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Is it time to rethink European security?

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine disrupted not only the security landscape of Europe but also many of the assumptions underlying it. New defence strategies came in earnest to correct gaps – which in some cases were more like craters – in foreign and defence policy thinking, and governments across the continent began to pledge more money for defence. But there is still more work to be done, not least in the face of a Russia now spending approximately 7.1% of gross domestic product (GDP) on defence, and an America threatening to water down its European commitments under a second Donald Trump administration. Is it time to rethink European security? And how so? The Council on Geostrategy asked eight experts in today’s Big Ask.

Ed Arnold, Royal United Services Institute

Three strategic considerations stand out for NATO as the prospect of potential return to office for Trump looms.

First, Trump does not have to officially pull the United States (US) out of NATO to destroy its defence and deterrence credibility. In January, he managed to harm the alliance as a candidate and from a campaign podium. Therefore, a critical intelligence requirement is how Vladimir Putin interprets such comments.

Second, Article V is not automatic and has a degree of interpretation, which was crafted carefully by the US to avoid it being dragged back into Europe. It commits to ‘assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith…such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area’. The most pessimistic reading of the above would mean that if the Baltic States were attacked, a Trump-led US could send some intelligence assets, rather than combat capability, and live up to the letter, if not spirit, of Article V.

Third, if, as stated, Trump withdraws all support for Ukraine, NATO members – individually and collectively – will have to pick up the slack. To do this, and mitigate against its eventuality, they must fire up their defence industrial bases immediately.

Hillary Briffa, Council on Geostrategy

Much has been written on the benefits of generating NATO interoperability. However, for a long time the predominant focus in the defence literature has been on the conduct of operations, rather than the higher-level strategic development process. This is one area where Europe could use a ‘rethink’ in its approach. 

Fortunately, positive steps have been taken with the institutionalised efforts of multilateral, supranational organisations to develop greater strategic coherence, as evidenced by NATO’s Strategic Concept. NATO also undertakes foresight work, with the most recent Strategic Foresight cycle having been initiated in 2022 by the Allied Command Transformation (NATO’s Strategic Warfare Development Command). 

Yet, this work is being primarily driven by the largest member states, and many of the junior partners are not being afforded a genuine opportunity to contribute to this foresight work, hampered mainly by their limited capacity. States like Estonia receive the materials and must action the content, but are not being involved actively in the strategic development process to understand why they are written this way, and what is underlying the assumptions. As a result, smaller partners are forced to be price-takers, rather than active shapers, of NATO strategy, which is a real missed opportunity to draw on the regional perspective, niche knowledge, and skills of these allies to enhance Europe’s long-term thinking. Rethinking our approach to supporting smaller partners with strategic foresight and net assessment tools and processes can therefore make a key difference in strengthening this capacity across the alliance.

William Freer, Council on Geostrategy

European security is in need of a rethink, and many in Europe have put forward the idea of a European Army as the solution to the worsening geopolitical situation. This is a debate which has been around for some time, and following the increasing likelihood of the possible re-election of Trump (particularly with his recent remarks on NATO), it has once more come back into focus. 

However, a European army would not be the solution. Putting aside the unclear structure (potentially NATO-like with everyone putting some forces towards it, or a single centralised ‘United States of Europe’-style army) and function of a European Army, it is an unnecessary distraction. A European Army would duplicate NATO’s bureaucracy without adding extra military power and would have limited capability without outside support. Given recent divisions within the European Union (EU) on support for Ukraine with a clear divide between those taking Russia as a serious threat (primarily the Nordic, Baltic and Visegrad nations – minus Hungary) and those who do not (essentially Berlin westward – with perhaps the Netherlands being an exception), it would also face difficult push and pull effects on strategic direction.

It would be far more prudent for European nations to invest more in defence and reaffirm support for NATO. European security is in need of a rethink; those who have been free-riding for too long need to take it more seriously, not chase wasteful and elusive concepts like a European Army.

Zuzana Košková, European Values Centre for Security Policy

Last week marked the two-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which triggered the most significant armed conflict in Europe since the Second World War. This event woke many Europeans up to the fact that the region is not as safe as they thought it was. In response, national security strategies have proliferated from European capitals, and governments have initiated a reassessment of the security landscape, gradually increasing defence budgets to meet the 2% NATO target.

In today’s interconnected and globalised world, where markets and trade routes are intertwined, mitigating risks, or decoupling from geographically distant players, has become exceedingly challenging. Assertive authoritarian forces in the Indo-Pacific region are on the rise, heightening the potential for escalation in a region which is ‘closer than we think’. A conflict in the Taiwan Strait, for instance, could have a more profound impact on the European market than the entire Russian war against Ukraine.

The uncertainty surrounding the commitment of the US, the traditional provider of European security, adds to the complexity. Questions abound about whether the US would be willing to continue supporting Ukrainian soldiers in the event of military involvement in the Indo-Pacific region, especially if there were a victory for Trump in the upcoming presidential election. 

The time to rethink European security has passed; now is the time for decisive action. And such action must not just be confined to the European region.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

The halcyon days of low European defence investment of the 1990s are over. Europeans need to wake up. Yet, what might a more ‘Europeanised’ security posture look like? 

It is time to think about nuclear weapons. Russia has them and it is unpredictable. Indeed, the Kremlin rattles its nuclear sabre frequently. The problem here is that there is only one nuclear power in Europe which states that its strategic forces also cover its allies – the United Kingdom (UK). The logical response is that France should cooperate more with Britain to deter attacks against European allies. This would be welcome, but it is not the sticking point.

For nuclear forces to deter enemies from attacking allies, they have to be ‘extended’; Britain (or France) can state their strategic deterrents will be activated to defend allies, but a nuclear rival may consider this a bluff. Without the forward deployment of British (or French) conventional forces to the most exposed allies, nuclear forces may not deter. This is why NATO established the Enhanced Forward Presence in 2017; it is also why the UK maintained 55,000 troops and a tactical air force in West Germany throughout the Cold War.

Setting up a forward presence is relatively easy, though even it may be insufficient to deter an emboldened nuclear peer from attack. This is why a large response force is needed to provide reinforcement. While the UK can provide the nuclear forces and forward presence, as a maritime power, it lacks the terrestrial wherewithal to back the system up. This is where Europeans should focus. In coordination with the UK, continental allies should generate a powerful integrated reaction force. This will not be easy, but Poland has shown that it is possible to rearm. It just takes political will.

Alistair Shepherd, Aberystwyth University

As Emmanuel Macron has proclaimed recently: ‘defeat of Russia [in Ukraine] is indispensable to security and stability in Europe’. A Russian victory may embolden it to directly threaten other European states at the very time when populist politics threaten European unity and the US commitment to defending Europe appears increasingly uncertain.

These challenges mean that the process of rethinking European security is already underway: Sweden and Finland have relinquished their neutrality and joined NATO; Germany has broken postwar taboos to send arms to Ukraine and increase defence spending; and the EU now funds weapons for Ukraine. Yet a more fundamental rethink of European strategic cultures is required. Europe needs a strategic culture which accepts the need to provide for its own defence; a culture of coordination rather than institutional competition and national grandstanding; and one of delivery rather than unfulfilled pledges. It is only with these transformations that the ambition of European strategic autonomy in defence will be achieved. 

The EU is a necessary but not sufficient actor in this transformation; for it to be successful requires trust and coordination both within the EU and between the EU and its key partners, such as the UK and NATO. Achieving this degree of cooperation is complicated by increasingly nationalistic and inward-looking populist and authoritarian socio-political forces, exacerbating fractures in European security and politics. Therefore, rethinking European security is not just a matter of enhancing military capabilities, but also detoxifying national and European level politics.

Viktorija Starych-Samuolienė, Council on Geostrategy

Back in 2014 after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO allies agreed to spend a minimum of 2% of GDP on defence. A decade on and with the biggest war since the Second World War continuing to rage on the European continent, 18 are projected to meet the target this year – an increase from 11 last year.

Yet even combined with greater spending efficiency, this target is no longer enough to deter our adversaries effectively or fight and win, if needed. The very fact that we still have a dozen countries in the alliance not meeting a decade old defence spending target in an increasingly volatile geopolitical context is even more astonishing.

There is an urgent need to evaluate our readiness or, frankly, lack of it. We need stronger armed forces, larger navies, better air defences, and enhanced cyber and space power. We need more exercises, effective industry partnerships and efficient accelerations in arms production. We also need to put in effort, time and political capital in making sure our societies understand the importance of credible deterrence and what it includes and requires.

Countries which wish us harm are growing stronger, more opportunistic and more dangerous. It is time to rethink European security, as well as our approach to it.

Richard G. Whitman, University of Kent

War in Ukraine has demonstrated that there are very closely shared security interests between the EU and the UK. There has been a close working relationship in supporting Ukraine, especially through sanctions coordination, and operating diplomatically in tandem to pursue the shared objective in countering Russia’s war on Europe. 

The EU and the UK share the objective that securing Ukraine means bringing it into the EU and NATO. They are inescapable allies in building the strongest possible security and defence capabilities in Europe to counter what will be relentless Russian actions to retard Ukraine’s dual accessions. They now need to turn to building an UK-EU security alliance.

The EU’s broader response to the new European security environment is to develop itself as a defence union. Its member states are debating how to leverage the EU’s financial resources into building a stronger European defence industrial capacity. This is welcome, and necessary, but is being pursued largely without attention to how this can take place in tandem with non-member states, and currently excludes any coordination with the UK. Correcting this error should be the starting point in forging a strong UK-EU security alliance. And at its heart should be growing a European defence technological industrial ecosystem which produces capabilities in scale and scope which far surpass those of Russia.

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