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If Nato fails, so too does Europe on security  

By Benjamin Schreer and Asle Toje

In the face of a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, political analysts have rushed to declare Nato mortally wounded, if not already dead. If this is correct it spells trouble for Europe, since the European Union’s foreign and security policy is not up to the job either. Europe risks being left without an effective security organisation.

Nato’s struggle preoccupies European strategic debate. Nato is fighting an uphill battle to maintain alliance cohesion in the face of a growing Afghan insurgency. Further, allies cannot agree on other strategic issues, including that of Nato’s future global role. If the Afghan mission ends in a series of unilateral pull-outs, leaving the US and a few staunch allies to stand alone, this may spell the end for Nato as a military alliance. This scenario is particularly disquieting in the context of the persistent weakness of European security and defence policy, as recent events have demonstrated.

Consider Kosovo. In spite of being the likely custodian of the new state, the EU has failed to come up with a common response to the February 17 declaration of independence. A number of states, led on by Spain, remain opposed to rewarding Kosovar separatism since this could lend legitimacy to struggles within their own borders. The fragmented response is problematic, not least because the EU is set to police Kosovo for years to come. Failing to stand together now will invite future questions as to the strength of the EU’s commitment to Kosovo’s independence.

Then there are the cases of Sudan and Chad. Since 2003, the Sudanese region of Darfur has been Europe’s bad conscience. With the UN deadlocked, and having declared the ESDP operational just one month prior to the outbreak of hostilities, the EU was always the most likely candidate to carry out a peacekeeping mission. The humanitarian crisis fell within the narrow confines of where the EU states have agreed that the use of military force can be necessary.

Yet the EU intervention never happened, because of opposition from the Sudanese government, insufficient military capabilities and, above all, a lack of consensus among member states about what to do. Since then, the conflict has cost an estimated 400,000 lives. Last spring, Bernard Kouchner, French foreign minister, introduced a plan to create humanitarian corridors where European peacekeepers and relief workers could protect and assist refugees along Chad’s border with Sudan.

In Brussels, however, there was little enthusiasm to launch a European mission in a former French colony where France retains military forces and a significant political influence. The EU force for Chad is set to be operational by the end of the month. It has been at pains to distinguish itself from the French troop presence, despite the French making up roughly two-thirds of the 3,500-strong force. This distinction is a subtlety that will probably not make much difference to rebel forces. In a situation where chances for combat are high, the Europeans would have been wise to close ranks. The episode shows that, even in the few cases where 27 EU states are able to agree to act militarily, the buck-passing mentality is stronger than the will to accomplish the mission.

Finally, Afghanistan. While the debate focuses on Nato’s failure to provide security, the EU has not been successful when it comes to what is perceived to be its advantage over the alliance: the provision of non-military means for stabilising the war-torn society. If Afghanistan fails, the EU will have to take its fair share of the blame.

The problem of the EU foreign policy is its idealism. The idea that Europe should be guided by altruism rather than national interest has encouraged token participation without any firm commitment to achieving objectives. The veto enjoyed by each member state ensures that most attempts at foreign policies are derailed, neutered or blocked. As a result, the EU has been driven more by a wish to appear to be doing something rather than any genuine will to power.

Europeans need to recognise that their most important security providers, the Atlantic alliance and the EU, are simultaneously at risk. Both organisations need to replace idealism with the sort of realism that breeds commitment. Recent events have shown that talking of Europe as a global security actor is one thing, to act as one is quite another.

Benjamin Schreer is research fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Asle Toje is senior fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies

  Financial Times March 11 2008