The Future Defence of Europe

Julian Lindley-French, Chair, The Alphen Group

If Europeans simply refuse to support the United States, preferring instead to live with the risk implicit in a minimum deterrence and defence posture, it is hard to see why military America would remain in Europe in strength.

Minimal deterrence, minimum defence? The debate at the second meeting of The Alphen Group confirmed the hopelessness that is fast descending upon such expert gatherings. The Americans are over-stretched, Europeans seem unable or unwilling to face strategic reality, and Europe’s pivotal but mercantilist power Germany is void of any sense of military purpose.

Yet, the debate revealed a search for innovation in the defence of Europe that if properly cast could redefine the very concept of security in the twenty-first century.  While military power remains the sine qua nonof contemporary and future European security, generating deterrence and defence as an effect demands a much broader set of ideas, structures and partnerships.

For much of the Alphen Group’s debate, ‘defence’ was absent. The focus was squarely on deterrence; how to modernise it, elaborate it, and communicate it to friend and foe alike. And, whilst there has always been a certain tension in the defence of Europe between continuity and change the advent of new technologies and weapons is tending towards a form of mutually assured deterrence. In Europe, the danger is that such neutering of the offensive will lead some to believe a new balance might be struck between minimum deterrence and minimum defence. If so, the victim of Europe’s defence minimalism could well be the transatlantic relationship.

The United States demands of Europeans support for its global mission in return for guaranteeing Europe’s defence.  If Europeans refuse to support the US, preferring instead to live with the risk implicit in a minimum deterrence and defence posture, it is hard to see why military America would remain in Europe in strength.

Whilst much of this tension is expressed in terms of ‘Europe’ and the United States, at heart it reflects the very different world-views and strategic cultures of Berlin and Washington. In other words, if the future defence of Europe is to remain a transatlantic effort it is vital that Germany and the United States find some new strategic accommodation. If not, Europe’s own putative defence efforts could be further eroded. Britain would certainly ‘go’ with the Americans, and quite possibly a frustrated France too, with the rest of Europe left to huddle around Germany’s minimalist deterrence and defence concept.

The tragedy for the wider West – which is a more globalised idea than place these days – is that given the scope of twenty-first century geopolitical competition the United States needs capable allies who share the American belief that ‘defence’ is an essentially offensive posture. If the future of European defence rests on Germany, the very idea of ‘defence’ would be so different from that of the Americans; over time Washington would want little or no part in it. The danger is that in post-modern Europe much of the European population also comes to shares the view that Europe is more secure than it really is and does not thus need defending.

What can be done? If the future of European defence is to be assured it will require a new US-European strategic partnership that is, in turn, established on a reinvigorated US-German relationship. This is unlikely with Chancellor Merkel and President Trump in charge, but it must be the long-term aim.

Therefore, the search must begin for a new and broad concept of deterrence and defence.  It will be a concept that spans a spectrum of both civilian and military capability and capacity to make European society not just harder, but more resilient. As such, deterrence and defence would stretch across an information-action nexus and redefine the very idea of defence in the twenty-first century as one that combines hybrid, cyber and hyper elements and extends from the low end of conflict to its very highest reaches.

Whilst Germany would be a vital ‘leader’ in the development of European resilience it is likely to fall to Britain and France to offer the United States the real military partnerships it seeks and needs at the higher end of the conflict spectrum. Consequently, the future of European defence is likely to be established on coalitions of the willing.

What is urgently needed now is a new ‘no regrets’ US-European agenda for the future of European defence that encompasses strategy, policy, technology and resource. It should be an agenda that would critically seek to rekindle the vital partnership between the state and citizen and which would also confirm the role of military power as the hard bedrock of credibility upon which the future defence of Europe must continue to rest. It is an agenda that would also confirm that the future defence of Europe must still be cradled within a transatlantic relationship that is also changing and dynamically so. All that is needed is leadership.