The Future of EU-U.S. Security and Defense Cooperation: What Lies Ahead?

October 3, 2011

For the sake of both European and international security, Europeans would do well to listen to their U.S. counterparts and improve their individual as well as collective military capabilities.

In stark contrast to the early years of the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy, when then British Prime Minister Tony Blair would try to reassure the Clinton and Bush administrations that EU defence cooperation was in the interest of the United States, in the run up to the United Kingdom’s general election in autumn of 2009, officials within the Obama administration were trying to convince the British Conservative Party that EU defense efforts were in the interests of the United Kingdom. The episode highlights the shifts in attitudes towards Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) which have occurred on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years. It also brings to the fore some of the challenges facing future transatlantic defense cooperation.

After initial concerns that CSDP might pose a threat to NATO, the primary preoccupation in Washington has become the continued deterioration of European armed forces. Under the Obama administration, the United States has even started publicly questioning the ability of Europeans and Americans to continue confronting shared military threats. As a result, the United States has become increasingly supportive of any initiative which might lead to stronger European defense capabilities, including EU efforts.

But on the other side of the Atlantic, interest in EU defense cooperation – and defense matters more broadly – has fallen. Over a decade after CSDP was launched, governments have failed to fulfill many of its objectives. In response to the economic crisis, EU states have signed up to a variety of EU – and NATO – initiatives designed to limit the impact of their defense spending cuts through closer ‘pooling and sharing’ amongst their armed forces. But EU officials believe that, once more, governments will not deliver on their commitments. While Britain, one of the original drivers behind CSDP, has concluded that EU defense cooperation is a waste of time. For the Conservative-led coalition, the Libyan conflict has confirmed that most European countries will never be committed to defense.

The declining interest in CSDP – and defense more broadly – among European governments risks creating security challenges for them in the future. Because of shifts in the global balance of power, security interests between the United States and Europe no longer fully overlap. From Washington’s perspective, the principle threats to U.S. security are no longer in Europe, but in the Middle East, the Pacific and South East Asia. In addition, the scope for what U.S. policymakers describe as ‘wars of choice’ is likely to be curtailed over the next few years as the United States introduces its own defense cuts and the public appetite for military interventions remains low in the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. As a result – as has already occurred in Libya – the United States is increasingly likely to insist that Europeans take the lead in conflicts which are of interest mainly to them.

But under current trends, European military capabilities will be incapable of playing a leading role, particularly if the regional crises which occur are sizeable or in locations which are hard to get to. Even Britain and France are likely to find it increasingly difficult to stem conflicts. Much of the military equipment that the UK has been using in Libya is due to be decommissioned as part of its on-going defense cuts, while France struggled to keep its aircraft carrier operational during the mission.

As a result, there is a risk that in future, certain conflicts within Europe’s neighborhood will simply remain unaddressed. At times, European inaction might only damage the credibility of the EU’s claims to be a ‘force for good in the world’. However, in a worst case scenario, this inaction could put European security at risk. For Europe’s wellbeing and international security more broadly, Europeans would do well to give heed to the encouragements from their U.S. counterparts and improve their military capabilities – including through CSDP.