An agency of the EU
Two United States Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets from Bagram Airbase fly a combat patrol over Afghanistan, 15 December 2008. © Aaron Allmon/NEWSCOM/SIPA

Q: The future of EU-US security and defence cooperation: what lies ahead?

Debate - 21 September 2011

Richard Gowan

European Council on Foreign Relations

Policy Fellow

A: Divergence

It seems all too possible that the US and EU’s contrasting strategic concerns will continue to dilute their military cooperation in the years ahead.

Six years ago, the American strategist Robert Kaplan created a stir with an article entitled “How We Would Fight China” in the Atlantic Monthly. He predicted an era of Sino-American competition in the Pacific and suggested that “European nations, which today we conceive of as Atlantic forces, may develop global naval functions” to help the US contain China. Today, tensions are certainly rising in the Pacific and South China Sea – but few American admirals are looking to the EU to tip the balance in their favour there.

Since the Iraq war peaked, US strategic debate has increasingly shifted away from counter-insurgency and stabilisation operations to securing the Asia-Pacific. This has involved diplomatic outreach to India and South-East Asia and a military focus on China’s growing capabilities and its threat to US vessels in the western Pacific.

The European security debate is also evolving, but it is driven by financial concerns. While China’s rise will frame American security policy for years ahead – even in the event of a major terrorist attack – no comparable challenge shapes European worldviews. Russia’s uneven resurgence worries many EU and NATO members, but Moscow’s ambitions centre on energy deals and it does not present a true strategic game-changer. Instead, the need for austerity dominates European thinking.

The Pentagon is also under pressure to lower costs. Hundreds of billions of dollars in defence cuts have been tabled in Washington this year. Yet the sheer scale of the American military should allow it to absorb the projected cuts. European commanders have had to accept reductions that fundamentally constrain their ability to project power.   

European governments managed to muster sufficient air power to sustain the Libyan campaign with US help this year, and would have had more resources if Germany and other Libya-skeptics had been fully committed. But NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said that “at the current pace of cuts, it is hard to see how Europe could maintain enough military capabilities to sustain similar operations in the future.”

It remains to be seen whether the Libyan experiment and other recent operations in the EU’s “near abroad” such as the anti-piracy campaign off Somalia will convince European leaders to retain the military capabilities to act as a regional policeman in future. The anti-Gaddafi operation provided a salutary demonstration of the gaps in Europe’s armoury, ranging from surveillance and refueling aircraft to precision munitions.

Just filling these gaps would demand expenditures that European treasury departments and taxpayers would balk at. But even if there was a drive within the EU or NATO to acquire a complete “regional policeman’s toolkit”, it would have little direct relevance to US priorities in the Pacific, although it would helpfully free up some American assets.

Can and should European militaries play a more direct role in global – and especially Asian – security as Robert Kaplan once imagined? Anders Fogh Rasmussen has argued that NATO should play a lead role in security discussions with the rising powers. The EU’s annual dialogues with China and India often include references to consensual security issues such as the importance of United Nations peacekeeping. Britain and France have pursued closer naval cooperation with India, and a small group of European strategists (notably James Rogers) have made a strong case for boosting Europe’s navies.

Yet all of this remains peripheral to the immediate concerns of the US and its allies in the Pacific and South-East Asia. It seems all too possible that the US and EU’s contrasting strategic concerns will continue to dilute their military cooperation in the years ahead. The hunt is still on for a convincing vision of how to avoid this outcome.