Germany's military future is vital for Europe

Germany's military future is vital for Europe

Opinion piece (Defence Management Journal)
Tomas Valasek
19 January 2012

Tomas Valasek, Director of Foreign Policy and Defence at the Centre for European Reform, argues that Germany's next step following its refusal to participate in Libya may be crucial for European defence…

The world's biggest military power, the United States, has announced it is to focus westward on the Asia Pacific region as it makes its own defence cuts in coming years. Monitoring the rise of China as a naval power will be among the country's main strategic focus points in the region.

The announcement in the new US strategy paper brings with it the prospect of at least one multi-billion dollar round of US defence cuts and the need for Europe to become less reliant on the US security 'umbrella'. The question remains as to whether this will mark a turning point in European defence cooperation.

Tomas Valasek, Director of Foreign Policy and Defence at the Centre for European Reform believes the focus on economic troubles within Europe will keep governments distracted from defence in the short term, but in the longer term it could see some countries get more acquainted with military operations in and around Europe.

"It would be nice to think that the European countries would see it as a sign that they now need to beef up their own military capacity," Valasek says of the US strategy, "because at best the United States will continue to support but not lead on NATO operations and at worst their support is in question.

"The reality is the economic crisis will continue to be the all-consuming concern, far bigger than the perceived or real US military retrenchment. While there is no external enemy on the horizon - or that's certainly how many European countries will feel - there is an economic disaster, doom, literally around the corner."

Turbulent economic times also bring the possibility of resurgent nationalist or extremist politics, he says.

"Naturally, as the economic crisis deepens and populations and voters in Europe lose faith in their government's ability to arrest what is essentially a relentless slide in living standards, you can't rule out the possibility of xenophobic or nationalist regimes coming into power. And you may well see conflict and tensions renewed on the continent, which we haven't really seen since the 1990s.

"This is the biggest missing element in the US strategic guidance. It assumes Europe is not a problem - specifically that these countries are net producers, not consumers, of security. There is not even a suggestion that Europe itself may become a problem, and I think that is possibly the biggest oversight, or it could be easily seen as developing into one."

There are difficulties, too, if the US strategy is relying on NATO's ability to keep order, Valasek says.

"NATO was once a place where allies would have proper strategic debates. It is no longer so," he says. "I'm being told that the debates in NATO are quite formal and that so many issues are now considered sensitive that one country or another is going to veto any debate of substance. It wasn't always thus. In the old days the allies could have proper, good hard-hitting debates in the Atlantic Council and would go at it, would debate - in the case of Greece and Turkey – 'how do we deal with Cyprus?', and with a possibility of conflict between the allies they had big disagreements over the Balkan wars.

"In a crisis I hope NATO will be the place where we have a proper debate on what's at stake, why this is a bad idea and what are the options for avoiding this."

Europe's defence order might not be entirely reliant on the UK and France in future, but assuming that the United States will be less involved in intervention in and around Europe, it will probably fall to Britain and France to lead, Valasek says.

"One of the consequences of that will be the burden-sharing debates, under which the Americans used to yell at the Europeans for not spending enough on the right military hardware, will now become debates between Britain and France on the one hand and the rest of Europe on the other," he says. "Now Britain and France will be the ones left holding the bag if the countries do not contribute forces, do not contribute money.

"Both countries will be thinking hard what is it they want to buy and will be looking to their mutual collaboration as a way to save money. The difficulty is, they have somewhat different attitudes to these wars of choice like the war in Libya. Syria would be different, France has a far bigger stake there than Britain. Britain may well take a different view on the other countries in the Gulf where it has a bigger stake."

Valasek also argues that Germany's recent lack of political will for military intervention, notably their absence from NATO operations in Libya, could be set to change. The country's refusal to participate in Libya, he says, may have been due to a "perfect storm" of political events in the country.

"There were regional elections - which the government were worried about losing and alienating the public; there was a new defence minister in place - let's not forget the previous defence minister resigned literally two weeks before the UN vote on Libya; and also the German public was up in arms and in a very pacifist mood following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, so the Green/anti-war anti-nuclear lobby was riding very high.

"In short, there are those in Germany who argue that the war in Libya was an aberration, that in fact Germany regrets it now and that the country would be more likely to join future NATO operations. If so, that's good. Germany is by no means is a second-tier power in Europe, it is the biggest power economically, the biggest country in terms of population, the most influential in terms of politics. Were it to firmly line up with Britain and France in any military operation it would significantly tip the balance in their favour.

"Where Germany moves is incredibly important, I like to think that Libya was an aberration indeed, the reality is the Germans have grown more, not less, comfortable with the use of force over the last 20 years. This is a country that until the Balkan wars thought it impossible that it would ever use its forces abroad again. It did; it sent peacekeepers to Bosnia in '95, and in Kosovo in '99 it actually fired a shot in anger abroad, the first time since the Second World War. On balance, notwithstanding Libya, Germany has been growing more comfortable with becoming a 'normal' country in terms of military force and NATO intervention and I hope the trend continues.

"We will need Germany, because with the US retrenching and Britain and France both in the midst of their own fiscal retrenchment, if Germany doesn't contribute the money, the people, the arms to an EU operation, I don't know who will."