practical as in political terms. Indeed, if the process chosen by the European nations has had a fault, it has been their decision to place excessive public and political emphasis on the new institutional structure. To a large extent, the real work of ESDP has been pursued in a perhaps mundane but altogether more pragmatic and hence probably more effective manner.

The institutional structure is now in place. It is ironic that the French, traditionally critical of NATO’s structure, have chosen to replicate this structure when confronted with the need to establish the institutions of a European Security and Defense Policy. Is this, in the words of an old French adage, “the homage that vice pays to virtue”, or is it the sign of a newly found French pragmatism? In any case, whenever Americans decide that they cannot participate, operations conducted by the European force will be overseen politically by the Security Policy Committee, known by its French acronym COPS. This council is composed of Permanent Representatives of ambassadorial rank placed within the national missions to the European Union and under their nominal control. COPS will be advised on military matters by the EU Military Committee, an analog to the NATO Military Committee, with permanent delegates representing the national chiefs of defense.

The only NATO institution that is not replicated in the ESDP context is the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). The EU force will rely to a large degree on existing SHAPE facilities, especially in the areas of operational planning, intelligence and communications. This plan was endangered by the NATO ministerial meeting in December 2000, at which Turkey denied the European Union access to such NATO assets. Confronted with the risk of failure by their inability to use NATO facilities, the Europeans would have no option but to build a duplicating command structure. EU nations would have to establish their own planning and C4i (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence) facilities alongside SHAPE. It is to be hoped that Turkey, perhaps under friendly pressure from the United States, will recognize that its present position would create a serious rift within NATO. The April 2001 EU-NATO meeting raised some hope that this will be possible.

The more impressive, if little known, European achievement has been the effective implementation of so-called headline goals, proclaimed in the fall of 1999. In order to achieve these goals-to project in a few weeks a sixty thousand-strong rapid reaction force capable of staying in situ for more than one year-Europe needs not only to mobilize some 180,000 personnel, to allow for rotations and attrition, but also to develop projection capabilities, necessary firepower, and local communications equipment. These capabilities need to be made sufficiently interoperable to allow the European forces to be effective on the ground and in the air. Anyone familiar with the difficulties in reaching interoperability within NATO, and even among the US military services, can easily appreciate the undertaking.

Military Budget
(% of 1998 GDP)
Troops pledged


TOTAL: 65,500

Source: International Herald Tribune, 20 November 2000; SIPRI.

The Value of the European Union

Given these challenges, the importance of the specific commitments made to the European rapid reaction force by individual countries cannot be overstated. The November 2000 “pledging conference” was designed precisely to affirm national commitments to the EU force and to give their commitments international weight. These pledges could prove particularly helpful to national governments, and especially to national defense ministries, which will have to resist future attempts by politicians or treasuries to reduce or delay the purchase of necessary military equipment. The fact that these pledges were made in an EU context will prove especially valuable in those countries where financial authorities commonly reduce defense budgets in their attempts to maintain EU-imposed public-spending-to-GDP ratios.

In this sense, the EU decision-making system is proving effective. National governments are familiar with it, and they know they cannot thwart EU agreements without paying a heavy political price. The United States in particular should welcome its implementation in the military sphere. Legitimate American concerns about European nations’ low defense spending-Germany’s above all-are likely to be met effectively in the EU context, which gives a “European” legitimacy for the first time to upward pressures on military budgets. By doing it “their way”, rather than going through a NATO process that has proved ineffective in this respect, the Europeans are more likely to improve their military capabilities to the benefit of the Atlantic Alliance as a whole.

The military staffs of pledging countries have agreed on the equipment and assets needed to give effectiveness to the European Rapid Reaction Force. All these resources will not be available immediately. Participating countries have made specific commitments to obtain them before the end of 2003, and these commitments have now been endorsed at the highest political level at the Nice summit. Those countries in Europe with a serious engagement in military matters, such as Britain and France, are now in a position to apply pressure to their peers should they hesitate to implement their pledges. In absolute terms of course, the main problem is with Germany, whose share of GDP devoted to defense spending has decreased steadily from 2.4 percent on the eve of reunification to only 1.4 percent today. Fortunately, Germany is also most reluctant to be seen as opposing a European project. This psychological disposition may help induce the German government to fulfill its commitments, including, if necessary, raising defense expenditure. The headline goals provide Germany with its best chance to update military systems, including professionalisation, and to ensure that adequate resources are available.

ESDP Will Benefit the Atlantic Alliance

The process of creating a rapid reaction force in the EU context is underway. The forthcoming election in Britain is slowing it down somewhat at present, at least in political terms, but it will start again in earnest once the election is over. This is desirable both from an Alliance and therefore also from an American viewpoint. It gives the United States the best chance of obtaining a partner in managing security crises in and around Europe. It also gives Europeans, and their American ally, a guarantee against a resurgence of US isolationism and unilateralism. A steady European partner should strengthen American internationalism by emphasizing the need for consultation before taking action. It will also ensure a more equal sharing of responsibilities, and thereby bring the world views of the two partners closer together. So long as Europe feels incapable of military action, it will adhere to a purely civil approach to international issues and continue to deny the importance of force in obliging local parties to solve their problems. This can in turn render government and public opinion in Europe skeptical of or even hostile to American attempts to impose solutions by military means. Conversely, the existence of a real partner for the United States in all dimensions of international policy, including military policy, would have the advantage of integrating an alliance approach at all stages of crisis management. This could in turn strengthen the case for US participation not only in military but also in civil efforts such as diplomacy, reconstruction and nation-building. Hence ESDP offers a strong basis for a mutually acceptable transatlantic bargain.

Guillaume Parmentier is head of the French Center on the United States at the French Institute on International Relations (IFRI) and non-resident Professor of International Relations at Paris II University.


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