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Get rid of reassurance

Image credit: Matt May

Image credit: Matt May

Is it not striking how surprised we in Europe are about the turmoil in our broad neighbourhood? After all, this region has regularly seen conflict since the end of the Cold War, which was inaugurated by the First Gulf War and the civil war in Yugoslavia. The south has then been shaken by civil wars in Algeria and Somalia, the Second Intifada and multiple Israeli offensives in Gaza and Lebanon, and the invasion of Iraq and subsequent civil war. In the east conflict in Yugoslavia ended only after the Kosovo war, whereas the Caucasus has been as unstable as the Balkans, witnessing clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the war in Chechnya, and the Russo-Georgian war.

It is true that in 2015 many crises coincide, which enhances the pervasive sense that we are continuously running after the facts. But to speak of game-changers that have altered the face of European security is to overstate the case. Algeria already demonstrated how religious extremism can fuel a gruesome civil war and how easy that can spill over to Europe. Chechnya and Iraq already showed how religiously framed conflict can attract foreign combatants. The Russo-Georgian war ought to have made us understand that at least since 2008, if not before, Moscow regarded itself to be engaged in a zero-sum game and was willing to use force to create an exclusive sphere of interest. And is not hybrid warfare something that during the Cold War both sides excelled at? Had Europe, the United States (US) and Russia established a true partnership of trust, that would have been a game-changer, but that window of opportunity has been closed for now.

Why then are we so surprised? Between ourselves we of course no longer need to think about geopolitics and defence. The extent to which we have pooled our sovereignty in the EU has made conflict impossible. But it seems that many capitals, and certainly Europeans collectively (be it in NATO or the EU), have also lost the habit and the expertise to analyse the world around us in geopolitical terms. This explains our blindness to Russia’s perception of our eastern Neighbourhood Policy: no longer viewing the world through the lens of great power competition ourselves, we could not imagine that Russia still did. For a long time the US did little to encourage us to change this negligent attitude, for the less independent strategic thinking, the more pliant the ally. Perhaps therefore the underlying reason of our surprise and unease is that in the past we did not feel responsible for crisis management. For the reward of our subservience was that the US assumed responsibility to initiate and to provide the bulk of the forces for crisis management in our neighbourhood. The one time we did feel it was the hour of Europe and tried to take charge ourselves, in former Yugoslavia, we failed spectacularly, which only reinforced our dependence on Washington.

Today however subservience is no longer sufficient to secure American support. For sure, American demands for more equal burden-sharing are as old as NATO itself. But it is no longer just about putting more tanks and artillery into the path of a presumed Soviet invasion. In the face of the rebalancing or ‘pivot’ of its own strategy towards Asia and the Pacific, the US seeks to maintain a much more hands-off approach. The US remains committed to NATO’s Article 5, because the security of Europe’s territory is a vital American interest. But it will no longer automatically take the lead in addressing non-Article 5 security issues around Europe that do not directly menace its European allies. Henceforth the US not only expects Europeans to contribute to the Alliance’s defences in the east as well as to US-led crisis management operations. Washington ideally wants Europeans to initiate crisis management themselves, preferably in an early stage, before a crisis escalates and can still be addressed without overly relying on American assets.

Events will of course force the US to get involved wherever its interests are threatened, but that does not alter its fundamental strategic calculus: the main challenge is seen to emerge from Asia. This is a pivot, not a pirouette: a structural rebalancing rather than a constant to and fro. Therefore even when the US does engage around Europe, it does so much more reluctantly than before. Not just because its eyes are fixed on China, but also because of a growing feeling of overstretch as its defence budget is under pressure (massive though it remains compared to everyone else’s), the decreasing bond with Europe of many of the political leadership (especially in Congress), and the sense of insufficiency after a series of failed or at most moderately successful interventions.

The latter points to an additional layer to Europeans’ surprise and unease: the feeling that the US is fallible. American interventions have of course failed before, but either we saw the resulting situation as ‘their’ problem (Iraq was more or less off the radar screen in both NATO and EU Brussels, hence our surprise when Syria and Iraq suddenly became a single theatre) or we considered it too far from home to be considered a problem at all (Afghanistan and, before, Vietnam). The current crises are very close to home, however, and nobody feels confident that e.g. the US-led coalition against the self-entitled Islamic State (IS) will be successful. Yet we in Europe will somehow have to deal with the crises around us, with or without the US, either comprehensively and in theatre or defensively at our borders, because our interests are foremost at stake.

How have Europeans reacted in reality? We have asked to be reassured. Ever since the crisis in Ukraine, many have clamoured for visible action in order to prove that Article 5 is to be taken seriously. Read: that the Americans will defend us. The higher the clamour is raised, the more it provokes the question: was it not to be taken that seriously before then? In NATO surprise seemed to reign at the ability of the Russian military to pull off the deployment in the Crimea, whereas one would have expected that keeping abreast of Russian military developments was one of the Alliance’s core tasks. Is Europe really as vulnerable as it feels, in spite of being the largest economic bloc and, collectively, the second military power in the world? Rather than advertising a feeling of insecurity, NATO and its members simply ought to have confidently stated that Article 5 always was and always will be the strongest possible guarantee and that therefore Europe’s own territory is secure. Which it is, for the Russian armed forces as a whole are no party for NATO precisely because the Americans will indeed defend us. Europeans ought to have addressed the crisis with self-assurance and resolution from the start.

NATO can indeed provide reassurance. But reassurance does not in itself address any crisis. In fact the real crisis management in the case of Ukraine is a matter of diplomacy and sanctions, which vis-à-vis Russia Europeans can only lever through the collective weight of the EU. One positive consequence of the crisis is that in Washington, NATO headquarters as in European capitals it is now widely accepted that all parts of the European security architecture are vital to deliver the vaunted comprehensive approach: NATO, the EU and the nations. But the implications go further than the need to align the EU’s trade and diplomacy with NATO’s military instruments. Many have begun to see a new division of labour emerging. With their minds focused on collective defence, many expect that crisis management in all of its dimensions will increasingly have to be politically initiated by Europeans, and ideally by the EU. A US where restraint is likely to be the order of the day would actually welcome such a development. The interventions in Libya in 2011 and in Mali in 2013 already were European, though not EU, initiatives. So far however Europe has neither consistently followed up these interventions in order to consolidate their effect (as in Libya) nor consistently initiated responses to all crises in its neighbourhood (as in Syria).

To say that Europe should feel less surprised and less vulnerable is anything but a call for complacency. It is a strong plea for us Europeans to get rid of the mind-set of dependence and reassurance, which is at the heart of our complacency about defence (why bother, if the US cavalry will come anyway?), and to take charge of stabilising our neighbourhood ourselves.

Vol. 7, No. 6 (2015)

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