External Action

The power of alliance

Andrew Woodcock / Sep 2015

Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign and security chief, and Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO. Photo: European Union

The EU contains the seeds of Utopia, so they say: where the engineers are German, the cooks French, the Policemen British, the lovers Italian, and so on. Though let’s avoid the converse- even where the cooks are British….? As with the old joke, so with European defence: we can choose to develop notable complementarities. Or not.

Europe faces a range of complex security threats not seen since the late 1940s. This ring of fire includes conventional tensions with a resurgent Russia combining with ideological threats from Islamic State and the broader asymmetric menace of terrorism. Each could be deadly. Waves of immigration from Syria and through North Africa and anti-globalisation mindsets add to the mix. Meanwhile, Europe itself, so often in history the world’s sorgenkind, remains a haven of (relative) peace. For now.

In hard military terms, the EU and member states should be a force to be reckoned with: over 1 million under arms puts us fairly close to the US and well ahead of Russia as a forces-enabler – and with hardware to match. We are further behind the US on spending and technological innovation, but still strong by global comparison. The UK and France are P5 nuclear powers with military professionalism and global experience. Germany has major clout. In Iraq and Afghanistan others too have ably demonstrated niche strengths and deployability.

With good reason, NATO remains the cornerstone for collective defence and ultimate guarantor of our peace- inter alia it links the EU to massive US capabilities and influence. Understandably, France, the UK and others are committed to independent military capabilities. And free-rider challenges exist - it has been hard to make sure member states contribute adequately to protect the peace dividend that benefits us all richly.

Notwithstanding these realities, the EU jointly could certainly do more to combat the grave threats we face. Fortunately, the Lisbon Treaty enables deeper defence cooperation and with 22 out of NATO’s 28 members being EU members, existing shared NATO military doctrines help in this. We can leverage our assets better, play to complementary strengths and avoid duplication of effort. For example, to do more and better we could share more activities where costs of particular technology or hardware are prohibitive for individual states, or where tasks are standard and non-sensitive. Countries that under-contribute to EU defence could at least adequately help fund the costs of preserving a stable Europe.

Crucially, the EU can be strong precisely where NATO finds it hard to intervene effectively- where hard power alone cannot bring regional stabilisation and consequently where varied soft power responses and political dialogue options are required. Indeed, Napoleon, who knew more than most about successful European campaigns, believed that “in the long run the sword will always be conquered by the spirit”.

The EU has something of this “spirit” when acting together, boasting enviable soft power assets and strong narratives: a major slice of world GDP (23% in 2012); the largest trading entity; almost 60% of all development aid; diversity of history and culture combined with a geography stretching from the Arctic to Africa and from the Atlantic to the Urals. Having 500million citizens puts the EU third behind China and India demographically. In parts, quality of life is among the highest anywhere in the world. Robust democracies and respect for human rights mean that many aspire to be like or associate with us.

All this matters especially in an uncertain world where we cannot foresee where the next crisis may occur or where civilian competences should be integral to a campaign, such as where the battlefield has become more of a battle-space for ideas and where the threat of conventional wars between countries may subordinate to asymmetric, hybrid or ambiguous (AHA) warfare. It is still more complex where adversary is hard to spot- whether the out-of-uniform army officers and double-hatted relief teams allegedly deployed in Ukraine, or the fearful prospect of lone-wolf extremists on our streets.

Put another way, kinetic effects and military muscle should sometimes be integrated into a civilian-led “comprehensive approach” where the main effort is in humanitarian intervention, economic development, police/judicial reform and longer-term political processes. The Balkans and Congo are good examples. Here, stratcoms, adaptable capabilities, calibrated response mechanisms must often play key roles in combating AHA threats and winning a lasting peace.

There is, however, another form of power: one which the EU exemplifies more than most, and one which perhaps Napoleon knew less about: the power of a broad enduring alliance. We should not underestimate the force of 28 nations pooling sovereignty on many issues while remaining independent sovereign nations that cooperate effectively on defence- whether on our continent, in conflict-prone regions elsewhere or as a voting block in the UN. The EU’s appeal is not just the weight of military might, or even as just a soft power superpower. It is also in the range of political, economic and military structures with officials at all levels who know each other well often making consensus easier to attain. The EU rarely (if ever) has hidden motives as a defence and security actor and gains a rare form of credibility, access and convening potential through having a clean brand.

The Petersburg tasks illustrate well key alliance strengths at the civilian/military interface. They mandate roles in humanitarian rescue, peacekeeping, military advice, conflict-prevention and post-conflict stabilisation, ie precisely the complex areas requiring long term qualitative approaches where military power alone will not win unless aligned with a range of softer elements and the power of broad alliance. Defence engagement is another example: military developing relations with pivotal countries uniform-to-uniform. Our soldiers understand other militaries, and the EU gives a range and subtlety of dialogue channels. EU Battlegroups aim to be flexible and immediately deployable, and the EU’s Military Staff give real time analysis to the political establishment. Currently, both are small, but surely a step in the right direction. Broad support for the Africa Union shows the EU promoting stabilisation through regional institution-building and local delivery of defence-related capacity-provision.

Of course, maintaining cooperation and dialogue structures can be hard, costly and unpopular. It is easy to complain about burdensome bureaucracy, budgetary disputes or vehement policy differences. Admittedly, the EU is not perfect- effective reforms are overdue. But the gravity of the threats we face means that now is not a good time to challenge the EU’s basic rationale, nor hinder it playing to its strengths.

Churchill summed it up poignantly: “There is at least one thing worse than fighting with allies – and that is fighting without them”. Whether a utopian army of cooks, engineers and policemen or a multi-faceted and flexible EU defence/security alliance, it is worth taking the time, trouble and expense to capitalise on our unique blend of assets.



Andrew Woodcock

Andrew Woodcock

September 2015

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