Next week, President Barack Obama will make his first official call on Chancellor Angela Merkel since 2009. During those four years, Mr. Obama has had to grapple with an economic downturn, the Arab Spring and winding down U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And, of course, the euro zone crisis. It has been a source of disagreement between the White House and Berlin. Ms. Merkel’s critics in the United States believe her policy of insisting on austerity measures has jeopardized growth. No doubt all of these issues will be discussed when both leaders meet on June 18 and 19.
But if there is one topic that top U.S. officials have shied away from asking European leaders, it is how Washington’s pivot toward Asia will affect the Union’s security and defense policy. As leader of Europe’s biggest and most successful economy, Ms. Merkel has remained silent on the issue.
The reason is that Germany and most other E.U. countries still do not think and act strategically when it comes to strengthening Europe’s foreign and security policy. And if they cannot even do that, how can they react to Washington’s changing strategic priorities?
“Apart from a very few countries, such as France and Britain, the Europeans have been very complacent about strategic affairs,” said Rem Korteweg, defense expert at the Center for European Reform, a research organization in London. “It’s as if the world outside does not affect them.”
This is confirmed by a new study from the European Council on Foreign Relations that analyzed the national security strategies of the 27 member states. Olivier de France, one of the authors, said the strategies showed that there was no common purpose or common strategic culture that could give Europe’s foreign, security and defense policy substance. “There is no shared ambition about Europe as a global player or about the allocation of defense resources,” Mr. de France said.
Many of the national strategies reveal parochial attitudes toward security. This is despite the fact that Europe’s southern neighborhood has fundamentally changed since the Arab Spring, China is a major economic power, and the United States believes it’s time Europe took responsibility for its own security.
But why is it that 20 years after the European Union first established the Common Foreign and Security Policy, the member states still think almost exclusively in national terms?
Some experts say that governments are loath to cede more sovereignty to Brussels. Yet all the E.U. governments signed up to the 2009 Lisbon Treaty precisely to give Europe a stronger, coherent and more effective voice.
Heiko Biehl, one of the editors of a new book, “Strategic Cultures in Europe,” argues that the differing historical and national experiences of the member states have prevented any welding of a common strategic culture for Europe.
Consider the national strategies of the Baltic states, France and Germany. The Baltic countries are focused on NATO as their crucial security guarantor because of their deep distrust of Russia. France’s recent white paper on defense grapples with the big strategic issues of the Middle East and elsewhere because of its perspective as a former colonial power and its status as a nuclear power. Germany’s perspective focuses on the importance of multilateralism for dealing with new threats but lacks ideas for European defense. Perhaps it’s because Germany has since 1945 depended on the United States for its security and for setting the security agenda.
But analysts wonder how much longer Germany can use the past as an excuse not to commit itself to a strong European defense and security policy. “The dependence on the U.S. was a virtue and vice,” Dr. Korteweg said. “Now Europe is struggling with this as Washington shifts its strategic attention elsewhere.”
If the Europeans were serious about responding to the changes taking place in its neighborhoods and in the United States, then national governments would at least agree to write a new security strategy.
The first one was 10 years ago. Yet Catherine M. Ashton, Europe’s foreign policy chief, opposes writing a new one, fearing huge disagreements. London and Berlin are hostile to the idea, too. Britain would have to discuss its role in Europe, and Germany would have to deal with Europe’s relations with Russia.
These attitudes bode ill for next December’s E.U. summit meeting on defense, the first one in eight years. “The expectations are already being lowered,” Mr. de France said.
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Obama’s visit to Berlin can change that.