Euro-Atlantic Approaches to Security – Reconciling NATO and the EU

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19 June 2014

US Secretary of State Kerry meets with EU High Representative Ashton, courtesy of U.S. Department of State/wikimedia commons
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Is there a single approach to Euro-Atlantic security? If not, is that a bad thing? Heather Conley’s answer is ‘no’ to both questions. But that doesn’t mean NATO and the EU shouldn’t be talking to each other about complementarity, regionalization and, most importantly, future defense spending.

By Heather Conley for Europe’s World

This article was originally published as ‘Is it Fair to Say there is no Euro-Atlantic Security Approach?’ by Europe’s World on 16 May 2014.

Russian government and military actions over the past several weeks have dramatically changed Europe’s security landscape and fundamentally challenged Europe’s political order for the first time since the Cold War. And to address this task, NATO is the organisation of (only) choice. The problem is that there is no single Euro-Atlantic security approach. The Atlantic has two very different security providers: NATO and the European Union (in the form of the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy or CSDP).

The EU’s security vision as articulated by CSDP has been adrift for many reasons. Although the CSDP was initially an attempt by some European leaders to be a counter-weight to U.S. defence policy, the de minimis results of CSDP thus far suggest that there exists little policy or budget enthusiasm to create – much less sustain – a robust European defence policy. Today, European defence policy is either expressed within a NATO framework or has been directed at bilateral security interests such as France’s operations in Mali and the Central African Republic. Of the 20 CSDP operations between 2003 and 2008, most missions were geographically located in Africa. Recent CSDP missions since 2012 have been civilian and very small in nature, focused nearly exclusively on training. The CSDP, as currently designed, is not able to defend Europe.

This leaves Euro-Atlantic security with one choice, NATO, an organisation which is currently experiencing a major transition from thirteen years of out-of-area crisis management to an unforeseen and immediate requirement for a more assertive collective defense role. Although such a transition was anticipated, as NATO’s military operations were winding down in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the shift was hastened and intensified by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the massing of over 40,000 Russian troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border and Moscow’s ongoing efforts to destabilise eastern and southern. NATO’s changed strategy is being done, however, without the necessary planning and increased defense budgets that would normally accompany such a transition.

“There exists little policy or budget enthusiasm to create – much less sustain – a robust European defence policy. Today, it is either expressed within a NATO framework or has been directed at bilateral security interests such as France’s operations in Mali and the Central African Republic”

Had Russia refrained from interfering in Ukraine, the Euro-Atlantic security transition would have occurred more gradually, and the Alliance may have drifted toward irrelevance. The September 2014 NATO Summit in Wales could have symbolised this greater security drift as NATO leaders, and in particular American officials, were uncertain whether they ought to declare it NATO’s “last Afghanistan summit” or attempt to herald in a “new NATO” which would focus on global partnerships and attempt to paper over anaemic efforts to purchase interoperable capabilities. Lack of American vision and policy clarity toward NATO after operations in Afghanistan, as well as a noticeably absent U.S. military presence in Europe, were growing causes of concern among many European allies.

U.S. military leadership is now at the core of NATO’s response to reassure Central European and Baltic members of NATO, as 600 U.S. soldiers have arrived in the region supplemented by 10 F-16 aircraft. NATO allies, such as Canada and Germany, have contributed additional aircrafts to ensure Baltic air sovereignty. Understandably, territorial and collective defence are at the forefront of the minds of NATO countries closest to Russia’s borders.

Despite this rapid change in Europe’s security environment, the Euro-Atlantic security community remains conflicted over a lack of common threat assessment. Since the end of the Cold War and NATO’s subsequent enlargement, there has always been a diverse range of views on what constitutes a threat to the Alliance. For the U.S., it was terrorism conceived and plotted from failed states. For France and the Southern European NATO members, the threat emanates from unrest in Maghreb, the Sahel, and the Middle East which manifests itself in waves of immigrants. For NATO’s eastern members, the threat solely lies to the east. For the remainder, it would appear that no threat exists.

“Despite this rapid change in Europe’s security environment, the Euro-Atlantic security community remains conflicted over a lack of common threat assessment.”

NATO’s inability to craft a common threat assessment lies at the heart of its capability problems. If you have a varied threat assessment, how can you develop common capabilities among 28 countries? Are capabilities designed for territorial defence purposes, or to facilitate counter-insurgency operations? Or, more provocatively, is it necessary for European allies to increase their defence spending when U.S. spending represents roughly 73% of NATO’s total expenditure?

Prior to the Ukraine crisis, American and European defence budgets – although very different in scale and size – were moving away from out-of-area operations and back to “closer to home” missions that focused on collective defence. Today, only four NATO allies spend 2% or more of their GDP on defense spending: the U.S., Greece, Estonia and the UK. Since 22 European countries are members of both the EU and NATO, the defence spending picture does not look particularly bright for CSDP either. Even if the totality of Euro-Atlantic defence spending was sufficient, it would need to be spent more wisely. European countries, like the U.S., spend on average more than 50% of their total defence expenditure on personnel costs, leaving capabilities procurement to bear the brunt of discretionary budget cuts.

The crisis in Ukraine has not yet altered Euro-Atlantic defence spending, although Poland as well as the Nordic and Baltic states are rapidly re-assessing their current defence expenditures. Ironically, the U.S. defense budget currently assumes cost savings from reducing its presence in Europe (the EUCOM budget for operations was just $127m in fiscal year 2013) and from the reduction in forces in Afghanistan. To underscore this fact, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Derek Chollet recently noted at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that he did “not foresee the defense budget changing dramatically” to support U.S. military operations in Europe. It seems likely that continued unrest in Eastern Europe will require the Obama administration to rethink its defence spending plans in the near-term.

“Today, only four NATO allies spend 2% or more of their GDP on defense spending: the U.S., Greece, Estonia and the UK. Since 22 European countries are members of both the EU and NATO, the defence spending picture does not look particularly bright for CSDP either.”

In reality, having such different Euro-Atlantic security approaches may not necessarily be bad thing. As NATO focuses increasingly on its collective defence role, a more Africa-focused EU CSDP may become increasingly important in balancing NATO’s increased engagement in Eastern Europe. One particularly important development is the creation of regional Euro-Atlantic security approaches. This has already begun to occur in Northern Europe and the Baltic Sea region as illustrated by activities within the NORDEFCO (Nordic Defense Cooperation) framework, as countries with common political and economic cultures as well as a common threat assessment work more closely together. NORDEFCO also serves as a bridge between NATO and EU member states. Arguably, greater regionalisation could occur in the Mediterranean and Europe’s eastern borders, although this has yet to materialize.

It is hoped that the tragic events in Ukraine, NATO’s changing role and the continued evolution of CSDP will add the necessary urgency for the EU and NATO to engage in a strategic security dialogue to improve organisational complementarity, focus on regionalisation and, most importantly, re-examine Euro-Atlantic defence budgets.

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