Here’s a novel way of looking at Europe’s defense and security shortcomings: Forget for a moment about hardware and capabilities. Instead, think conceptually.

The capabilities gap is widening, both across the Atlantic between NATO’s European and North American allies, and also around the world now that rising Asian giants like China and India are outspending Europe on defense. But that’s not what Europe should focus on.

Europe’s security concerns are becoming increasingly removed from the familiar scenarios of military incursions from Russia or terrorist strikes by militant Islam’s jihadis. The threats to Europe’s half-billion citizens are much more complex and potentially more destabilizing.

Outlook 2019: World leaders and analysts speak on the state of global security and the defense industry

NATO continues to present the Russian Federation as “the enemy,” and it is true that its president, Vladimir Putin, loses no opportunity to demonstrate how effective his strategy of modernizing Russia’s armed forces has been. Flexing Russia’s rebuilt military muscles appeals strongly to Russian public opinion because it reasserts the nation’s claim to super-power status.

But Russian assertiveness, and indeed adventurism, poses no real physical threat to Europe. Russia’s population is shrinking and aging faster than the rest of Europe, so it will be almost a fifth smaller by midcentury. Moscow’s instincts are to use cyber and social media irritants to annoy other countries, but it knows that outright aggression would be fruitless. Worse, it would be counterproductive because the outmoded Russian economy relies on Europe as an energy consumer and technology supplier.

This isn’t the picture NATO has been painting. This autumn’s Trident Juncture exercise in Norway involved 45,000 troops, 60 ships and a massive deployment of aircraft, making it the alliance’s largest for many years. This reflects anxieties in Poland and the three Baltic republics that they might at some point be invaded by Russian forces. Although an unlikely scenario, it has done much in recent years to rescue NATO from its post-Cold War doldrums.

However absurd the idea of the Russian bear going on the rampage in Europe may be, fear of it has been pushing European governments into investing in the wrong sort of security. This is where the conceptual question comes in — what is Europe’s security?

Europe’s priority must be to dampen volatility in its southern neighbors. It is also to prevent migratory pressures from disrupting the domestic politics of European countries and threatening the future of the EU integration project that has delivered more than half a century of peace.

France, flanked by Italy and Spain, has long acknowledged a responsibility as the “gendarme of Africa.” Paris has also urged a greater European effort to increase stability in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring of 2011. The case for beefing up Europe’s military clout and outreach in response to the “ring of fire” beyond the Mediterranean is now widely accepted, but it has practical implications that are uncomfortable.

Adapting Europe’s national armed forces to a southern security role means equipping them with very different toolkits. The weapons systems that predominate are either too powerful or insufficiently flexible. Supersonic combat aircraft are of little use when the quarry is Boko Haram. European troops deployed in the Sahel cry out for more helicopters and more drones to help them grapple with their elusive foes.

But accepting the fact that Europe’s underfunded armed forces are still geared up to fight yesterday’s wars is only one facet of the security rethink that is required. More important still is the psychological shift. European military thinking has to embrace the political and economic cultures of African and Arab countries.

Africa’s population is growing at 2.5 percent a year — twice the global rate — so by midcentury it will have doubled to at least 2.5 billion. The Arab world will by then also be twice as populous. Education, economic cooperation and technology transfer will be the key components of the security toolkit for the 70 or more countries concerned.

Youth unemployment on an unheard-of scale, resource wars, climate change that exacerbates already huge refugee problems and the difficulties of feeding so many more mouths all point to rising tensions and conflicts in African and Arab states — conflicts that Europe cannot allow to fester and spread.

Intervening militarily when violence erupts will be hard to avoid — and to ignore such violence would often be wrong and lacking in humanity. But the front line in Europe’s security thinking about its southern neighborhood must be far better intelligence and more constructive relationships with governments and political leaderships. Europe’s 21st century security will be about far more than boots on the ground or bombs from the air.

Giles Merritt is the founder and chairman of Friends of Europe.

More In Outlook
Even a pandemic can’t stunt geopolitics
This year's Outlook authors were, understandably, unable to ignore the coronavirus pandemic. But the spread of a disease did not distract them from the affairs of geopolitics.