During a recent panel discussion on security issues at our Carnegie Europe office in Brussels, I asked the four guests on the podium to name, in one short sentence, the most important security threat to their respective countries. The panelists were all active or former top diplomats from Europe and North America. None of them had to think very long, their answers came immediately. Here is what they came up with: (1) Lack of confidence, (2) the de-linkage across the Atlantic, (3) lack of public resilience, and (4) the undermining of European solidarity.
“This is a great list,” the panelist next to me quipped immediately, and I agreed. It was the most revealing moment in what had been an engaging, but somewhat abstract discussion. The answers brought a rare moment of clarity, even though they were very clearly not the result of systemized scholarly research or representative opinion polling. Yet they illustrated the most fundamental truth about today’s security environment in Europe: The biggest threat to our security is us. Only we can hurt ourselves. And that the best way to threaten ourselves is to carelessly treat those instruments and institutions that are in place to keep us safe.
Lack of confidence comes in many forms. It can come as uncertainty about whether there is a threat at all. It can come as doubt about whether our interests, values, and principles deserve protection. It can come as fatigue or as the feeling that nothing much can be gained anymore by being vigilant, prepared, and determined. It can even come as the belief that no such thing as security is possible any longer in a world full of nukes and drones and terrorists and amorphous threats from cyberspace.
All of these are frequent elements of the European security debate. However, the lack of European confidence in security and defense matters manifests itself differently. Europeans, in fact, spend a lot of money on security matters, only that they don’t spend it on military assets but on what Americans call Homeland Security. Expenditures on police forces, surveillance, internal intelligence, and counter-terrorism have sky-rocketed in the decade after 9/11, while defense spending has gone down almost everywhere. This trend reveals a profound sense of insecurity at home. It also illustrates that they fail to understand that in a globalized world, security and defense is primarily about stabilizing missions and protecting interests across the globe. Nations are now global citizens. They can’t hole up in their expensively fortified, isolated niches. As players in the globalized commons, everyone is responsible for everything else. The failure to acknowledge this is a sign of missing confidence in one’s own role in the world which could have serious security implications. In the long run, a lack of confidence is indeed one of Europe’s primary security problems.
The un-coupling, or de-linkage, across the Atlantic is a fear as old as NATO itself. President Kennedy complained about lazy Europeans who weren’t matching U.S. efforts in keeping the Soviet threat at bay. German chancellor Helmut Schmidt needed all his skills to explain to Jimmy Carter that the failure to counter Soviet medium-range missiles in Eastern Europe could drive a strategic wedge between American and European allies. Today, it is especially Eastern Europeans who fear that America could lose interest in Europe, thereby effectively undermining the credibility of NATO’s Article 5 guarantee that is underpinning their security.
The simple truth of the matter is that Europeans still rely on Americans for their security. They can’t guarantee their own conventional security interests on their own, as the Balkan, Kosovo, and Libya wars have amply demonstrated. They could not replace the American nuclear umbrella with an equally effective means that would keep them equally safe from nuclear blackmail. All of their recent decisions to cut defense spending further increase the dependency on American services at a time when American assets are shrinking and a greater share of the security and defense effort should be carried by Europeans. Instead, Europeans become ever less interesting as partners for the United States, thereby becoming slowly but surely unable to “pay back” for U.S. services by providing meaningful support to U.S. military operations when needed. In essence, by failing to understand that the transatlantic security link has turned from a one-way operation in the Cold War to a two-way operation today, they uncouple European and American security. Europeans not only have to understand the new arithmetic of transatlantic security, they must also understand that by boosting their own capacities, they become both less dependent on and more attractive to the United States. Which is exactly what they should be very interested in.
Lack of public resilience is the least clear cut of the four threats mentioned by the panelists. At its most basic level, it refers to a general rejection of hard security as a relevant factor of life in general. At first sight, this is great news. No better sign of a peaceful Europe than the lack of any kind of popular ambition for military adventures or a misguided, jingoistic competitiveness that equates national greatness with military preponderance. However, such demonstrated anti-belligerence can become a problem when it turns into ignorance about the lesser post-modern state of affairs in most other parts of the planet. Maybe over 60 years of peace have made Europeans soft. Maybe they really do or want to believe in the end of history. Maybe they just don’t want to see what is very difficult to ignore. Or maybe they have been fooled once too often to believe that the military endeavors that most of them embarked on in Afghanistan and Iraq were simply short, victorious, and minimum-casualty operations. For in this latter problem lies the crux of the matter. For two decades, European political leaders have given beautified explanations to the public about the nature of the wars they were supposed to support. Afghanistan was about building schools and liberating women. Iraq was about Saddam’s nukes. No wonder that the generally weak European attitudes towards military projects have become even less robust. European leaders need to make a much better case why military strength is still required. And they must tell the truth about the operations themselves. Then they will regain the political maneuvering space that they will need when push comes to shove.
Buried underneath all of this lies the fourth threat to European security, the lack of solidarity among Europeans. By making themselves less interesting as partners for their main ally across the Atlantic, they also make themselves less capable of defending one another. They don’t even talk to each other. In fact, the reform of national militaries is largely done without any kind of prior consultation among NATO members. Far reaching cuts and restructuring are announced only after decisions have been made in the individual capitals. France, Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands, among others, have conducted business this way just very recently. On top of that, pooling and sharing efforts within NATO and the EU fail to gain traction. Not only do nations guard their military assets jealously, they also protect their local jobs in the armaments industries at the expense of tax payers’ money and defense efficiency. Lots of trust is required among European allies to rely on their neighbors and partners to make their assets available to everyone, so that role specializations can become possible. But trust as a defense commodity is in short supply. Combine this with some unpredictable politics, such as Germany’s abstention in the U.N. Security Council during the vote on Libya, and you get a picture of a European continent united by un-solidarity. Should this mentality prevail in times of austerity and an increasingly disorderly neighborhood, the price to pay for a lack of solidarity might become rather high in the not-so-distant future.
The four threats, as named off the cuff by the panelists in the event at Carnegie Europe, are the real risks to European security. They work as silent force multipliers for the real substantive threats that might be waiting outside the continent’s borders. They can turn small nuisances into real problems. They can embolden ill-meaning adversaries into being more assertive than they would naturally be inclined to. They sound harmless and politically abstract at first sight, but they are much more concrete than they appear. They are therefore Europe’s homework, both in NATO and the EU. The good news is that all of these threats are much easier to deal with than any of the far bigger threats they might encourage if left unattended. The bad news is that dealing with them will require leadership. Much more leadership, one fears, than is currently in supply in Europe.