Europe's Era of Geopolitical Adolescence is Over – will it choose to be a relevant military power in the 21st century?

Will Europe awaken in time to history? Does it still have the vitality and the conviction in its core values to accept its role of responsibility on the global stage? Europe will have to decide whether it wants to fade into a position of vulnerable high-risk military irrelevance, or whether it will grow into the role of reliable partner on the global stage.

With the Middle East and parts of the Maghreb in flames, and the prospect of a cooling wind nowhere on the horizon, the world has been thrown into a vortex of confrontations that present the likelihood of a transformational generational geo-political paradigm shift.  The world was entirely unprepared for this, and the response of the West — especially Europe — has been shambolic, ad hoc, and confounding.

What began in Tunisia with a breathtaking act of protest via self-immolation came to represent for an entire generation of young Arabs the ultimate scream of frustration and outrage at the misrule, oppression, and daily degradation visited upon their existence by a corrupt, entitled and ruthless elite.

As the dominoes fell — first Tunisia, then Egypt, then the conflagrations spreading down through the Gulf States and back into the Arabian Peninsula — the world held its collective breath and expectantly hoped that these revolts would bring in a fresh democratic impulse to a region of despotic misgovernment.  The young were joined by every layer of the societal strata in the Middle East and hope hung in the air like mist awaiting the next blast of rain.

The West pondered if these revolts were the Liberation Moment for a downtrodden region or, more sinister, if they were the thin edge of the wedge that would bring forth the ultimate nightmare of an Islamist, Sharia-Law-ruled Middle East.  Alas, après le deluge the “Arab Spring” has descended into pan-regional chaos and civil war.  Libya and Syria have collapsed into bloody civil war, and Egypt has (again) set itself aflame.  Neither a definitive Libération nor a Sharia-dominated region has emerged — only bedlam, savagery, and uncertainly.

Europe — hamstrung by its preoccupation with pending bankruptcy and its post-modern obsession with being viewed as the paragon of the progressive, pacifist, multicultural, post-Colonialist West — has contributed diplomatic hand-wringing and very little else to the unfolding tragedy in the Middle East.

European "Soft Power" has been the mantra that most of the continent has chanted for the last half-century, but this is being increasingly seen as a facile geopolitical cop-out — foreign policy on the cheap and consisting of mainly clutching onto Uncle Sam's coattails, providing nominal assistance, and hoping for the best.  In an increasingly atomized and complex geopolitical topography, and in a scenario that has the American empire increasingly cash-strapped and militarily overextended, this will no longer do.

One thing is obvious and unavoidable; the turbulence in the Middle East will have profound impact on Europe, economically, politically, and even (for close neighbors like Italy, France, and Spain) demographically.  Thus a fundamental question accrues new relevance every day that the Arab world simmers and burns: Will Europe choose to be a relevant military power in the 21st century?

 

For over six decades the United States has acted as chief guarantor and patron of (Western) European defense.  Under the American aegis this region of Europe has been mostly liberated from the existential topic of self-protection and has been free to indulge in a Social Welfare fantasia, where defense budgets are but an afterthought to the more pressing themes of "social justice", job security, free education, and universal medicine.

Irrespective of the horrifying levels of national debt that many European countries have accrued while promising their voters this post-historical illusion, any hint of budget cuts in the Nanny State social safety net — and corresponding increases in military budgets — are fought tooth and nail in the streets and parliaments, and represented as unacceptable, retrograde and heartless by a populace weaned on ever-increasing cradle-to-grave government coddling.  This gravy train is about to run into a ditch.

The United States is responsible for approximately 40% of the planet's military spending — it spends more than the next 12 most-militarized nations combined.  It is, despite incessant assertions otherwise by such New-World-Order cheerleaders as the omnipresent Fareed Zakaria, the overwhelmingly preeminent and sole superpower.  Though its defense spending as a percentage of GDP is not extraordinarily high — 4.4% compared to Saudi Arabia's 9%, Eritrea's 21%, Georgia's 5.1%, Jordan's 6%, Oman's 8.5%, Israel's 7%, and China's accelerating rush to rival superpower status — these countries’ military capabilities (aside from burgeoning China) are insignificant when compared to the USA's military strength.

The U.S. has been willing to volunteer itself as the de facto expeditionary force and global policeman for the "international community" for several generations.  Whatever the assignment, America's military provides most of the money, men, and materiel — the blood and treasure — and it suffers most of the casualties and shoulders the blame when things go wrong.  The song remains the same, all that changes is the theater of operations.  This will also soon come to pass, unless the U.S. chooses to ignore history and continues down the ruinous path of military over-extension into the graveyard of empires.

Europe's drawn out post-WWII era of non-defense-spending entitlement and geopolitical indisposition will come to end.  The U.S. is bankrupt and deep budget cuts are forthcoming.  Defense spending, a heretofore sacred cow with Washington lawmakers and Military-Industrial-Complex advocates, are on the butcher's table.  Simultaneously, emerging powers like China, India, Iran, Brazil, Turkey, and the Russian Federation (with a rusting yet still formidable military infrastructure) all outspend the E.U. average on military hardware and manpower.

Europe will have to decide whether it wants to fade into a position of vulnerable high-risk military irrelevance, or whether it will grow into the role of reliable partner on the global stage.

 

The problem is European politicos no longer know how to justify military expenditures to their voters.  At present the percentage of GDP that the E.U. as a whole commits to military expenditures is a measly 1.7%.  Germany, the biggest E.U. country by population, spends a niggardly 1.4% per annum on defense.  At the same time, the E.U. political class speaks dutifully about the hazardous and indeterminable world it is trying to pacify and enlighten with its values of social justice, cultural tolerance, and peaceful co-existence — yet it fails to address the fact that these very values have to be defended and promoted vigorously, and at times, regrettably, with force.

In all of the critical epochs in its recent history Europe has kept a global perspective and assumed the responsibilities of power.  Yet precisely at a time when globalism is the predominant ethos of the age Europe's defense strategy is increasingly parochial.  In a world where the Middle East is in bloody turmoil, Iran is a predatory nuclear pariah-in-waiting, Turkey is newly assertive and shifting toward the Islamic world, China is a Superpower-in-waiting, and Russia a bullying oil and gas-soaked thugocracy, European reticence to face geopolitical facts is preposterous.

In many European countries there is a reflexive abhorrence to any undertaking that entails the use of force.  A self-referential resistance to violence and a knee-jerk pacifism are deeply ingrained in the modern European psyche.  The concept of power politics — namely the carrot of diplomacy with the attendant very real threat of the big stick — is looked down upon as neo-imperialism and is strictly verboten.  Europeans exhibit a fixation on a delusive sense of moral superiority that eschews the threat of violence as a deterrent or catalyst in the three-dimensional chess-game that is geopolitics in the nuclear age.  In this power (and moral) vacuum thrive tyrants like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and Iran’s Mullahs, among others — each despot more craven, self-serving and venal than the other.

Unfortunately for Europe, it no longer has the privilege to luxuriate in non-engagement.  It cannot live perpetually in its illusory, ahistorical fairyland.  Choices will have to be made.  Values — and perhaps even borders — will have to be defended.  Oppressive despots will have to be confronted.  Is Europe prepared to consider this, let alone actually do it?

Europeans will point with pride at their military interventions in places like Somalia and Congo − and its nominal roles in Iraq and Afghanistan − without perceiving the chasm between such peripheral intercessions and carrying a determinant responsibility on the world stage for regional and international security.

Military power is not only a function of defense budgets, but an integral part of a nation's sense of will and destiny.  And therein lays the conundrum for modern Europeans.  Raised under the armor of American power — financed by taxpayers an ocean away — and traumatized by their history of having started two world wars in the past century, Europeans find the very idea of national defense an atavistic, regressive impulse.  Their feckless political class has fed upon this prejudice for generations.

There are no votes to be gained by speaking soberly to a populace entangled in daydreams of pacifism, cradle-to-grave State care, and the moral relevancy of all cultures, religions, and values.  Demonstrating responsibility and becoming a serious contributor to global military security is not a motif that will snare one invitation to dine at the tables of the self-appointed bon pensant intellectual elite.  Nevertheless, the alarms are sounding, the fires are lit, and the storm is gathering force.

Will Europe awaken in time to history?  Does it still have the vitality and the conviction in its core values to accept its role of responsibility on the global stage, or will it choose to slink dispiritingly into solipsistic, self-indulgent vulnerability and irrelevance?

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commented 2013-09-18 06:16:08 -0400 · Flag
Alexander Ackley writes:

@stefan

1. ROI in military spending is not the point…the point is to spend enough to have a force capable of defending national interests and values in a very dangerous world. Europe does not do this nor does it value this…having been infantilized by its political system and protected, subsidized and spoiled by the U.S. taxpayer for generations. No one argues about the tragedy and death tolls and grieving parents…this has been the human condition since mankind walked on its legs…the relevant point is how does Europe finally accept its role on the world stage after the tragedy of WWII…or does it continue its Pacifist delusion while the world is in flames around it? It may wish to promote its values diplomatically, but it must also protect its values and fight for Human Rights…and sometimes force must be involved…(see WWII when the world had to fight the Nazis…how would Pacifism in the face of that threat have worked out?). There are things worth protecting and fighting for.

2. Utopian and not a serious option.

3. Surely there is truth to this, but if you remember the Marshall Plan there is also another perspective…a perspective of the U.S. protecting the weakened and destroyed European States from the Soviet behemoth…remember recent history and you can understand the Realpolitik forced the U.S. to take its protective stance…but it should have left Europe a decade ago…let the Europeans protect themselves…and let’s see how their “Social Democratic” model continues without U.S. subsidy of their national defense.

4. Totally agree…unfortunately one of the few things the State should be involved in is national defense…in my opinion.
commented 2013-09-16 15:09:21 -0400 · Flag
Excellent points. Most of Europe has become irrelevant thanks to the EU and years of progressive socialism. I don’t think the NWO elites care much about Europe anymore (excepting London) other than as a test bed for political maneuvers and social control experiments. Washington and Wall Street are their levers of action now to further their agenda. Whenever they can drag a bit of Europe in with them they will (to have additional scapegoats and deception avenues), but it is largely a moot point. The EU outside of the UKIP is full of pansies that could care less about anything except their fine wines and cheeses.
commented 2013-09-15 08:36:57 -0400 · Flag
Stanley Sloan writes:

Congratulations on a well-written article that makes some very important points. Whether Europeans will rally to the “cause” is another matter. I remain an advocate of continued NATO cooperation because it makes sense, in my judgment, for both the North Americans (Canada included) and Europeans. Several of my American expert friends believe that the only way to stimulate European defense spending is to more dramatically pull US forces and leadership out of NATO. I happen to believe that this would be a huge mistake, and that it won’t become US policy, but we can expect to see strong continued pushes in this direction if European states don’t show some backbone (and I don’t mean sheltering behind a European Security and Defense Policy Potemkin village)!!
commented 2013-09-15 08:35:07 -0400 · Flag
John Hadjisky writes:

I continue to be surprised how many European commentators are in denial about the US defense subsidy to NATO and its distorting effects on European budgets and economies. Worse, some still labor under the delusion that NATO is an occupying force! I don’t know exactly what the solution is, other than to encourage a more realist view. This article is certainly a start.
commented 2013-09-15 08:04:04 -0400 · Flag
JC writes:

if I were a betting man, I’d take the over-under on europe never manning-up.
commented 2013-09-15 07:42:39 -0400 · Flag
Stefan writes:

1. The most recent us military adventures (Iraq and Afghanistan) have shown again how incredibly much money you can spend for no total return (these countries are now even more chaotic and violent places) and how marginal return of military spending can become absurd. Taking the human death toll into account the parents of kids killed in these conflicts will obviously ask themselves what was the point. More friends for the US in the region – hmm
Take Syria: what would dropping a few bombs on a battered country achieve ?

2. From a libertarian standpoint it seems impossible to argue for a small or no state and to promote an army run by the state at the same time. Maybe a privately financed initiative of men wanting to spread western values and democracy would be a possibility. (the crusades would come to mind)

3. You make it sound as if the US has worked extra hard to guarantee the peace of europe etc. To me the reality would include rather massive lobbying of the welfare – warfare statists and weapons manufacturers. Us military spending as part of the budget deficit has been paid by those who bought us government bonds. Funnily enough that would include the Chinese on a big scale as of recently.

4. Peace and prosperty derives from (international) division of labour and trade. Promoting these values and engaging in free trade while keeping the state sector to a minimum or dissolve it will help everybody.