July 20, 2001

July 20, 2001 | Commentary on Europe

Clarifying Europe's Defense Intentions

Now's the ideal time, as he meets with leaders in Europe, for President Bush to pose a question that direct affects NATO's future: Whose version of the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) initiative will prevail -- the British one or the French one?

For America, the issue of burden-sharing is at the heart of the debate over ESDP. For the last half century, NATO has allowed Europeans the luxury of building comfortable welfare states while the United States footed the bill to protect them. This may have been acceptable during the Cold War, but it isn't today.

Since the 1950s, European leaders have talked -- and talked -- about shouldering more responsibility for defending their continent. First, they were going to form the European Defense Community, a project similar to ESDP. It never got off the ground.

Two years ago, they got as far as signing the Defense Capabilities Initiative (DCI), an agreement to boost immediately their insufficient defense capabilities and to pursue even greater improvements over the long run. But again, rhetoric didn't match reality. In fact, notes the International Institute for Strategic Studies, European defense spending in real terms has fallen 5 percent each year since the DCI agreement was inked.

Lately, European leaders have been talking up the ESDP. But there's no agreement on even what role ESDP forces should play in European defense. France and Britain maintain very different notions of how ESDP would function in relation to NATO.

The French conception of ESDP challenges NATO's long-standing function as preeminent defender of Europe. For example, if the French view prevails, NATO would no longer automatically have the first right of refusal for action during a European crisis.

It's also a view born of distinctly anti-American and anti-NATO sentiments. In September 1997, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine stated his case for ESDP before an assembly of French diplomats by saying, "unless it is counterbalanced… [American] power brings with it risks of monopoly domination." Therefore, he insisted, the European Union "must gradually affirm itself as a center of power."

The French tone maintained by Vedrine develops the Gaullist dream of a collective defense system that compensates for America's "intrusion" into the continent. The French want the ESDP forces to be developed outside the current NATO command structure -- which is why they would actively weaken the transatlantic link in an effort to build a completely separate European pillar of defense.

The British government, on the other hand, seeks to create an ESDP that strengthens European defenses while maintaining NATO and the transatlantic relationship.

"The idea that this will be an independent standing force set aside from NATO is nonsense," British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons. "There is no way in which the force will be a rival to NATO or act in circumstances other than those in which NATO chooses not to be involved." Blair sensibly wants to increase Europe's defenses -- but not at the expense of NATO's military primacy in Europe.

The British favor beefing up Europe's military capabilities precisely to ease growing American resentment about having to bear an inordinate share of the defense burden in Europe. This sentiment differs wildly from those underpinning the French vision.

Obviously Europe can't move in both directions. It is in America's interest to actively promote the British version of ESDP.

The Bush administration understands the importance of the issue, but needs to pressure European leaders into explaining their plan for ESDP. Which version will it be, the British or the French? Will NATO have first right of refusal over a European crisis -- yes or no? Will ESDP duplicate NATO planning?

If President Bush uses his bully pulpit effectively in Europe, it could cause the British position to triumph. He must pose hard questions to address the motives of the Europeans -- and he must make the U.S. line of thinking blatantly obvious. He needs to get beyond British and French rhetorical evasions and make it clear that U.S. support for ESDP is conditional on it remaining a viable compliment to NATO -- not a replacement.

Our European allies have asked America to flesh out the details of its missile defense plans. We should ask the same of them regarding ESDP. And we need one answer, not two.

John Hulsman, Ph.D. is a research fellow in European affairs and Michael Scardaville is a policy analyst in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.   

About the Author

John Hulsman Senior Research Fellow

Michael Scardaville Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

Distributed nationally by Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Wire (07/20/01)