Schemers and strategists at both the EU and NATO are racking their brains over the future of security and defense policy in Europe. In December, the EU will hold a long-awaited defense summit that needs to produce at least some sort of slightly-better-than-expected outcome in order to avoid a collective shaking of heads. And inside NATO, minds are now focused on crafting a convincing narrative for the Atlantic alliance after next year’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Decisionmakers in both organizations are kept awake by the obvious dilemma of European security: how to convince both politicians and citizens, in the absence of money, threats, and leadership, that defense matters. Europeans will have to invest more in security and military capabilities if they want to remain able to protect their values, interests, and alliances over the next decade or two.
Over the last twenty years, defense analysts have tried to make that case by pointing out tirelessly to European audiences how dangerous the world is. By creating a shared threat perception, those analysts believed, allies would somehow align their policies, understand why they needed to cooperate more, and perhaps even increase their defense spending.
This approach has obviously not worked very well. There is no generally shared, strategically meaningful threat perception among the NATO or EU member states. There is a general unwillingness to invest, and there is no appetite for substantially more cooperation or pooling and sharing of defense capabilities.
When an approach has not delivered results for twenty years, maybe it is time to try something else. During a recent workshop at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, it became clear that any public diplomacy strategy designed to increase public and political support for a more active defense policy would have to be tailor-made for individual countries. The focus would have to be on individual nations’ interests instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to threats.
This approach seems to make eminent sense, but it should go one step further. Rather than focusing on interests, which are often perceived as selfish and too materialistic, policymakers should focus on national ambitions. Yes, that’s right, ambitions.
Every country, even the ones most reluctant to engage militarily in the world, has a national ambition. They might not call it that, or they might even deny it outright; but in reality, every country wants to stand for something. Canadians want to be seen as world-class peacekeepers. Germans want to be a force for good through mantra-like multilateralism. The French revel in the idea of national glory through military leadership. The Brits fiercely defend their strategic independence—just as long as the Americans are on board.
European security today is defined by two megatrends. The first is America’s decreasing interest in Europe. The second is the fact that future military operations will be organized and conducted by changing coalitions of the willing, built ad hoc around individual cases.
In this kind of Europe, the wholesale approach to defense is becoming less and less productive. There might still be some value in the good old Article 5 scenario of collective defense, which remains NATO’s ultimate raison d’être. But for the practical, day-to-day purpose of securing Europe’s neighborhood and wider sphere of security interest, the old approach has lost its usefulness.
If the goal of European defense is to maintain a minimum level of cohesiveness in a splintered security market, its strategy should appeal to each country’s individual calling. Identify what drives nations at their core, and use that to make the case for why defense matters. Instead of scaring states into action, tickle their vanity.
This might sound like a soft approach to a hard security challenge. Perhaps it is. But the hard approach that relied on the simplistic assumption that shared threat perceptions would automatically lead to common policies has failed. Realists need to get more sophisticated if they want to keep the Europeans in the game. A sound threat analysis remains an essential part of the mix, but the focus should shift to individual drivers, buried deep in the strategic cultures and national interests of each country.
No doubt such an approach will make defense-related public diplomacy a lot harder. And no doubt, to some, the idea of a “national ambition” is too divisive to even contemplate. But it is clear that decisionmakers need to try something new. In a Europe that faces a collective defense crisis, the tedious exercise of examining each country’s soul is still much better than making them collectively irrelevant.