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America's military strategy after 11 September: impact on Europe

01 April 2002

On 4 February 2002, George Bush presented Congress with the bill for a total, permanent mobilisation of America against terrorism and its consequences: a budget of $2,130 billion, including an additional $48 billion for the Pentagon in October 2002, which is the biggest rise in military funding for 20 years. With $379 billion already budgeted for this year, and a forecast rise to $451 billion in 2007, the Pentagon’s budget already represents over two and a half times the total annual defence expenditure of the 15 European Union member countries, or, as numerous editorial writers have noted, an average military expenditure of $1 billion a day. The figures reflect the challenge: that America should be capable of defending its territory, citizens and interests at all times and in all places, having at its disposal the complete range of assets and technologies available on the market and in research laboratories, counting in the first place only on its own forces and means.
The strategy is simple: ‘The only defense against terrorism is to take the war to the enemy. The best defense is a good offense.’ [1] NMD on the one hand and troops in Afghanistan on the other are the two extremities of a US strategic spectrum that combines the most sophisticated technologies – including in the fields of information, intelligence and communications – and direct intervention on the ground by American troops. The attacks of 11 September have obviously given a higher priority to the concept of ‘homeland security’, [2] the budget for which has risen to $37.7 billion, nearly double the initial figure, for the direct protection of all sites and strategic facilities on national territory against any terrorist attack, whether conventional, nuclear, biological or chemical. But the war against terrorism has also overturned the concepts of external intervention inherited from Kosovo: it is no longer a question of simply an ‘antiseptic cruise missile war’, but, if need be, ‘boots on the ground’. [3] The strategy is not simply one of riposte and punishment but also, if necessary, a strategy of pre-emptive attacks against states seen as condoning, sponsoring or providing a sanctuary for international terrorism. In branding North Korea, Iraq and Iran an ‘axis of evil’, President Bush was quite unambiguous: ‘I will not wait for events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as perils draw closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.’ [4] In short, a sort of tous azimuts military strategy in line with the traumatism left by the attacks of 11 September but also, it should be remembered, the already alarming diagnosis made by candidate Bush’s team of the strength and quality of the US military.
Europe should firstly note the elements of continuity in US military strategy. By relativising the former concept of ‘zero casualties’ – which was so preponderant during the military operation in Kosovo – the United States is simply returning to a type of strategic intervention that is precisely that adopted in the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990. In other words, looking back, the intervention in Kosovo can be seen as a strategic digression that was a direct consequence of the fact that no vital US interests were at stake in the Balkans. On the other hand, what the campaign in Afghanistan has borrowed from Kosovo is a certain type of distribution of roles between the United States, local actors and allies. Indeed, in both cases local troops – the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Northern Alliance – were given a non-negligible part in ground operations, whereas the role of the Europeans has been largely to contribute to peacekeeping and peace building, in both Kosovo and Afghanistan. Secondly, the attacks of 11 September confirm the reorientation of American strategy, previously outlined by Condoleezza Rice in October 2000, towards hard security issues: ‘Carrying out civil administration and police functions is simply going to degrade the American capability to do the things America has to do. We don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.’ [5] Finally, at the other end of the spectrum, nuclear and anti-missile strategy, a return to earlier positions is equally striking: NMD was first presented in terms of protection of national territory by the Clinton presidential team, but its European allies’ concerns caused the United States to put the N (national) in brackets in favour of a global system of protection of the allies, [6] until 11 September made US strategists’ preoccupation with national defence once more legitimate, albeit not exclusive.
Nevertheless, what are most striking from a European viewpoint are the abrupt changes in the evolution of American doctrine, but these concern not so much military strategy in the strict sense as the language in which it is presented. The explosion of the American defence budget is remarkable as much for the figures announced as for the accompanying implosion of policy. As if military strategy alone could take the place of all strategy. That goes for present and future threats: the fight against nuclear proliferation involves a mix of anti-missile defence systems and the warning of pre-emptive or coercive strikes against the proliferators of the ‘axis of evil’. The fight against terrorism is conducted via an all-military doctrine combining intelligence, interventions and possibly the overthrow of regimes judged guilty. The link between these two types of threats was quite rightly underlined by the President in his State of the Union Address, but the diplomatic means that might be employed to discourage proliferation, constrain ‘rogue’ states and resolve political conflicts that could lead to localised wars or international terrorism are at the same time being marginalised or even quite simply denounced.
More novel still, this military-technological reading of the world is equally applied to allies, who are deemed more or less useful or parasitic according to the quality and size of their military resources, and more or less dependable or untrustworthy depending on the criticism of the United States that they may on occasion have dared to express. Paul Wolfowitz severely shook NATO when he announced, at the Wehrkunde conference in Munich, also on 4 February, that ‘the mission has to determine the coalition, not the other way round’. Never before had a US administration shown such a casual attitude towards a military organisation that is none the less considered to be the core of the transatlantic strategic relationship. Having been greatly irritated at being obliged to conduct a war in Kosovo via NATO committees, US leaders now prefer to conduct their wars alone, or with some ally or other, especially since the Europeans’ military contribution is considered in general marginal, obsolete to the point that it can hinder American operations and so out of date that in any event interoperability between Europeans and Americans will be impossible.
Put another way, the real novelty is this cocktail of absolute over-militarisation of US foreign policy and unbridled unilateralist instinct. In particular, these two ingredients feed on each other. On the one hand, unilateralism is presented as the inevitable consequence of European military weakness: allied forces are so useless that, even if America wanted to, it could not operate with them. And acting alone means deciding alone. On the other hand, the unilateralism built up in American policy in turn adds to the technological gap between Europe and America: what, it could be argued, is the point in Europe catching up if in any event the United States prefers to act alone and work out policy in-house. The Secretary-General of NATO in person, George Robertson, recently had to explain to the Americans that they were in part responsible for the condition of ‘military pygmy’ in  which NATO finds itself today. In sum, therefore, there is an awesome drift, both military and political, between the United States and Europe, no doubt the most serious since the ‘Euromissiles’ crisis of twenty years ago. This divergence was admittedly latent before 11 September – on the UN, global warming, multilateral disarmament, the International Criminal Court, etc. But what is new post-11 September is that it is exacerbating both the depoliticisation of US policy and the converse demilitarisation of policies in  Europe.
So what can the Europeans do? Well, explaining to the Americans that ‘all-military’ is a dead-end policy has as little chance of being heard in Washington as US denunciation of the sorry state of the Europeans’ defence apparatus does in Europe. It would be better for the Europeans to concentrate on Europe itself. In the first place by recognising that terrorism has dealt a fatal blow to the ideal of a European civil power in a wholly civilised world. Another option that is now equally unrealistic would be to leave the military management of world security to America while concentrating on the prosperity of Europe and the development of other regions and criticising the new direction and ‘simplism’ of American strategies. Military power is of course not the only frame of reference for action on the international scene, but it remains an essential card – and the Union has no other choice but to have that card also in its hand.
Next, Europe has to take stock of its military inadequacies, but judging budgets against the yardstick of Europe’s goals and needs, and not simply American performance. Perhaps spending more will be unavoidable, but above all spending better by facing the Fifteen with the question ‘to do what?’. If the aim is to hope to influence US strategy by having an honourable military presence alongside America, that must be illusory: more in evidence than anybody else in the campaign against al-Qa’ida, Tony Blair surely knows better than anyone that there is no causality between being active militarily and influencing American policy. If Europe’s aim is simply to be able to act alongside the United States, since after all they may be right, the level of excellence to be reached in the modernisation of European forces quickly becomes very high and therefore very expensive. And there is moreover a flagrant contradiction here between America’s injunction to its allies to increase their military means and its idea of a division of labour in which America has the ‘hard’ security tasks while Europe does the ‘housekeeping’ tasks of peacekeeping.
The only possible objective, because it can be justified politically to Europe’s citizens, is therefore to spend more in order to do what the European Union must do, either alone, with the United States or as part of a wider coalition. Achieving international security of course implies a strategy of economic development in the poorest regions of the world, and a policy of helping in conflict-resolution. Yet the possibility of military action must have its rightful place among the options for international action considered by the Union. Essential steps in that process must include a definition of European strategic interests, the development of a common concept on military intervention and the ending of the taboo on the collective funding of defence through the creation, at the level of the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, of a fund for the European Security and Defence Policy. Not so much in order to be once again taken seriously by the United States as to bolster the CFSP’s means of acting and head off the risk of a ‘strategic fracture’ within the Union itself. Indeed, the risk that a crisis could arise within the Union, similar to the one affecting NATO today because of the widening gap between America’s military power and that of its allies, is not to be ruled out. The danger in American unilateralism is in fact that it could lead to the more military of European countries in turn questioning whether any institutional military alliance can be effective.

[1] Remarks by Paul Wolfowitz at the 38th Munich Conference on Security Policy, 4 February 2002.
[2] The mission of the Office of Homeland Security will be ‘to develop and coordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks. The Office will coordinate the executive branch’s efforts to detect, prepare for, prevent, protect against, respond to and recover from terrorist attacks within the United States’; The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 8 October 2001.
[3] Paul Wolfowitz, ibid.
[4] George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, 29 January 2002.
[5] Condoleezza Rice, quoted in The New York Times, 21 October 2000.
[6] For an analysis of this, see Burkard Schmitt (ed.), ‘Nuclear weapons: a new Great Debate’, Chaillot Paper 48 (Paris: Institute for Security Studies of WEU, July 2001)