European Security and Defence Policy: The First Five Years

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

September 1, 2004

Since the European Security and Defence Policy was launched five years ago, how much has been accomplished? From an American perspective, the recognition of the need for more effective European military capabilities—even if developed independently from NATO—has been welcome, but the progress toward developing those capabilities exceedingly slow. Over the past five years, enormous amounts of European leaders’ and officials’ time and energy have been devoted to developing the institutions and guidelines for European defence and for coordinating those efforts with national and other multinational organisations. Given the very disparate defence capabilities and traditions of the EU’s 25 members, such an emphasis on institutional development is probably inevitable—especially in these early stages of the project. But it has also meant that, from an American perspective, ESDP has so far appeared to be far more about process than it has been about results.

Many Americans are rightly frustrated with the imbalance between the EU’s focus on institutions and its development of capabilities. They also worry that ESDP will unnecessarily duplicate NATO’s efforts and complicate decision-making without actually adding much military value. Some are reluctant to encourage the creation of a military, and therefore political, power that has the theoretical potential to rival the United States. Ultimately, however, the United States has a strong interest in a more effective ESDP. Indeed, with such a significant proportion of American military forces now involved in Iraq, the US interest in a more capable—and potentially autonomous—EU defence capability is today greater than ever. There are risks involved in EU defence autonomy, but nothing that cannot be managed with a modicum of goodwill and pragmatism on both sides (characteristics that have admittedly been lacking in recent years). But as it considers the vast military and strategic challenges it faces in the world today, as well as the enduring common interests of Europe and the United States, Washington should be far more concerned about the EU’s military weakness than about its potential strength.


ESDP’s first five years have not been about process alone, of course. During this period, in fact, the EU undertook its first actual operations: police actions in Macedonia and Bosnia; a NATO-supported military mission in FYROM; and an autonomous EU military operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These were all small-scale missions and all could have been easily been done without involving the EU, either by a coalition of the willing within NATO or under an EU ‘lead nation’. The Congo operation, in fact, was really a French mission supported by a handful of other Europeans, onto which an EU role was grafted. But these Balkans and Africa missions were none the less good indicators of the kind of contributions the EU could make if it continues to develop the will and capability to act militarily. The EU’s role in both FYROM and Congo was an important symbol of the Union’s common security and humanitarian interests. Both also provided useful lessons in identifying what the EU would need both institutionally and militarily for future missions of this type. At the end of 2004, the EU will also take over the ongoing peacekeeping operation in Bosnia from NATO. That mission will be another important step in proving both that the EU can act and that it can act alongside NATO’s Kosovo mission without causing competition or confusion in political authority or military command. The EU is still far from ready to take on major military deployments without extensive logistical, planning and intelligence support from NATO or the United States, but it has begun to take the first steps in that direction.

This book chapter is published in EU Security and Defence Policy—the first five years (1999-2004), edited by Nicole Gnesotto (EU Institute for European Studies, 2004) and is reproduced by permission of the EU Institute for Security Studies.