Originally published in Financial Times, September 08, 2002


A number of recent essays from both sides of the Atlantic has suggested that the primary goal of European military reform should be the creation of "expeditionary" capabilities. These would allow limited European forces to be projected far beyond the continent's borders - Iraq being obviously the first area of operation in question.

The argument runs that the Europeans can keep the US committed to the continent's security only by creating forces that can support the US in "out of area" operations. Such military support is also seen, especially in London, as the only way for Europe to exert influence over US actions in the wider world. In addition, the capability is needed if Nato is to be preserved in any meaningful form.

But while an increased European commitment to developing security forces is indeed important, this expeditionary approach has dangers. European forces should not be treated like participants in a military fashion contest, with the US as judge. As for Nato, whatever its innumerable functionaries may think, it is not an end in itself but a tool to serve its members' interests.

The vital interest of European states is to guarantee security in Europe, or at least on the periphery of the European Union. A long- range European expeditionary capacity is desirable; a capacity to control developments in the Balkans is essential. A repetition of Europe's humiliation in Croatia and Bosnia in 1991- 1995 would shatter the Union morally and cast the entire European project into doubt.

The EU has made great strides towards administrative and military responsibility for Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia over the past year. But it remains far from certain that it could handle another serious eruption of conflict. Meanwhile, current political realities in the US would make it impossible to dispatch major forces to suppress such a conflict. C

The indifference of the Bush administration to the Balkans was demonstrated by its threat to pull out of United Nations operations in the region if it did not get its way over the International Criminal Court. Equally, except for the British, Europeans are unlikely to support the US militarily in the Middle East even if they develop the capacity to do so. Most European policymakers disagree profoundly with US policy towards the region. So what is the point of Europe developing forces for Middle East operations in which they almost certainly won't be involved?

Meanwhile, the contempt displayed by dominant elements in the Bush administration towards the interests and views of European countries has largely demolished any willingness to make sacrifices for America on the part of European electorates. US-European intelligence and police co-operation in the war against terrorism are proceeding well but this does not require public sacrifice or even joint military structures.

As for the argument that military participation buys influence in Washington, this remains unproven. There is little evidence that the British government's willingness to take part in US operations has brought it greater influence over matters of substance.

If the price of outside help is outside influence, the US would prefer to do without. An important reason for this is that, unless Europeans are to spend impossibly larger sums on defence, their contributions beyond the borders of Europe will always be dwarfed by the US military leviathan. Small units of special forces may make a contribution - but only in the context of over- whelmingly US operations.

More important and hopeful than higher spending by Europe is military restructuring and, above all, better co-ordination between EU members. It is absurd that with more than 2m people under arms in the EU, countries such as Germany should claim to be "overstretched" by comparatively tiny deployments in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

The reality is that very much larger sums are not going to be allocated. Already, plans for higher spending are being modified as a result of the costs of dealing with the recent floods. The risk is that by spending more on naval forces and transport aircraft for long-range operations, the Europeans will fall between two stools. They will develop neither a serious long-range capacity, nor sufficient fighting forces for use in European crises.

This dilemma already affects Britain. Ideally, the UK should have a large navy with new aircraft carriers and a big army as well. In practice, it cannot afford both. As a result, moves to create a large British force for war with Iraq are leading to the radical reduction of ground forces elsewhere - including, most dangerously, the British contribution to the peacekeeping force in Afghanistan.

It is difficult to imagine any serious naval operation in which the British and French would participate without the Americans. And, like it or not, in any US-led war the British and French navies will play a minor role. As far as European security is concerned, the naval priority is not more aircraft carriers or frigates but thousands of patrol boats to catch smugglers and illegal immigrants in the Mediterranean.

Several European navies might just as well be abolished for all the good they do. Even the Royal Navy sometimes looks more like a status symbol than an essential contributor to the security of Britain or continental Europe.

On the other hand, British infantry battalions are essential, both as fighters and as peacekeepers. The most important task for Europe is to develop more troops like these. Equally important is that, guided by their political leaders, the European people need to develop a determination to fight in defence of the security of their continent before they are asked to fight anywhere else.

The writer is a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace