COLOGNE, Germany – The European Union must quicken its pace toward greater military prowess to ensure the bloc’s 500 million citizens can emerge from an ongoing reshuffling of global order on their own terms, according to a new think tank report.
The EU is “particularly ill-prepared” to tussle with global powerhouses Russia and China in what the analysis dubs "a new era of great power competition.” That term, borrowed from U.S. strategy documents, describes a shift away from terrorism as a predominant security problem and toward treating the aspirations of powerful nation states as likely drivers of conflict.
The report, released in Berlin today, sets the scene for the 2019 Munich Security Conference scheduled to take place in the Bavarian capital from Feb. 15-17. Among the many world leaders expected are German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
Conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador in Washington, predicted that Germany’s reluctance to drastically up its military budget will once again cause friction with the American delegation during the event. President Trump has often accused Berlin of underinvesting in the military and relying instead too heavily on the promise of U.S. help in case of a war.
The recent establishment of an EU-wide mechanism for coordinating and funding common defense projects is a a good start, but it is progressing too slowly, Ischinger told reporters in Berlin today. European officials should push to make defense and security a more prominent part of the bloc’s integration agenda, he argued.
Europe “can't expect to be surrounded by pacifists who write nice letters to each other,” Ischinger said.
Officials in Germany are expected to continue their dance around an unpredictable relationship with the Trump administration, according to the report. That is, they acknowledge the need to remain on Washington’s good side for military protection while at the same time preparing for the possibility that America under Trump may pull its support.
“As a result, many European governments have been walking a thin line, trying to preserve Option A, while hedging and investing in Option B without making Option A less likely,” states the report.
The conference this year comes only weeks after the United States and Russia declared their withdrawals from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a sore point especially for Germany that will likely be a prominent topic in Munich.
Some analysts here believe that the treaty's demise will animate eastern European NATO members within the range of once-forbidden Russian missiles, such as Poland, to seek security guarantees from the United States outside the alliance's umbrella of collective defense. Such moves could further drive a wedge into NATO cohesion at a time when Russia appears to be actively looking for weak spots in its neighborhood with the West, the thinking goes.
At the same time, the report authors believe there a limits to would-be adversaries organizing an effective counterpoint to U.S.-led Western order. “Although China and Russia have developed all sorts of measures to influence other states or have tried to undermine Western cohesion, they have not been able to build large, supportive coalitions by themselves – and are unlikely to do so in the future.”
That dynamic should put the United States and Europe somewhat at ease, were it not for the U.S. president's record of dinging America's friends.
“For long-time transatlantic allies, it is still hard to stomach when Trump praises illiberal leaders from Brazil to the Philippines and defies his intelligence agencies in declaring his support for Saudi Arabia after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, while reserving his harshest criticism for Canada, Germany, or the European Union,” the report states.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.