Europe must now become an effective autonomous actor on major security issues in order to survive.
In a speech given last month in Hanover, Barack Obama called on European allies to have more confidence in the EU project. He also asked them do more to in the realm of defence. The latter part of the message, all about burden sharing, was nothing new – remember Robert Gates’ final address to NATO as secretary of defence. But Obama’s attempt to boost whatever is left of the European spirit did cast a new tone. Some say this show of concern for Europe was too little, too late. But the most noteworthy part of Obama’s “Address to the People of Europe” was arguably his very use of those words, “People of Europe”. Here was an American president describing Europeans as a single entity (one “people”, in the singular), as if intrinsically destined to overcome their national differences and contrasted approaches to many issues.
The speech fell short of openly calling for Europe to become an autonomous strategic actor, but perhaps that is precisely the conclusion Europeans should draw for themselves. Whatever one may think of Obama’s legacy, America is signalling a new era. Europeans need to pick up the mantle of their own security interests, and do so now.
US foreign policy decisions in recent years have affected Europe in ways that Europeans have had no say, or control, on. Obama’s incremental approach to the Syrian crisis has had a huge, if insufficiently analysed, impact on both Europe’s security and its political state of affairs, marked by rising populism in the face of the refugee crisis. It’s true that a new Russian threat was clearly identified after Vladimir Putin sent forces into Ukraine and brazenly carved up its territory of by force. And no-one will dispute that this has led the US to increase its defence commitments to Europe with the deployment of new military resources in the East of the continent.
But one key aspect that still remains to be explored is to what degree Putin’s 2014 calculus in Ukraine was defined by Obama’s 2013 sudden turnaround on defending “red lines” in Syria. How that may have emboldened Putin to tear up basic European security red lines is as yet an untold story. Barack Obama’s priority was to reject anything that smacked of externally-driven regime change in a Muslim country, and he equally wanted to avoid fundamental disruptions in the relationship with Russia, whose cooperation he has constantly sought, including on securing a nuclear deal with Iran. The outcome is that the Syrian civil war has mostly been left to fester, and it has spewed out disorder and violence into Europe. Bereft of effective collective leverage, and divided as they have been on what their external priorities should be, Europeans have mostly been left to the sidelines when strategic choices were made in Washington.
If there’s one lesson to draw from Obama’s recent statements, it surely must be that Europeans need to get their act together on foreign policy, security and defence. The terms the US president used in an interview to The Atlantic earlier this year were blunt and revealing. Obama described European allies as powers unable or unwilling to match fine words with resources; prone to asking the US to act but incapable of committing themselves to the efforts required for a sustainable outcome. An era has passed, and Europe must now become an effective autonomous actor on major security issues if it is to survive as a stable, liberal, democratic, rules-based entity.
That is not to say that the US role within Nato, as a security guarantor to Europe, will altogether disappear. Obama has never wanted that and neither, one suspects, would his successor. But a page has been turned and the US can no longer be relied upon to address the chaos that is spilling out of the Arab world, and weakening the central tenets of Europe’s liberal order.
Reaching that point where Europe can assume a wider regional security role, and create the foundations of a genuine European foreign and security policy, is a tall order – but it is a task it can shirk no longer. The first requirement will be diagnostic: evaluating how we ended up in this dismal situation in the first place. Europe’s big three powers are Britain, France and Germany. Each carries a large share of responsibility. Britain has been inward-looking for years, a malaise only exacerbated by its referendum debate. France has betrayed its own proud claims to be the nation of human rights and a pillar of the European project by all but turning against Angela Merkel as she struggled to organise a joint approach to the migrant crisis. Britain and France have essentially left Germany stranded with the problem.
But the blame isn’t limited to Britain and France. Germany has for years been reluctant to deal with the burning international security issues that have appeared on Europe’s southern doorstep. In 2011, Germany abstained in the UN security council on Libya, standing apart from any notion of common European purpose. In 2013, when Britain and France were ready to act in Syria (before the House of Commons voted against strikes), Germany made clear it would have nothing to do with the crisis, despite the fact chemical weapons had been used on civilians. Germany turned a blind eye to Syria for too long. Because of Germany’s weight, that omission has cost Europe dear. Without Britain, France and Germany working together, there can be no European leverage on any foreign crisis affecting the continent. Nor can there be any hope of wider consensus building with other Europeans. Syria has been a European security issue all along. It is sad that this became obvious only when massive refugee flows started pouring on to the continent, and when terrorism struck in European cities.
What we are witnessing is a truly a defining moment for how the continent may look like in the 21st century, in a context where the transatlantic bond is significantly weakened. The key question revolves around how Europe will deal in the future with ensuring a stable security architecture on its territory, capable of preventing more bloodshed and thus ensuring it can defend its interests in a changing world.
For years, Europe built its common project with a Kantian view of the world: a continent incapable of envisaging war because it has lived under the US security umbrella. Without the transatlantic link enshrined by Nato, Europe has no defence and security policy of its own to speak of. The EU may have forces in the Balkans, in Africa, even off the coast of Somalia, but it has neither a doctrine nor any deployable joint forces capable of ensuring its own security. Europe has even had to rely on Nato to patrol the waters of the Aegean in the fight against human traffickers.
The return of war to the European continent in 2014 came as a profound, if delayed, shock to the west. No one, just one year earlier, could have imagined that it would come to this. A Europe struggling with its financial and economic woes was caught off guard by Ukraine’s crisis and Russia’s role in it. America has since sought to allay many concerns, and there are now new efforts put into deterring further Russian aggression. But it would be short-sighted for Europeans to stop at that, because the scale of the many security challenges they face, both South and East, demands more.
Obama’s has criticised European “free riding” on US power. Whether they will miss his presidency or not, Europeans must treat Obama’s messages as indispensable wake-up calls. To a degree, the pax americana that Europe has enjoyed since World War II may be drawing to a close before our eyes. Europe must now become an effective autonomous actor on major security issues if it is to survive as a stable, liberal, democratic, rules-based entity.
Far from damaging the transatlantic link, this would invigorate it. America’s interest in a pro-active Europe taking initiatives on international crises would be heightened. Future American leaders would find it harder to dispense with factoring in European interests before Washington decides to act, or not to act. We can endlessly debate whether a “people of Europe” actually exists. But it is surely obvious by now that we are all affected, as one, by the events that shatter our various neighbourhoods. Addressing them collectively, as a single, interconnected entity, and finding the resources to do so if necessary with a degree of autonomy from the US, is our next challenge. If Europeans don’t tackle this task now, they will risk irrelevance in a shifting, unpredictable global order. And find themselves lonelier.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.